DARVO is a tactic used to publicly discredit accusers and privately subdue victims with shame and a sense of shared guilt – however false. Like the term 'gaslighting', you may have seen it used in discussions about domestic and sexual violence, but what does it describe exactly?
DARVO stands for 'Deny, Attack, and Reverse Victim and Offender.'
Professor Patrick O'Leary from Griffith University told SBS Voices that perpetrators often use DARVO to shame victims into believing they are responsible for the abuse.
An abuser might say 'if you really cared about me, you wouldn't do that' to justify an act of violence because he says his victim's behaviour provoked him – she was spending too much time with friends, for example. The victim believes that the abuse is their fault, at least in part, says Prof O'Leary, and they could stop it if they behaved a certain way.
Jennifer J. Freyd, who conceptualised DARVO in a 1997 article about betrayal trauma theory, wrote that DARVO "refers to a reaction [that] perpetrators of wrong-doing, particularly sexual offenders, may display in response to being held accountable for their behaviour."
As Dr Freyd explains, the perpetrator or offender may Deny the behaviour, Attack the individual doing the confronting, and Reverse the roles of Victim and Offender, so the perpetrator assumes the victim role and the victim becomes the alleged offender.
What does DARVO look like in action?
Jess Hill, presenter of the new SBS series See What You Made Me Do and author of a 2019 book of the same name, spoke about DARVO in the speech she gave at the March4Justice rally in Sydney. "It works like this: The alleged perpetrator – and their supporters – denies the allegation, they attack the victim's credibility, and then reverse the role of victim and offender so that it looks like the alleged perpetrator is the real victim," she said. "The attack is intended to chill and terrify the victim and their supporters, and it often includes legal threats."
Nicole Bedera, a doctoral candidate at the University of Michigan’s Sociology Department, studies how organisations shape the experience of sexual violence. She says she once interviewed a rapist many believed was falsely accused, “in part because he spoke so eloquently about how the allegations against him ‘ruined his life’ and the way he destroyed his victim's credibility.
"In our interview, he called his victim some version of a ‘psycho’ over 30 times and came up with countless theories for why she would have ‘misunderstood’ what took place between them,” Bedera tells SBS Voices. “Later, it would come to light that he had sexually assaulted at least three other women on campus, but they struggled to come forward because of the allegiances he had forged with the very people tasked with protecting survivors.”
Bedera has also observed that “increasingly, perpetrators are making legal claims using the DARVO framework, such as filing defamation lawsuits or retaliatory complaints intended to harass or bully a victim into dropping their original report.”
Why is it effective?
DARVO works. In research published in 2017, Dr Freyd and her colleagues showed that someone exposed to DARVO during a confrontation was more likely to feel a sense of self-blame at the end of the interaction. In 2020, Dr Freyd and Sarah Harsey showed that observers presented with accounts of abuse followed by a DARVO response were less likely to believe the victim than a control group.
The idea of himpathy - a term coined by philosopher Kate Manne in her 2017 book Down Girl: The Logic of Misogyny that describes the excessive sympathy shown toward male perpetrators of sexual violence - is central to understanding why DARVO is so effective, says Bedera. "In general, we tend to empathise more with men than with women. We are comfortable asking women to endure sexism - including violence - as part of a feminine gender role and to protect men's reputation and power. DARVO draws on those cultural biases."
The media is often complicit. "Every time the media focuses the story on what a man stands to lose by being accused of sexual assault, they are strengthening the power of DARVO," says Bedera.
How can we counter DARVO?
Encouragingly, Dr Freyd's research showed that an awareness of DARVO and how it works reduced its effectiveness - DARVO-educated participants were less likely to believe the perpetrators' accounts of abuse than a control group.
"The first thing we can do is recognise when an assailant is deploying DARVO," says Bedera. "Are they attacking their victim? Are they positioning themselves as a victim? If so, we should be wary of their claims."
Next, she says, we should refocus on the survivor and their needs. "People like to say that sexual assault cases are complicated, but they really aren't - not if you're thinking about what values survivors and promotes healing. Concerns about what to do with a perpetrator are a distraction from the real and important work that needs to be done."
If you or someone you know is experiencing family violence or sexual assault phone 1800RESPECT/1800 737 732 or visit 1800respect.org.au. For counselling, advice and support for men who have anger, relationship or parenting issues, call the Men’s Referral Service on 1300 766 491 or visit ntv.org.au.
See What You Made Me Do premieres 8:30pm Wednesday 5 May on SBS and SBS On Demand. The three-part series continues weekly, and every episode will be simulcast on NITV. (Episodes will be repeated at 9.30pm Sundays on SBS VICELAND from 9 May).