Johnny Depp vs Amber Heard, 'restorative justice' for sex crimes and treating rape victims like suspects herald a new dark age for women – Susan Dalgety

It’s a trope as old as humanity. Women should know their place. There’s nothing less attractive than a woman who makes a fuss about being insulted, abused or even sexually assaulted.

“You must have provoked him.” “Why were you out at night on your own, drunk?” “He’s a bit handsy, but he’s a real charmer, he doesn’t mean any harm.” We’ve heard it all before, and now we have a new scold to add to the long, long list.

“So what if your husband was a ‘wife beater’, you shouldn’t have written about it, because everyone knows that Jack Sparrow is really a charming rogue and wouldn’t hurt a fly.”

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The toxic trial of actor Amber Heard and her actor husband Johnny Depp, where the pair accused each other of libel, concluded earlier this week. Depp, much loved for his Pirates of the Caribbean movies, was awarded $10 million after the jury found that a newspaper article Heard wrote about domestic abuse defamed Depp.

The jurors also decided that Amber Heard had been libelled by her ex-husband, and she received $2 million in damages. Depp, and his legion of fans, was ecstatic. Heard is going to appeal.

While he strutted his stuff at London’s Royal Albert Hall with his friend, ageing rock legend Jeff Beck, his ex-wife was counting the personal and professional cost.

She said she was “heartbroken” and sad that she had lost her right to speak freely, adding, "I'm even more disappointed with what this verdict means for other women. It is a setback. It sets back the clock to a time when a woman who spoke up and spoke out could be publicly shamed and humiliated."

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Johnny Depp vs Amber Heard court case is being used to fuel vicious backlash aga...
Amber Heard and Johnny Depp watch as the jury leave the courtroom for a lunch break at the court in Fairfax, Virginia (Picture: Steve Helber/pool/AFP via Getty Images)

No-one really knows what went on behind the closed doors of Heard and Depp’s marriage. The evidence that emerged during the six-week trial, and an earlier one in the UK, where Depp lost a libel case against the Sun newspaper, who had described him as a “wife-beater”, suggests it was a nightmare, fuelled by alcohol and drugs.

But the court of public opinion decided early on that Depp was the dashing hero of this sorry tale and Heard, the evil witch. Social media erupted with memes designed to discredit her. Videos on TikTok, with the hashtag #justiceforjohnnydepp, attracted 19 billion views, more than twice the population of the world.

Heard’s lawyer described the court proceedings, which were filmed, providing endless content for social media, as like “the Roman Colosseum”. And in perhaps the most disturbing post of all, after the verdict was announced, the official Twitter account of the Republican members of the US House Judiciary Committee tweeted a gif of Depp as a defiant Captain Jack Sparrow.

The message may have been subliminal, but anyone familiar with the language of social media knew exactly what it meant. “The bloke won, now get back into the kitchen woman, and keep your mouth shut.”

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Depp’s victory came at the same time as a report by John Edwards, the UK Information Commissioner, showed that women are still subjected to digital strip-searches by the police when they report a rape or sexual assault.

Victims are often asked to sign consent forms which allow investigating officers to trawl through their private correspondence, presumably to look for evidence that they somehow ‘deserved’ to be attacked.

Imagine the uproar if a burglary victim had to open up their WhatsApp account to scrutiny after thieves stole the family silver. It simply wouldn’t happen. So why does a woman who has been violently raped have to undergo the most intimate of searches? Is she not to be believed?

And in Scotland, the government has just revealed plans to allow rape victims to meet their abusers in a process described as “restorative justice”. A specialist hub will be set up in Glasgow where women can, if they choose, sit down with their attacker and talk through their ordeal.

Until now, restorative justice has been used only for low-level crimes, and only in a small number of areas. Opening it up for serious crimes against women seems a high-risk strategy, and the benefits are not immediately obvious.

As Julie Bindel’s recent investigation for Unherd into similar schemes in the USA shows, restorative justice for rape can lead to sexual crimes being taken out of the criminal justice system altogether. Instead, victims are forced to reach an agreement with their attackers about how to make amends.

There is no suggestion that this process is planned for Scotland, but until recently, ministers did not believe restorative justice was appropriate for sexual crimes. And the head of Rape Crisis Scotland has expressed concern about the potential impact on victims.

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Sandy Brindley told the BBC: “We want to make sure that nobody ever feels under any pressure to engage with this if it's not the right thing for them. But also, for people who do want it I think we need to make sure there are safeguards in place because we have a real concern about sex offenders who can be really manipulative, and I think there is some worry about the potential for using this process to cause more harm.”

There was a short period, in the wake of the Harvey Weinstein revelations, where it felt that society was, finally, believing women.

But the very public destruction of Amber Heard, the persistent use of digital strip-searches and moves to equate sexual offences with minor criminal behaviour suggests we’re heading back into the dark ages. It’s been a bad week for women.

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