The Brock Turner rape case and the abuse allegations against Johnny Depp are the latest reminders that no matter the evidence, women's testimony is always called into question.
Sometimes you have to strain to find the rainbow in the waterlogged aftermath of a storm. And as storms go, the abominable six-month sentence (only three months of which will be served) handed down to the Stanford University rapist has been a levees-have-broken tempest, decimating shorelines and dredging up the muck that lies underneath.
“Of course Turner made some terrible mistakes, but I will always wonder if consent happened or not,” commented one observer on the verdict cited in a Washington Post article. In the same story, reporter Michael E. Miller considers Turner’s “once-promising future” and “his extraordinary yet brief swim career” that now lay “tarnished, like a rusting trophy,” as if these considerations shared equal weight with the fate of a woman who was raped.
Surely, something or someone else must be to blame: hook-up culture, society, alcohol. “Common sense and personal responsibility could have prevented this whole ordeal. We are victims too,” pleads a post on a Facebook page created in support of the rapist, Stanford student and swimmer Brock Turner, and his family. (At last count, it had 4,057 likes.) Apparently, feminists are culpable, too: “The only thing they can hope for is to trash someone else’s good fortune, and that’s what happened to Brock. He is the real victim here, because he had a lot more to lose than normal people. Brock was going to bring OLYMPIC GOLD medals home to America and that’s a lot more important than some party chick’s hangover and fuzzy memory!”
What of the promise that lay within Kalief Browder, who, Jennifer Gonnerman wrote in The New Yorker, “loved Pokemon, the WWE, free Wednesdays at the Bronx Zoo, and mimicking his brother’s workout routine”? A staffer at the school he attended said he was “the type of kid others wanted to be around.” At 16, Browder was accused of stealing a backpack and sent to Rikers Island; the wait for a trial lasted about a thousand days—five-and-a-half times longer than Brock Turner’s sentence—and two-thirds of which was spent in solitary confinement. Six months after he was released, he killed himself, scarred forever by the loss of his future and the nightmare of his recent past. He had never been found guilty.
In addition to the misogyny, it’s hard to ignore the injustice that is the maw between a six-month sentence for a white man found guilty by a jury of his peers—and discovered by two of his Stanford peers in the act of assaulting a woman who was passed out and unable to give consent—and a three-year imprisonment of a Black teen who had never been found guilty of any crime.
Just a week before the rape took over the headlines, another woman’s story of abuse was being prodded for weakness, all in the name of shoring up the defense of yet another man’s reputation—this time someone who had already scaled the Olympian heights of fame. I have no idea whether Amber Heard is the opportunist Johnny Depp’s defenders claim she is, or if Depp is as dreamy in person as he is onscreen. I don’t know either of them in person. But most of what we’ve seen online about their divorce makes it clear that others think they know better what happened between the two of them and, more pointedly, what Heard is “up to.” (Heard has said that Depp struck her more than once during their marriage, sometimes drawing blood. She has released photographs allegedly taken after one such fight.)
Something’s “fishy,” the doubters say. She doesn’t seem sad enough, she seems too sad, her Instagram at the time shows her smiling with friends, the bruises look like makeup. There are tales of her overspending, her refusing Depp access to his dying mother (which Heard denies), and her purportedly attacking an ex-girlfriend (reports that her ex described as “over-sensationalized”).
“What I know, there’s a lot of trouble from the girl that sounds a little manipulative,” the actor Benicio Del Toro told the New York Daily News last week. “It sounds a little bit like there’s something really twisted about that girl … but I don’t know the specifics.” People magazine has one friend chalking it all up to “drama” and differences in temperament: “With Amber, there has been nonstop drama. [Johnny and Amber] are just not good together. They had lots of problems before they got married, and should have never gotten married. Their personalities are just not compatible.”
The wagons have circled around the actor, as is often the way these things play out. Elaine Lui of Lainey Gossip calls out the “defense” put forth by Depp’s supporters: “So Amber Heard produces photos from multiple incidents of abuse, showing injuries on her face. And those photos are questioned for legitimacy. Like it’s either makeup or she punched herself. She produces text messages that document that others knew about the abuse. And now those texts are questioned for legitimacy and we have to bring in a goddamn iPhone consultant to analyze the data. Basically, then, you’re saying that it’s MORE likely that a woman would fake her own beating and fake incriminating texts than actually be beaten by her husband?”
If a celebrity can’t avoid scorn for speaking up, how much of a chance does a non-famous, non-connected woman have? On the stand, Turner’s victim was asked: “Did you drink in college? You said you were a party animal? How many times did you black out? Did you party at frats? Are you serious with your boyfriend? Are you sexually active with him? When did you start dating? Would you ever cheat? Do you have a history of cheating?” The message for her, as well as for the Amber Heards of this world: Are you beyond reproach? Because if not, you’re probably lying.
Where’s the rainbow then? It’s the woman Brock Turner raped. Despite the fact that women who accuse men of sexual assault and abuse will most likely see their histories scrutinized like suspicious tax returns, to be heard and validated on condition that they be virtuous and unimpeachable and better than the men who’ve mistreated them, she will not be silenced.
In her powerful victim impact statement, she told her rapist to his face: “You said, I stupidly thought it was okay for me to do what everyone around me was doing, which was drinking. I was wrong. Again, you were not wrong for drinking. Everyone around you was not sexually assaulting me. You were wrong for doing what nobody else was doing, which was pushing your erect dick in your pants against my naked, defenseless body concealed in a dark area, where partygoers could no longer see or protect me, and my own sister could not find me. Sipping fireball is not your crime. Peeling off and discarding my underwear like a candy wrapper to insert your finger into my body, is where you went wrong. Why am I still explaining this.”
I know a little bit about keeping quiet. In college, a boyfriend yanked my arm and tore the phone off the wall in rage after overhearing me tell a friend that I had kissed another man. (He’d been eavesdropping on my conversation.) I had gotten off easy that time. Months before, he’d pinned me to the ground. I don’t remember what caused the argument but there I was on the floor, gasping for help. Someone in our building called the cops. When they came to the door, I was mortified. This was the stuff of someone else’s bad movies. I was an A student; he was big man on campus. We were the kind of couple who had picnics on the green to watch the stars at night and danced with abandon at concerts. He taught me how to drive; I fed him soup when he was sick. We were a good couple.
I didn’t file charges. We told the officers that we’d simply had a disagreement that had gotten out of hand, that we were sorry for the commotion. One of them stared at me, watching for clues, but there were no visible scars. The other one walked around the apartment, but it wasn’t in disarray. Messy, yes, but not irrevocable-proof-of-physical-altercation disarray. After they left, he told me I was being overdramatic during the fight. And then he apologized. I didn’t leave him that night, though I eventually did after the phone incident. At that point, I was terrified of what would happen next.
Part of what perpetuates the cycle of abuse is the secrecy surrounding it. But in an age where sex diaries no longer shock and births are live-blogged, coming out about being assaulted still feels risky. You worry no one will believe you, that people will blame you, that they will take sides. (Even as I write this I wonder what people will think.) There’s denial—this can’t be happening—and then there’s the shame, too: Did I cause this? (The answer is no, of course, though many will tell you different. I certainly blamed myself for kissing someone else, as if that were reason enough for someone to leave handprints on your arm.) I worried that our problems would be dismissed, like Depp’s People Magazine-confiding friend did with Heard, as mere “drama.”
Sometimes women are too exhausted, or confused, or paralyzed to make a decision. Sometimes women can’t leave because they can’t afford to live alone or have no place to go or nobody else to turn to. Or they have children with their partners or property or businesses—their entire lives are enmeshed. Where does one begin? Sadly for many others, leaving doesn’t seem any safer than staying, because leaving means your partner will come after you, fueled by an anger even more ferocious than the one that made you stay.
So when a woman who has been questioned about a crime that robbed her of her agency can still stand in front of her attacker, and the judge who sentenced her rapist to six months in jail, and the father of the rapist who referred to the assault as “20 minutes of action” and say these words—“to girls everywhere, I am with you. On nights when you feel alone, I am with you. When people doubt you or dismiss you, I am with you. I fought everyday for you. So never stop fighting, I believe you”—you have to look for the rainbow and follow it, no matter how faint, no matter if the clouds are still brewing, waiting to unleash more rain.
It’s not just about the stories. Journalism is also about who is telling them.
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