I was part of the #MeToo movement before I knew it was a movement. Before the viral spreading of the hashtag came hard on the heels of the first brave Harvey Weinstein survivors speaking out about one of the most powerful men in Hollywood. I remember my fear of being sued before I pressed “publish” on my own account of falling prey to Weinstein, but figuring I had truth on my side — and that my total assets were less than his lawyers charged for a day — I did it anyway.
What came afterward is known to you and to women the world over. We were all lifted by a rising tide of the approximately one third of the global population who are survivors of gender violence. The #MeToo era was born, or so we were told. And now, we are equally reliably informed, the #MeToo era has come to an end after Johnny Depp won his defamation suit against Amber Heard.
Listening to the verdict being read out during the live coverage of the trial felt like an end. My lunch sat uneaten, my phone lit up with texts from survivors and I was again borne up on a current of fellow feeling… this time it was one of fear.
Defamation suits have become the weapon of choice for powerful abusers. Just the threat of a defamation suit is a highly effective tool for silencing victims because it costs anywhere between $20,000 to $40,000 to mount a defense — funds most victims do not have. Abuse is often the result of a power imbalance that allows perpetrators to control their victims and conceal their crimes. Defamation suits consolidate this power imbalance, allowing the abuser to wield their power and wealth in “a deepening of the power disparities in the relationship,” says sociologist Nicole Bedera.
Maybe that is what prevented survivors from eating lunch and had us drafting emails to lawyers after hearing the verdict. After all, our bodies remember the feeling of not being able to protect ourselves against a more powerful adversary during the original abuse. It is not surprising that we would feel a chill of fear to know that the verdict in favor of Depp will now give abusers legal precedent to sue their victims. What hope do we have that truth will provide a shield if Amber Heard can be made to pay damages for an op-ed that does not name her abuser and references abuse that was substantiated by a U.K. court when it called “wife beater” claims against Depp “substantially true”? Even the jury in the U.S. trial believed Heard on one key point, that Depp’s former lawyer defamed her when he described Heard’s two 911 calls as “a hoax” and that she and her friends helped stage the scene after a second call to police.
I can only believe that the astoundingly illogical verdict in favor of Depp is the result of a pendulum swing, the furthest arc of the “#MeToo has gone too far” chorus that started before survivors even finished their breath when speaking out about abusers. I wish this were just about one woman, one imperfect victim, one marital spat, one popcorn-variety celebrity trial and not a sinister unmasking of the misogyny and desperate clinging to the status quo that was biding its time while we celebrated a brief period of believing women and holding abusers to account.
It hasn’t taken long for abusers to understand what the Depp/Heard decision means for them — one survivor received a threatening email from a defamation lawyer even as the verdict was announced. Another survivor was preparing to initiate legal proceedings against two childhood sexual abusers but the precedent set by this defamation case gave her pause.
So is #MeToo over? No, the movement will not be over until men stop abusing women. It will not end because one abuser had enough power, wealth and besotted fans to try for the destruction of one woman. And for those who say, including some survivors, that Amber Heard ruined the movement, you are in danger of missing the point: Whatever her flaws, her mistakes — and even if she has more flaws and has chalked up more mistakes than you — she was taken down not by her fallibility but by a concerted campaign on the part of misogynists and abusers to render women silent about abuse. I will not be complicit with that. I will not let fear win.