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What Happens When Alleged Sexual Violence Victims Lie?


Several years ago, actress Amber Heard wrote of a harrowing experience being abused by ex-husband and fellow actor Johnny Depp. She claimed severe physical and emotional abuse throughout their marriage, including allegations that he kicked her and battered her face. When they divorced after less than two years of marriage, she donated the settlement to a children’s hospital (a bit virtue signaling and on the nose, but still generous).

She became a major voice in the Me Too movement, as women throughout the entertainment, music, and media industries became whistleblowers about abusive treatment, nearly always sexual in nature, they’d received at the hands of powerful men. A few months ago, she wrote for The Washington Post about how she knew at a young age “that men have the power — physically, socially and financially — and that a lot of institutions support that arrangement.”

Now, however, her story is falling apart, making her one of a small cohort of Me Tooers who increasingly seem to have fabricated components of their claims or told distorted half-truths.

Johnny Depp’s Lawsuit

As of this month, Depp is suing his ex-wife, claiming that she flipped the abuse in an “elaborate hoax to generate positive publicity…and advance her career”––a hoax that defamed him and damaged his career. The suit says Heard’s allegations “have been conclusively refuted by two separate responding police officers, a litany of neutral third-party witnesses, and 87 newly obtained surveillance camera videos” and says in no uncertain terms that “Ms. Heard is not a victim of domestic abuse; she is a perpetrator.”

The suit details one incident where, after Depp had told Heard he wanted a divorce, Heard “lured” him back to their penthouse to pick up some of his stuff. Heard allegedly screamed, “Stop hitting me, Johnny,” with his security detail in earshot, attempting to portray a scene in which he was abusing her. Depp’s suit even claimed that, one night, Heard threw a glass vodka bottle at him, which shattered when making contact with his hand, severing a finger that had to be surgically reattached. She later disputed this characterization of the incident.

Depp’s legal team also adds that “Ms. Heard violently abused Mr. Depp, just as she was caught and arrested for violently abusing her former domestic partner.” They detail her past arrest, booking, and night in jail for abusing a past partner, Tasya van Ree, and write about the damaging effect Heard’s allegations have had on Depp’s career, as well as the all-too-well-coordinated timing of her op-ed.

Another wrinkle in Heard’s story that casts doubt on her credibility: with regard to her 2009 arrest for assaulting van Ree, Heard “has attempted to blame misogyny and homophobia for her domestic violence arrest––claiming that she was arrested ‘on a trumped up charge’ because she was in a same-sex relationship. In truth, the police officer who arrested Ms. Heard for domestic violence was both a woman and a lesbian activist.”

The police officer spoke out against Heard’s improper framing of the officer’s motives soon after the incident, a point reiterated in Depp’s suit. Of course, it’s possible that one damning incident related to domestic violence does not a serial perpetrator make. Still, it’s hard to say to what degree credibility and past record should be taken into account when attempting to sort truth from fiction, and claims of homophobic treatment might not be what they seem in this specific case. 

Asia Argento’s Case

A somewhat similar wrinkle has been found in actress Asia Argento’s case. Argento, the former girlfriend of the late Anthony Bourdain and one of the first Harvey Weinstein accusers, paid hush money to a then-underage accuser, who claimed she had assaulted him when he was 17, under the legal age of consent in the state where the act took place. Argento was a major player in Me Too, saying she was raped by Weinstein at Cannes when she was 21, in the late ‘90s.

Jimmy Bennett, Argento’s alleged victim, played her son in “The Heart Is Deceitful Above All Things” when he was seven years old. They had sex in a hotel room in Los Angeles in 2013, when Bennett was under the legal age of consent and Argento was 37.

Bennett apparently does not consider the sex consensual and, in November 2017, asked for “$3.5 million in damages for the intentional infliction of emotional distress, lost wages, assault and battery.” According to the New York Times. “Mr. Bennett made more than $2.7 million in the five years before the 2013 meeting with Ms. Argento, but his income has since dropped to an average of $60,000 a year, which he attributes to the trauma that followed the sexual encounter with Ms. Argento, his lawyer wrote.”

Argento and Bennett agreed to payments of $380,000 over the course of about 18 months.

Of course, perhaps some of the public outcry has both something to do with the technical violation of age of consent laws and something to do with the ickiness factor of Argento and Bennett’s dynamic. As Laura Kipnis writes at The Guardian:

Of course, there are also certain timeless themes, and one of them is the fear of sexual mother-monsters, the subtext peeking out from between the week’s headlines. Argento once played Bennett’s mother onscreen. Hence some of the vitriol, no doubt. Movie mum and son in bed – it’s a little close to incest, right?

Argento billed herself as a Weinstein victim then, and still bills herself as a Weinstein victim now. The Times reported:

The relationship with Mr. Weinstein continued for years afterward and sometimes included sex, The New Yorker reported. Ms. Argento, who had acted in a movie Mr. Weinstein produced, told the magazine that she feared angering him. It was a complicated situation in which she said she felt powerless. ‘After the rape, he won,’ she told Mr. Farrow.

Of course, it’s more than possible that Argento is both a victim and a sexual violence perpetrator. It’s possible, maybe even likely, that she suffered at the hand of Weinstein and later abused what seemed like a mother-son relationship with Bennett, inflicting pain and emotional damage on him.

But it is undoubtedly a complicating factor, making Argento’s calls for time to be up on powerful people feel flimsier. Whether power differential be a sex, strength, age, or wealth difference, there’s something dark about condemning it when you’re hurt by it but then using it to your advantage when you fancy, cruelly subjecting another person to the same sexual violence that has allegedly tormented you.

The weird thing is, Argento initially denied the claim that she’d ever had sex with Bennett. That is, before texts of her admitting to it were released, and a photo of them in bed together surfaced. If this is her being deceitful, it’s not the first time she’s twisted the truth.

The Line Between Bad-Faith Actors and Real Allegations

Spurious claims by some bad actors don’t undermine the very real allegations many of the women have made. They shouldn’t be used as fodder to portray Me Too as conspiratorial or otherwise made up. Just as it’s not wise to fall into the “believe all women” line of thinking, or gleefully and indiscriminately celebrate that male heads will roll, it would not be proper to assume all are con artists waging some form of coordinated war on men.

But if these complicating factors are true, Heard and Argento are hucksters attempting to personally profit from sham victimhood — or, in Argento’s case, a severely damaged person who has inflicted serious pain on others. This undermines the unimagined, worthy grievances of legitimate victims of sexual assault and is generally despicable behavior.

Just as Jussie Smollett’s hoax will have the unfortunate side effect of casting doubt on real hate crime victims, Heard and Argento’s stories will help people discredit women who choose to come forward against powerful, abusive men, who absolutely do exist. That some of their stories are unraveling means they attempted to get a free ride on the victimhood train at the expense of other women.

One takeaway from the Heard/Depp suit is that we’re too quick to confer titles of pseudo-nobility on those we see as good. The suit says:

Ms. Heard also knew that her elaborate hoax worked: As a result of her false allegations against Mr. Depp, Ms. Heard became a darling of the #MeToo movement, was the first actress named a Human Rights Champion of the United Nations Human Rights Office, was appointed ambassador on women’s rights at the American Civil Liberties Union, and was hired by L’Oreal Paris as its global spokesperson.

It makes sense to laud whistleblowers to a degree, but we must go to great lengths to corroborate their claims. In this case, the accolades themselves seem excessive. Has Heard (or many celebrities, really) earned a spot of influence over the ACLU or the UN for speaking out against a seemingly damaging ex-husband? One of cancel culture’s biggest flaws is the speed with which we deem some people good and others bad, sometimes when there’s a dearth of evidence.

Part of what makes adjudicating sexual assault claims in both the court of public opinion and the court of actual law difficult is the fact that people are rarely perfect victims or perfect perpetrators, try as we might to portray or think of them as such. Although David Lisak’s serial perpetrator theory has been spread far and wide, it’s not well-supported, for example.

In many cases, abusive intimate relationships are complicated. People are sometimes plagued by inaction or paralysis, whether warranted or unwarranted. Some women are perhaps too hesitant to seek help, but it’s hard to sort out how much of that onus falls on them versus to what degree they’re traumatized, unable to regain control of a situation they cannot wrench themselves away from.

We have a limited window into what other people’s relationships look like. Domestic abuse victims cannot always definitively identify what is normal and what is beyond the pale. Add the factors of shame, stigma, célébrité, power differences, or mental illness to the mix, and it’s easy to see why these matters are hard to parse out.

Some perpetrators are victims just as much as they are perpetrators. So, then, how do we punish? How much sympathy do we lend them and how much do we elevate their voices? Does Weinstein deserve double the blame if he victimized Argento, who in turn victimized Bennett? Doubtful — that undermines Argento’s responsibility in the matter and can get into slippery slope territory of shirking responsibility far too fast. But where should culpability be placed when it isn’t easy to discern?

One thing is clear, as the wrinkles in the Heard case come to light: If you believe only men are capable of deceit, you’re not being intellectually rigorous. And if you believe every single one of the Me Too women is a charlatan swindler, you’re also probably not being intellectually rigorous. The truth is frustratingly somewhere in between, best sorted out slowly, cautiously, deliberately, in a case-by-case way that takes into account just how deeply flawed we are.