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Depp-Heard verdict will have chilling impact on #MeToo, advocates fear

(Washington Post illustration; Jim Watson/AFP/Getty; Evelyn Hockstein/AP; iStock)

Drew Dixon is one of several women who came forward with rape allegations against hip-hop mogul Russell Simmons in December 2017. For more than 20 years, she had kept silent. The secret, Dixon said, felt like a dark cloud looming over her. But in late 2017, she sensed a shift in the atmosphere.

“I said ‘me too’ after 20 years because I felt like this was the moment where I would be heard, and there would be a baseline extension of compassion,” said Dixon, a writer, producer, activist and former executive at Simmons’s label, Def Jam Recordings. (Simmons has denied her allegations.)

Over the past several weeks, though, watching the Johnny Depp-Amber Heard trial, Dixon felt as though the clouds were closing in again.

Dixon was alarmed by the “giddy derision” that seemed to follow Heard, in particular. She had hoped to avoid the trial altogether, but when her 17-year-old daughter showed her a pro-Depp meme despite not knowing much about him prior to the trial, Dixon realized how much it had permeated popular culture. The live-streamed trial was widely followed by observers online, and social media was overwhelmed by Depp fans who felt he could do no wrong.

Even before the verdict, Dixon said, it seemed as though “the floodgates were opened in terms of the cruelty with which survivors would be received.” After a jury decided Wednesday that the former spouses had defamed each other, awarding Depp $15 million in damages and Heard $2 million, she worried that the damage had been compounded. “It felt like there was a really crushing rebuke of her, in a very complete way.”

In October 2017, the #MeToo movement gained momentum after several women accused film producer Harvey Weinstein of sexual misconduct in the New York Times. While the hashtag was, at first, largely about women at work and the acts of their male bosses and colleagues, it has put the wind at the backs of those coming forward about many different kinds of abuse and harassment; a 2019 study by the Tobin Center for Economic Policy indicated that across 31 countries, reports of sex crimes increased by 10 percent in the six months after the Weinstein allegations were published.

While “believe women” never became the rallying cry some wanted it to be, more women began to believe they would be believed. Many experts in the fields of gender discrimination and domestic violence, however, fear that the Depp v. Heard verdict — and the online harassment of Heard in the trial leading up to it — could shake the confidence of women who might have otherwise come forward with allegations of abuse, and slow or reverse the momentum created by #MeToo.

Depp sued Heard for $50 million over an op-ed she wrote in 2018 for The Washington Post in which she described herself as a public figure representing domestic abuse without ever naming him specifically. He also accused his ex-wife of abuse. After Depp’s lawyer Adam Waldman called Heard’s accusations a hoax, Heard countersued Depp for $100 million. Because The Post’s presses and servers are located in Virginia, the trial was held at the Fairfax County Courthouse. (The Post was not a defendant in the suit.)

The official website for the #MeToo movement issued a statement on Saturday condemning the “the way in which #MeToo has been co-opted and manipulated during the Johnny Depp vs. Amber Heard trial.”

“Over the last six weeks, we have been confronted with the mockery of assault, shame and blame. Countless headlines proclaiming the death of #MeToo. News stories full of clickbait, having nothing to do with the actual work happening to interrupt sexual violence, have come across our screens with haste,” the statement read. “No mention of the fact that, not only was this trial not about sexual violence at its core, but there has also been no headline asking the question that really matters — ‘What do we need to do to prevent anyone else from having to say #MeToo?’ ”

Tarana Burke coined the phrase “me too” in 2006 as a sort of shibboleth for women who had survived abuse, before it became a viral hashtag more than a decade later. On Thursday morning, Burke tweeted in response to dire observations about the verdict, “the 'me too’ movement isn’t dead, this system is dead.” She noted “This movement is very much ALIVE” and “You can’t kill us. We are beyond the hashtag.”

Still, many observers worry about what lessons survivors will take away from the trial’s verdict. Leigh Gilmore, author of “Tainted Witness: Why We Doubt What Women Say About Their Lives as well as a book slated for 2023 about the #MeToo movement, told The Post in an email that the verdict drove home just how vulnerable survivors can be to smear campaigns when they come forward with allegations.

“One of the most notable gains of the #MeToo movement is that it collectivized credibility. #MeToo offsets the doubt that hounds women in court and the court of public opinion,” she wrote. “The spectacle of this trial and the catastrophe of the verdict are a return to the bad old days of he said/she said, where men get away with abuse and women are destroyed for the temerity of saying ‘enough.’ ”

Leslie Silva, an attorney at Tully Rinckey in Albany, N.Y., who has practiced family and matrimonial law for 14 years, hopes that ordinary civilians thinking about coming forward with allegations won’t feel spooked by how the public reacted to the celebrity dispute. Her usual clients are “not millionaires battling it out in two different countries over a one-year marriage,” she said, “so I would hope that most people would see this as a really unique set of facts and circumstances that might not really apply to them.” Still, she added, “I could certainly understand how the spectacle that this trial became could be overwhelming.”

Advocates for domestic-abuse survivors, too, worry that the people they devote their daily lives to helping will feel disempowered by what they’ve seen on their TV screens.

“There’s often a fear when you come forward that you will not be believed, that you will be judged. And I think this case has shown that survivors are not believed [but] are judged, and sadly, the way it’s been portrayed in the media, ridiculed and mocked at times,” said Maureen Curtis, vice president of criminal justice programs at the New York victim-services nonprofit Safe Horizon. “I think this is going to be a real setback for survivors.”

Ruth M. Glenn, chief executive and president of the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence and author of the upcoming memoir “Everything I Never Dreamed,” is also unhappy with what she has seen. “It’s a huge disappointment,” Glenn said. “The feeling as a survivor today is ‘Here we are, once again.' Someone we felt, as an organization — and I felt, as a survivor — made a case, and, once again, survivors are not heard.”

Glenn said that survivors already face many life complications — they’re not only trying to be heard but also trying to find safety. The message that the public response to the trial sends is that, in addition, “ ‘You’ll be mocked. You’ll be maligned. You’ll be humiliated,’ ” she added. “Of course, it’s going to give you pause. It’s really disturbing. We won’t be able to know what effect this has on domestic-abuse victims.”

“Many survivors may also fear that coming forward with any claim of abuse — which is already an underreported crime — could result in a defamation suit,” wrote Linley Beckbridge, director of communications and advocacy for Doorways — an Arlington, Va., nonprofit that provides housing and other supportive services for survivors of domestic and sexual violence — in an email to The Post. “Although the support shown to Johnny Depp could signal a positive shift towards believing male survivors of intimate partner violence, the net result will probably be increased silencing and isolation of survivors, especially women.”

Dixon, similarly, thinks the trial will have a chilling effect.

Many victims already feel guilty or blame themselves for their abuse, she said. Many of their cases fall into the “gray area” where the only witnesses to the abuse are the two parties, who have an existing relationship. It is not unusual for abuse to accumulate before the victim is able to name it, and it can take time for a victim to extricate themselves from the relationship, Dixon said. Along the way, they may feel ashamed, unworthy or guilty, or even try to appease their harm-doer.

“People underestimate the depth of will and courage and resolve it takes to publicly talk about one of the most humiliating things to have ever happened to you,” she said. “It’s an enormous mountain that every victim quietly climbs before they ever say, ‘me, too.’ ”

It wasn’t as though that mountain disappeared in the years following the #MeToo movement, said Dixon, but “you could see the top.” After witnessing the delight with which Heard was vilified, on top of the verdict that requires her to pay damages to the man she says abused her, Dixon thinks many survivors will decide that climb is simply too daunting. “I just think that mountain became exponentially taller.”

Amy Cheng contributed to this report.

Jennifer Freyd, an expert in the psychology of sexual violence, discusses the impact of Amber Heard's testimony in Johnny Depp's defamation trial. (Video: Allie Caren/The Washington Post)