We are all shaped by a culture that casts sexual misconduct accusers as unreliable sources of information—which can lead us to misjudge those who allege abuse.
Wednesday’s verdict in the defamation trial of Johnny Depp and Amber Heard marks the end of the legal proceedings. But the impact of the case will reverberate. The court of public opinion handed a decisive victory to Depp early on, spotlighting huge cultural blindspots that extend far beyond Heard—whatever you may think of her. Until we reckon with these blindspots, ordinary credibility judgments will be distorted in ways that disadvantage everyday accusers.
Needless to say, “believe all women” is an overly simplistic slogan, and it’s become a rather easy target for those taking aim at #MeToo. What’s true is this: All accusers should have their allegations judged fairly. But instead, accusers are typically given just the opposite treatment. As a matter of course, decisions about credibility are driven by misconceptions about victims, abusers and abuse itself. When choosing what to believe, who to blame, and whether to care, even well-intentioned people are primed to dismiss allegations of abuse. I refer to this dynamic as “credibility discounting” and, in my recent book, I show how the credibility discount hinders societal responses to abuse.
When choosing what to believe, who to blame, and whether to care, even well-intentioned people are primed to dismiss allegations of abuse.
Consider the impossible “perfect victim” standard, an amalgam of how we think victims do respond to abuse and how we think victims should respond to abuse. When an accuser fails to satisfy these benchmarks, the accuser doesn’t seem like a victim.
Amber Heard has fallen far short of this standard, as so many accusers do. One problem is that she maintained a relationship with Depp throughout much of the alleged abuse. Even in the wake of #MeToo, many of us assume that a victim will immediately cut all ties with the abuser. Otherwise, without accounting for the many obstacles to leaving, we see the accuser as untrustworthy and the allegation as untrue.
Heard has also been widely skewered for her demeanor on the witness stand. This too is a common reaction to accusers. When a victim’s apparent emotional response is different from the response we envision, her story seems suspicious. Both “suppressed” and “intensified” emotions are familiar to psychologists who work with survivors. Yet our preset notions of how victims react to their abuse can distort our credibility judgments.
Victims who don’t show obvious signs of emotional distress are often discredited by law enforcement officers and civilians alike. Researchers have found that accusers with “controlled affect” are perceived as less credible than accusers who are visibly upset. This is a burden uniquely placed on sexual assault accusers, who are expected to present negative emotions that are much stronger than those presented by other crime victims. The assumption that victims will display extreme emotion warps our judgments. Because “emotional demeanor is not diagnostic of witness honesty,” as researchers have put it, we downgrade the believability of certain victims for no good reason. Accusers who fail to show enough emotion are readily dismissed.
At the same time, accusers perceived as overly upset may also be penalized. Like their too calm counterparts, accusers who are too agitated are unbelievable. “Hysterical” women, in particular, are often deemed unreliable reporters, as they have been for centuries.
The assumption that victims will display extreme emotion warps our judgments. At the same time, accusers perceived as overly upset may also be penalized.
Men and boys can of course be victims of abuse. But when an accuser is female, a gendered set of stock caricatures come into play. Many of these caricatures have appeared in the public commentary about Amber Heard. The golddigger desires fortune above all else, and she’s willing to concoct an allegation of abuse. The woman scorned seeks revenge on the man who rejected her. The attention seeker craves the spotlight. (One study found that women whose sexual identity is perceived as “an ‘act’ for attention from straight men,” including bisexual women, are especially apt to be seen as attention-seeking falsifiers.)
The woman who lies about sexual abuse is a cultural mainstay—one that exerts a powerful gravitational pull on our credibility judgments. In 2016, Donald Trump harnessed this very archetype in order to defend himself against multiple allegations of sexual misconduct. “Every woman lied when they came forward to hurt my campaign,” he said at a campaign rally, adding, “If they can fight somebody like me, who has unlimited resources to fight back, just look at what they can do to you.” In 2018, addressing the sexual misconduct accusations against his Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh, Trump volunteered, “And it’s happened to me, many times, where false statements are made and, honestly, nobody knows who to believe.” The Kavanaugh allegations also propelled #HimToo, which went viral after a tweet bemoaned “the current climate of false sexual accusations by radical feminists with an axe to grind.”
Many people would disavow this worldview. Nonetheless, we are all shaped by a culture that casts sexual misconduct accusers as unreliable sources of information. This orientation can lead us to misjudge those who allege abuse. When we are prone to see accusers in general as liars, we are too quick to decide that a particular accusation is untrue.
Our tendency to discount the credibility of accusers is mostly harmful to victims who are subordinated or otherwise vulnerable. Although their stories don’t garner headlines for weeks on end, these are the victims who face the steepest credibility discounts, and who will continue to suffer enormously when they come forward. Anticipating this, victims of domestic and sexual violence routinely decide to stay silent. This will remain par for the course unless we collectively discard enduring myths about abuse.
Sign and share Ms.’s relaunched “We Have Had Abortions” petition—whether you yourself have had an abortion, or simply stand in solidarity with those who have—to let the Supreme Court, Congress and the White House know: We will not give up the right to safe, legal, accessible abortion.