Last year, at a campaign rally, candidate Donald Trump denied that he had sexually assaulted multiple women, announcing the women’s accusations to be “all false stuff.” He was instead the innocent target of “one of the great political smear campaigns in the history of our country.” Turning the tables on his accusers, Trump transformed himself into a victim of “horrible” women.
Roy Moore, the Alabama Republican senate candidate who has recently come under fire for allegedly pursuing and assaulting underage girls, followed Trump’s lead. After denying any charges of wrongdoing, Moore insisted his accusers concocted a “dangerous lie” intended to “personally destroy” him. Like Trump, Moore blamed the victims. These responses, as with many reactions from perpetrators faced with allegations of abuse, follow a predictable pattern: (1) deny any wrongdoing, (2) attack accusers by casting doubt on their credibility, motivation, and truthfulness, and (3) claim to be the victim of slander and attacks from malicious individuals. One can capture this by the acronym DARVO (Deny, Attack, Reverse Victim and Offender), first identified in 1997 by trauma psychologist Jennifer Freyd.
DARVO is a strategy perpetrators often employ—on throngs of political supporters or on friends and acquaintances—to deflect blame and prevent (or minimize) any ramifications for their behavior. And it works like a charm: Psychiatrist Judith Herman notes in her book Trauma and Recovery that a perpetrator who denies any wrongdoing “appeals to the universal desire to see, hear, and speak no evil.” To regard reports of harassment, assault, and rape as merely the fabrications of vindictive attention-seekers is easier in a culture that devalues victims of sexual violence than facing what may be an uglier truth. DARVO thrives, in other words, because of our propensity to disbelieve victims.
DARVO also confuses and encourages victims to doubt themselves about what transpired.
But does DARVO actually have any measurable impact?
A study featured in a forthcoming manuscript on DARVO suggests that, yes, perpetrators influence people with this tactic. Participants in this study read about an incident of domestic violence, along with statements from a fictional perpetrator and victim. The perpetrator either remorsefully acknowledged the abusive behavior, or they used DARVO to discredit the victim and deny their abuse. Participants in the DARVO condition rated the victim less credible, more responsible for the abuse, and more abusive. What’s more, participants judged the perpetrator less responsible for the abuse and less abusive. All participants read the same victim statement and description of the assault—the only reason participants rated the victim less favorably (and the perpetrator less harshly) was because of DARVO.
In other words, by reframing the events through a DARVO lens, our fictional perpetrator was able to stack the deck in their favor by casting doubt on the credibility and blamelessness of the victim. As a result, participants perceived the victim more negatively and attributed less responsibility and abusiveness to the perpetrator. However, DARVO comes at a cost to those who wield it: Participants in the study also rated the perpetrator who used DARVO less credible than the perpetrator who confessed to committing the assault. With respect to this particular finding, it seems that DARVO may not entirely convince everyone of the perpetrator’s innocence—but it doesn’t have to. All it has to do is muddy the waters just enough so that the truth of what really happened seems complicated and inaccessible. Was it an assault, or simply an innocuous misinterpretation of events? When faced with this manufactured ambiguity, abuse and other wrongdoings become easy to shrug off as unfortunate and inextricable cases of he-said, she-said.
DARVO also confuses and encourages victims to doubt themselves about what transpired. Tomi-Ann Roberts, one of the many women to accuse Hollywood magnate Harvey Weinstein of sexual assault, recalled, “I really thought that it was kind of my fault, that I was prudish or I was scared.” Former Weinstein employee, Laura Madden, said, “It was so manipulative…You constantly question yourself.” Leigh Corfman, who claims Moore sexually assaulted her as a teenager, says that she “felt responsible” and “had done something bad.” These women are not unique; research shows that self-blame among victims of sexual violence is common and can keep them silent.
DARVO exacerbates this tendency. A recent study found that the more DARVO a victim hears from a perpetrator during a confrontation, the more the victim blames him or herself for the perpetrator’s wrongdoing. While this study stops short of being able to say DARVO causes victim self-blame, certainly an important link exists between the two.
DARVO appears to be a powerful tool used by perpetrators, one that targets victims directly and rallies bystanders to fall in line with the perpetrator’s version of events. Can the effects of this tactic be mitigated? It’s possible that simply having an awareness of DARVO can interrupt feelings of blame and self-doubt in victims and prevent bystanders from being swayed by perpetrators’ appeals. The question of whether an awareness of DARVO offers protection against its effects is the focus of upcoming experimental research, which will reveal the extent to which providing an education on DARVO reduces its harms.
For now, though, it’s important to give name to and recognize this phenomenon. Perpetrators of sexual violence—and any kind of wrongdoing—must not be allowed to continue to use DARVO to hijack the truth.
Sarah Harsey is a PhD student studying Social Psychology at the University of California, Santa Cruz. Her research focuses on trauma, sexual violence, and objectification.