Why Do They Do That is a series by Kitty Wenham that aims to shine a light on some of the most common tactics used by those who perpetrate abuse. In this article we will explore Jennifer Freyd’s theory of Deny, Attack, Reverse Victim-Offender (DARVO). Content warning: This series will regularly discuss topics related to physical, emotional and sexual abuse.
“Nobody believed that I got out of that for free”
In June this year, former U.S. President Bill Clinton was asked if, in light of the #MeToo movement, his personal views on the Lewinsky affair had changed. When the affair was first publicly revealed, Clinton famously denied that it had ever even taken place.
“I left the White House $16 million in debt. But you, typically, have ignored gaping facts… I bet you don’t even know them”
“You are giving one side”, he railed at the interviewer, “and omitting facts”.
Clinton’s response to being held accountable for misconduct follows a familiar pattern used by the majority of accused men
Deny, Attack, Reverse Victim-Offender.
Studies have found that, when confronted with accusations of abuse, many perpetrators follow a similar blueprint. They deny having committed the offence, lash-out against the accuser and paint themselves as the one who is truly suffering.
DARVO was introduced by academic, Dr Jennifer Freyd, near the end of a 1997 publication about Betrayal Trauma Theory. Betrayal trauma refers to events that have a high level of societal betrayal, such as being sexually abused by a parent, beaten by a partner, or raped by a friend.
The use of this tactic can manifest in many different forms. They may claim that their accuser has “twisted” the truth, claim “it didn’t happen like that”, that their accuser has not told the “full” story or deny that it happened at all. Abusers may also deny recollection, minimise the event by admitting to some but not all behaviour, or minimise the harm that it caused.
The next stage is to attack the credibility of their accuser. They may claim that the victim needs to take responsibility for causing the abuse, claim they deserved it or that they ‘seduced’ them, wanted it, are ‘crazy’ and need psychiatric help, or, in cases of childhood abuse, that they are causing the family to “fall apart”.
Finally, the abuser attempts to reverse the victim-offender relationship. They may claim that they are the one who is suffering, that the accuser is vindictive, or trying to ruin their life because they want revenge. The aim is not only to play into the desire of third parties to trust the abuser, but also the victim’s tendency to self-blame.
In one study of 114 incarcerated rapists, 59% of those convicted denied ever having committed the offence. Of those who denied the offence, 31% claimed that their victims had “lured”, or “seduced” them, placing blame for the event onto the victim rather than the perpetrator. A further 69% of those who denied the event claimed their victim had enjoyed it, minimising the harm caused, 84% deferred responsibility by blaming intoxication, and 78% attacked the victim’s integrity with accusations relating to the victim’s sexual reputation.
Another recent study looked at the effect these tactics had on the victim. Out of 72 survivors, it found that 75% of the victims decided to enter a dialogue with their abuser. During which 44% of the victims were subjected to denial tactics, and 44% were told that they were “crazy”. 22% were accused of misunderstanding the abuser’s conduct, whilst 22% were confronted with a partial admission, this was later retracted or minimised. Many of those who participated in the study reported feeling disappointed by their abuser’s reactions, that they had feelings of guilt, and self- blame afterwards, and even reported doubting their own recollections.
The use of DARVO as an abusive tactic doesn’t just protect the abuser, it confuses and silences their victims, strongly suggesting to the victim that silence is the safer option. Another study showed that, the more DARVO that a victim hears from a perpetrator, the more the victim blames themselves for the event.
Carmel Offord, a community engagement officer from the Yorkshire based Independent Domestic Abuse Services (IDAS), commented; “ Often the first phone call that we receive is a tentative one, and we help the client to unpick their experiences and discuss their options. We see how effective and pervasive these tactics are at systematically dismantling a person’s sense of autonomy and self-worth
“We are particularly concerned about the effects that these tactics have on other non-specialists who are not familiar with them and how this can further restrict a victims’ ability to seek support or revictimise them.”
Studies have shown that DARVO is incredibly successful in influencing how outside parties react to accusations of abuse. In one study, participants were given a description of an incident of domestic violence, alongside fictional statements from both the victim, and perpetrator. Participants who received the perpetrator’s DARVO statement rated the victim less credible, more responsible for the abuse, and the perpetrator less responsible, and less abusive. All participants received the same description and victim statement.
In recent years, there are countless examples of powerful men using these tactics to diminish the abuse they have committed. Harvey Weinstein is a classic example. Weinstein initially denied that the events took place, smeared the reputation and careers of the women he abused, and later minimised responsibility and shifted blame away from himself by committing himself to sex rehabilitation clinic.
Whilst on trial for rape, Brock Turner’s lawyers tried to use classic DARVO arguments in his defence, claiming that the event was consensual later claiming that he only committed ‘outercourse’ because there was no penetration referring to the victim and perpetrator’s state of intoxication and emotionally appealing to the judge that Turner’s ‘promising’ career would be ruined if he was found guilty.
Sitting U.S. President Donald Trump, who has been accused of abuse and assault by multiple women, is a prototypical user of the DARVO tactic. He has, unsurprisingly, outright denied any allegations, attacked the characters of his victims – referring to them as “horrible people”, and making derogatory comments about their looks, whilst trying to paint himself as a victim of a smear attack by the Democratic Party.
U.S. Senate candidate Roy Moore and Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh have both been accused by multiple women of sexual assault from victims who were as young as 14 when the event occurred. Both have denied any wrongdoing and called the accusations a “dangerous lie” concocted to “personally destroy” their careers, starkly echoing the response to Anita Hill’s allegations against Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas before his 1991 confirmation hearing.
These tactics are incredibly successful in avoiding responsibility and silencing victims. However, upcoming research by Sarah Harsey, Eileen Zurbriggen and Jennifer Freyd suggests that the outside influence of DARVO can be mitigated, or even decreased through education. Unlike previous studies, within the participants, some groups received a brief explanation of DARVO before rating the credibility of a victim. Those who received this explanation subsequently rated the victim as more believable, and the perpetrator as less so.
Commenting on this new research, Dr. Freyd, whilst clear to caution that “more research is needed about DARVO and how to counter its effects”, offers some advice to those who come across it. She says
“While our newest research indicates DARVO can influence observers’ judgments of responsibility and credibility of both victim and perpetrator, the good news is that our research also indicates that that influence can be decrease through education about DARVO. The practical implication is that when you see DARVO occurring, call it out.”
If you think you may be experiencing abuse, please reach out. In the U.K. you can call the 24-hour National Domestic Violence Freephone Helpline on 0808 2000 247 or email firstname.lastname@example.org