The defamation trial between Johnny Depp and Amber Heard has led to a problem that was previously private, intimate partner abuse, on a very public stage. The loud and critical response from a host of online watchers reveals how little people understand about domestic abuse and what goes on behind closed doors.
I investigate police responses to intimate partner abuse in the UK. Unlike most of the public, responding officers receive regular training to equip them to intervene in situations of abuse and disentangle the accusations.
Here are three things to consider before making accusations about who is a liar in an abusive situation.
A common problem encountered by the police is the puzzle “he said/she said” (insert alternative pronouns as appropriate). This comes about when the perpetrator and the victim tell opposing stories about the alleged abuse. When each person accuses the other of abuse, who do you believe? Perpetrators rarely admit to wrongdoing, and the most manipulative will accuse their target of the very behavior they are guilty of. Navigating this is difficult, but it can be done by paying attention not only to what those involved say, but also how they behave.
Victims in coercive or controlling relationships They tend to believe that their partner has problems that they can solve with dedication. They defend their partners by blaming their abusive behavior on drugs and alcohol, or by giving them opportunities to compensate for the pain they cause. Not initially reporting abuse or not seeking medical care for injuries is common for victims They don’t want to get their abuser in trouble. Many either do not want to make a statement or will refuse to support a prosecution. This can also be a way of showing loyalty.
When it looks like your abuse will be exposed, perpetrators will lash out particularly hard as punishment and will work to discredit their victim’s character. They will also use the same charm they used to win over their victim to gain support from the outside world. When confronted by two people claiming to be the “real victim”, look for the one who insists on having the upper hand.
Recently there has been an increase in care and support for male victims of intimate partner abuse. One of the main reasons this has taken so long is the deleterious effect of entrenched gender stereotypes: masculinity equals reliability, strength and power, and femininity equals dependency and emotional instability.
According to these stereotypes, it is almost impossible for a man to be a victim, especially from a female partner. Femininity is associated with submission, not power, and admitting victimization means admitting a lack of masculinity.
In the interviews, male victims told me they had no problem being believed, but they felt that the police perceived the risk of harm to be lower when the perpetrator was a woman. Many female victims, however, still felt that a male perpetrator’s word was believed over theirs and that the police did not perceive the risk as high as they did.
Intimate partner abuse is much more than physical attacks (although there are many ways to hurt someone bigger and stronger than you). Both men and women are capable of abusing their intimate partner. The majority of victims are women because existing social systems, such as the traditional family structure, which limit women to the home, They place men as dominant.
While we recognize that male victims are common, we must beware of the tendency to believe that the male voice is the most reliable.
It is also common for perpetrators, regardless of gender, play the role of the dispossessed with conviction. Some may wear a public face that contrasts sharply with their private one, exuding sophistication and charm as a way of winning observers to their side and discrediting their victim.
Emotional and psychological abuse is often misunderstood, sometimes even by the police. In interviews, officers often suggested that substance abuse or poor mental health is the reason someone becomes a victim, instead of acknowledging that these problems are often the result of abuse.
Dismantling a victim’s mental capacities is a fundamental abusive strategy. Victims commonly describe a slow descent into instability at the hands of a competent perpetrator. “Gaslighting” is a manipulative tool used to erode and deny the victim’s sense of reality, leaving them with a fragile sense of self and an inability to function socially.
Despite these mental health effects and stereotypes about domestic abuse victims, people who experience intimate partner abuse are often resilient and resourceful. Victims often describe themselves as strong and independent. “I never thought someone like me could be a victim of domestic abuse,” it’s a family refrain.
They will often resist their abuser, sometimes with physical retaliation, but this should not be confused with perpetration.
If a survivor sounds insecure and self-conscious when recounting their experiences, it’s probably because they are: their reality and their experiences have been denied. If they have reacted rashly or even violently, it is because their resilience has been tested to the limit. And if you seem to have mental health problems, think about why that might be. They may have been repeatedly and brutally emotionally and psychologically assaulted.
*Sarah TattootonPhD candidate and Associate Professor of Criminology, Sheffield Hallam University