"I don't think that being a strong person is about ignoring your emotions and fighting your feelings. Putting on a brave face doesn't mean you're a brave person. That's why everybody in my life knows everything that I'm going through. I can't hide anything from them. People need to realise that being open isn't the same as being weak."

- Taylor Swift

Saturday, June 04, 2016

Why I will stand by Amber Heard

The recent media shitstorm about the breakdown of Amber Heard and Johnny Depp's marriage and Heard's domestic violence allegations has dug up a lot of old, painful memories for me.

A few months shy of turning sixteen, I started an abusive relationship that ended when I was seventeen. 

A few months after, I was sexually assaulted. 

I clung to my abusive relationship even when I knew it was falling apart, even when I finally accepted, after months of denial, that he was bad news. I defended him when people started asking questions. And I think part of the reason why I didn't cry wolf as soon as I realized I was eyeball deep in shit I couldn't handle is that I knew I would be vilified. 

Not to the extent that Amber Heard has been vilified, of course. Neither of us were rich or famous. But I heard it all, and I was only seventeen. I was the other woman. I was a shameless social climber. I was a clingy, whiny burden. He's such a nice guy.

He's still a nice guy, of course. Some of my friends insist on remaining friends with him, even though they know what happened and claim to believe me. Through our relationship people had been pestering me to break it off, to just quit, to air out all the dirty laundry, but as soon as everything fell apart it was all on me. 

I've learned, as an abuse survivor, and as someone who has listened, patiently, to many, many other stories, that there is always something for people to cling to, some proof that the victim was in the wrong. For me, it was being the 'other woman'. It was okay for this person to abuse me, apparently, because I'd been that woman who he had cheated with. My victim blaming was tied up with slut shaming until eventually, I shut up. I was tired. I was hurt. I had lost my best friend, my reputation, and any notion of a balanced mental state. And as bad as he hurt me, I don't think anything hurt more than that. 

After I was sexually assaulted, the victim blaming started again. I'd been drinking. I'd been flirting. Did you see what she was wearing? Why didn't you say anything? 

I didn't say anything because I was drunk and disoriented. I didn't say anything because I was scared. I didn't say anything because I was a virgin and I didn't really know what was happening. I didn't say anything because I have anxiety and I was intimidated. 

The things that happened after only increased suspicion. I got attached to my assailant, which is very, very common - our cultural sexual narratives are so violent that victims often confuse assault with affection. I didn't act the victim. 

A lot of people also try to minimize it - oh, he didn't mean it. He's so socially awkward, he probably didn't know how to ask. It was only one time, you're over it now, surely? Sure, it's only one time - until a few months later when you do consent to sex, and you can't do it. Then it's only two times, when that happens again. Three times, when you have to explain to yet another partner what's wrong with you. Four times, when you're older and braver and you push another guy off you. five, six, seven, eight times, with your first boyfriend, who is very patient but it's still very scary and unpleasant. Abuse and assault aren't one off things - they don't end when it ends, it doesn't end when they finally walk away, or drive you home, or sign the divorce papers. Scars linger.   

I'm not seventeen anymore, and I'm made of sterner stuff now. But the victim blaming and slut shaming I endured, the relentless attacks on my character that were seen as part and parcel with being 'that girl' who was stupid enough to get herself in hot water - they have left a lasting impact. Whenever there isn't a shitstorm in the media, when the headlines of one celebrity beating up another celebrity are a few months past, people drone endlessly about how victims should 'just leave' or 'just speak out'. But I feel like this 'choice' that we have, to speak out or walk out, is no choice at all. It's a choice between having one person hurt us, or the world. 

I stand by Amber Heard because I see so much of my own story reflected in hers. I stand by Amber Heard because even though she is a rich, privileged, famous woman I have never met, I felt an enormous rush of empathy when I saw the same things that were thrown at me thrown at her, only in a much more public and vicious way. I stand by Amber Heard because I know how hard it is to stand up to the popular kid who abused you, or someone older and bigger than you who assaulted you, much less Johnny Depp. Because it doesn't matter who you are, survivors recognise each other in the crowd, and we can't help but want to hold each other tight - because nobody else does. 

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