Skip to main content

"Easy Amber."

It's what Johnny Depp allegedly scrawled on a mirror with a partially severed finger dipped in blue paint, according to disturbing photo exhibits in Amber Heard's domestic-violence case against her now ex-husband.

Depp was allegedly accusing Heard of cheating with actor Billy Bob Thornton. The sexual slur on the mirror was one of many hurled at Heard in the months before the couple divorced last week. Throughout the divorce proceedings, Heard was smeared as a gold digger: In May, Depp's lawyer Laura Wasser said she was gunning for "a premature financial resolution by alleging abuse" – even after photographs emerged of Heard's bruised face and busted lip.

It was satisfying to see Depp and his team dial it back after a leaked video of him violently kicking and slamming kitchen cupboards and pouring a sizable glass of wine while yelling at Heard hurt his standing in the court of public opinion. The exes put out a joint statement last week that read in part: "Neither party has made false accusations for financial gain." And Heard put the gold-digging jabs to rest entirely when she donated her entire $7-million (U.S.) divorce settlement to charity, stating that half was going to the American Civil Liberties Union "to stop violence against women."

But it was also dismaying to follow the narrative around Heard's bisexuality, with tabloids screaming that threats of infidelity – with both men and women – had "driven" Depp to jealousy and violence. Heard had never hidden her sexuality: "I have had successful relationships with men and now a woman," she said in 2010, while attending a Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation event with girlfriend Tasya Van Ree. "I love who I love; it's the person that matters."

But as for many bisexual women, it seems that neither the public – nor her husband – truly believed her. Bisexual women encounter unique stigma in their romantic relationships, facing significantly higher risks of physical and sexual violence than straight women or lesbians. It has much to do with the stereotypes that are lobbed at them: that they are hypersexual, fickle, untrustworthy and unfaithful – that their sexuality is illegitimate, a cover for promiscuity. These myths remain pervasive and abusers seize on them to demean their victims.

In Canada, rates of sexual and physical assault were four times higher for bisexuals than they were heterosexuals, according to the 2004 General Social Survey: 28 per cent of bi people reported being victimized by spousal abuse, compared to 7 per cent of heterosexuals. Bisexual girls were more than twice as likely as heterosexual girls to report dating violence in the past year, 11 per cent versus 4 per cent, respectively, according to the 2013 BC Adolescent Health Survey of students ages 12 to 18.

Persisting negative social attitudes about bisexuality can have a toxic effect on these women's dating lives, experts say.

"One set of stereotypes is that you're unreliable and generally kind of shady in your relationships and dealings with the world," said Cheryl Dobinson, who researches LGBTQ health at Toronto's Centre for Addiction and Mental Health and works in community programming and research at Planned Parenthood Toronto.

Some partners grow jealous and insecure, questioning the solidity of their monogamous relationships with bisexual women. Male partners of bi women can feel that their own masculine identities get compromised in these relationships. Abusive partners treat it like ammunition. Dobinson said the red flags for bi women should be a partner who criticizes your sexual identity, isolates you from your same sex friends or threatens to out you to family.

Lori Ross is leading a research program on bisexual mental health at the University of Toronto. She says bi women often talk about the difficulties they have "because their partners understood bisexuality to translate into a lack of willingness or capacity to have a monogamous relationship."

Myths about bisexual women's supposed hypersexuality can bring more risk into their intimate relationships. "Being bisexual gets read as, 'You're up for anything, all the time.' Women talk about having their consent assumed," said Dobinson. Young bi women have told her they often feel sexualized and "disposable" around male partners. "A person saying they're bisexual doesn't mean they consent to any and all sexual activity," she said. "Even if a person is hypersexual, it doesn't mean they consent this way."

Even more damaging for bisexual people is the way their sexuality still gets doubted, with assumptions that they're closeted or "sitting on the fence."

For more than two decades, Elizabeth Saewyc has been challenging the line that bisexuality "isn't a real thing."

"The notion that someone might be attracted to more than one gender is difficult for people. Our society doesn't deal with shades of grey or ambiguity very well," said Saewyc, who is executive director of the Stigma and Resilience Among Vulnerable Youth Centre at the University of British Columbia.

"Prominent figures who are bisexual don't get billed that way," said Saewyc, a professor of nursing and adolescent medicine. "It's this idea of, 'First they were straight and now they're gay.' The b-word just doesn't seem to come up." This biphobia, Saewyc said, comes from both straight and gay communities.

Advocates argue that bisexual women who suffer societal rejection and get hostility from a variety of sources are more vulnerable to intimate partner violence. "It can really affect people's self-esteem and self-worth," Dobinson said. "If who you are isn't seen as a 'real thing' in the world, it's pretty hard to develop positive self-regard and positive relationships, or even value yourself or your health and well-being."

A 2016 study from Philadelphia's Drexel University found that bisexual women were more likely to suffer from depression, anxiety and traumatic stress. It's relevant: Abusers tend to target vulnerable people.

For Farrah Khan, co-ordinator of sexual violence education and support at Ryerson University, the treatment of Amber Heard throughout her divorce was "absolutely about her sexuality."

Khan is co-founder of Femifesto, a Toronto-based feminist organization that developed "Use the Right Words," a media guide for reporting on sexual violence. As Khan scanned the Depp-Heard headlines, she said Heard's bisexuality was being used as a justification for abuse.

"They weren't just excusing the abuse, they were naming her bisexuality as the problem. The stereotype was that bisexual women are unfaithful by nature and that it somehow makes abuse okay."

Khan argues that sexuality impacts the rate at which victims are believed.

"It goes back to respectability politics: who gets to be seen as a respectable human and as a good person, and who doesn't? With bisexual women, we're talking about sex and people who are open about their sexuality. That is seen as a problem."