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Perspective: What the Depp-Heard trial reveals about domestic abuse

The testimony has given some men courage to admit that they’ve been abused by women. It’s more prevalent than you might think

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Actor Johnny Depp testifies, as an article seen on a screen is entered into evidence, during the trial at Fairfax County Circuit Court in Fairfax, Va., Wednesday, April 20, 2022.

Actor Johnny Depp testifies as an article seen on a screen is entered into evidence, during the trial at Fairfax County Circuit Court in Fairfax, Va., Wednesday, April 20, 2022. Depp sued his ex-wife Amber Heard for libel in Fairfax County Circuit Court after she wrote an op-ed piece in The Washington Post in 2018 referring to herself as a “public figure representing domestic abuse.”

Evelyn Hockstein via Associated Press

It is hard to find any redeeming value in the saga of actor Johnny Depp suing his former wife Amber Heard for defamation. The trial has dragged into public view an array of private failings, to include character flaws, substance abuse and physical violence.

Within this corrosive vortex, one remarkable shift is quietly occurring. With both Depp and Heard testifying about physical violence, the trial has challenged the common perception view that men can never be victims of domestic abuse.

As Heard said in a recording played during the trial: “Tell people it was a fair fight and see what the jury and judge think. Tell the world, Johnny. Tell them, ‘I, Johnny Depp, I’m a victim, too, of domestic violence, and it was a fair fight,’ and see if people believe or side with you.” 

She’s not wrong.

The scope of “The Shadow Pandemic,” an international campaign to spotlight domestic abuse amplified by pandemic lockdowns, is telling. Spearheaded by the United Nations, the campaign categorically ignored men. Months into the pandemic, U.N. Secretary General António Guterres tweeted, “I urge all governments to put women’s safety first as they respond to the pandemic.” There was nothing unusual about Guterres’ appeal. 

The public conversation around domestic abuse rarely mentions men. A New York Times article exclusively catalogued female stories of domestic abuse while a piece in The Wall Street Journal did much the same. Meanwhile, academics studying intimate partner violence, or IPV, during the pandemic characterized the abuse men suffer as “lower severity.” Time and again male vulnerability is written out of the domestic abuse story.

The statistical reality paints a different picture. Investigators from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention examined a sample of nearly 12,000 young adults in heterosexual relationships and were startled by the results. Women were found to perpetrate physical violence at over double the rate of men and women instigated nearly three-quarters of “nonreciprocal partner violence.” The results shocked the researchers, who wrote, “This is important as violence perpetrated by women is often seen as not serious.”

This is the deeply uncomfortable — and rarely acknowledged — truth about intimate partner violence. A growing body of literature supports a more nuanced perspective, that men represent a significant number of victims. However, it bears underscoring that while men can be victimized at rates close to women, the severity of the attacks are not the same. Women experience dramatically higher levels of serious violence than men do.

The social discourse, however, has not caught up to the statistical landscape.

The data runs headlong into the founding mythologies of gender equality organizations that view men as only privileged allies, not vulnerable human beings also in need of care and protection. That is why, despite how noxious the Depp-Heard carnival of unpleasantries has become, male victims of domestic abuse are suddenly coming out of the woodwork. NBC reported that many such men see Depp v. Heard as a “turning point in the stigma against male survivors.” One man told NBC that Depp’s story “lifted a weight” off his shoulders. 

“Mr. Depp is actually brave enough to come forward. I would’ve felt humiliated having to tell the public my 5-foot-2 ex used to beat the crap out of me,” the man said.

His story is a drop in the bucket. According to the article’s author, Kalhan Rosenblatt, there appeared to be “thousands of tweets of victims describing how empowered they’ve felt by Depp’s case.”

Where our attention goes, so goes the money. As one study from the Government of Canada acknowledged, while men experience physical abuse “in significant numbers … little attention has been paid to their needs.” Consequently, even fewer resources are directed to men’s health. By 2019, the United States only had two shelters catering to men who experienced intimate partner abuse, with the oldest dating back to 2015. 

In Texas, a state with roughly the population and gross domestic product of Canada, there exists only one shelter exclusively serving men. While national U.S. women’s shelter figures are hard to come by, for perspective, Canada — a country a tenth the size of America – had 627 operating shelters for women nearly a decade ago. Only 6% of them admitted adult men.

Heard, then, felt confident challenging Depp to a domestic-abuse battle in the court of public opinion: most of the time men who report abuse aren’t taken seriously. According to one study, only 8% of male victims found abuse hotlines helpful while over 16% “reported the staff made fun (of) them.”

This time, however, many people see not just one unsympathetic witness on the stand, but two. Some polls have found that a majority of Americans believe Depp over Heard, who has reportedly fired her public relations representatives after seeing negative polling.

If nothing else good comes of this trial, perhaps it will finally break gender politics’ zero-sum equation when it comes to intimate partner abuse. Let’s replace it with a nuanced portrait of domestic abuse that serves all survivors, men and women.

Ari David Blaff, a Deseret News contributing writer, is a Canadian journalist who has written for National Review, Tablet, Quillette and the Institute for Family Studies.