Did You Know That Abusive Tactics Have Actual Names?

Well, they do! And this one is named DARVO. Let me introduce you.

I talk a lot about domestic and sexual violence, and the tactics used by perpetrators against their victims. I have mentioned DARVO before and thought it might be useful to go over the concept in greater detail.

Some facts.

On average there are 433,648 victims (age 12 or older) of rape and sexual assault each year in the US.

1 out of 6 American women has been the victim of an attempted or completed rape in her lifetime.

Only an estimated 2-8% of rape allegations are found to be false, similar to rates of other false crime reports.

For every 1,000 rapes, only 230 are reported to the police, 46 result in an arrest, 9 are referred for prosecution, 5 result in a felony conviction, and just 4 result in incarceration.

Someone is lying.

I posit the liar is the predator, rapist, or abuser being accused of crimes.

One of the most insidious parts about sexual and domestic violence is the psychological abuse. Gaslighting and manipulation are extremely effective tactics perpetrators use to keep their victims quiet, and it is one of the reasons for the large discrepancy between women who have been raped and women who have reported their rape.

In 1997 Dr. Jennifer J. Freyd introduced the term DARVO to explain the gaslighting strategy perpetrators (typically people accused of sexual crimes) use to confuse and silence their victims.

DARVO is an acronym that stands for Deny, Attack, and Reverse the Victim and Offender.

Instead of admitting error and apologizing or offering evidence that the accusations are false, the perpetrator, outraged at having his power challenged, denies having done what he is accused of doing and attacks his accuser, thus reversing roles and assuming the mantle of victimhood. The true victim is transformed into an offender (Source: Dr. Freyd, When the True Victim is Blamed).

There are two forms of DARVO, individual and institutional:

Individual DARVO occurs when an actually guilty perpetrator assumes the role of “falsely accused” and attacks the accuser’s credibility and blames the accuser of being the perpetrator of false allegations.

Institutional DARVO occurs when DARVO is committed by an institution (or with institutional complicity) as when an institution minimizes the harms done to victims (or that the abusive behavior occurred at all) and frames alleged perpetrations as misunderstandings or behaviors for which victims are partly to blame.

In 2017 Dr. Freyd, Dr. Sarah J. Harsey, and Dr. Eileen L. Zurbriggen conducted a study to “directly examine DARVO as a unitary concept and to investigate how it relates to feelings of self-blame among victims.”

Their study revealed that DARVO was commonly used by individuals who were confronted, that women were more likely than men to be exposed to DARVO when confronting individuals, that the three components of DARVO were positively correlated (supporting the theoretical construction of DARVO), and that higher levels of exposure to DARVO during a confrontation were associated with increased perceptions of self-blame among the confronters.

These results provide evidence for the existence of DARVO as a perpetrator strategy and establish a relationship between DARVO exposure and feelings of self-blame. Exploring DARVO aids in understanding how perpetrators are able to enforce victims' silence through the mechanism of self-blame (Source: Sarah J. Harsey, et al, Perpetrator Responses to Victim Confrontation: DARVO and Victim Self-Blame).

DARVO Illustrated:

At least 25 women have accused Donald Trump of rape, sexual assault, and sexual harassment, and many of them were underage girls at the time of their attacks. And yet he has faced absolutely no consequences.

According to Dr. Freyd in her article, Trump’s DARVO Defense of Harassment Accusations, this is because Trump is “an expert practitioner of DARVO.”

Perpetrators use DARVO because it works. Clarence Thomas does, in fact, sit on the Supreme Court; Donald Trump is the president of the United States; and Roy Moore came within a hair’s breadth of the US Senate. DARVO affects how the victim responds as well as how observers interpret both the actions of the perpetrator and the victim. Unchecked, DARVO frightens victims, confuses observers, and supports the perpetrator’s denial by allowing him to define the situation.

Deny, Attack, and Reverse the Victim and the Offender.


There is no question that Trump has vehemently denied the accusations against him. One need only recall his tirade of October 2016: “These are lies... they are all false. They’re totally invented, fiction, all 100% totally and completely fabricated.” Earlier this month he reiterated his denials, blaming the allegations on his political rivals: “The Democrats have been unable to show any collusion with Russia. Now they are moving on to the false accusations and fabricated stories of women who I don’t know and/or have never met” (Source: Freyd and Fitzgerald, Trump’s DARVO defense of harassment accusations).


About the women alleging sexual assault he said, “These people are horrible people. They’re horrible, horrible liars.” And also: “She wouldn’t be my first choice,” Trump asserted, implying that Jessica Leeds was insufficiently attractive to draw his attention, an argument his lawyer generalized to his other accusers (Source: Freyd and Fitzgerald, Trump’s DARVO defense of harassment accusations).

Reverse Victim & Offender:

In an October 2016 speech responding to the allegations against him, Trump presented himself as not only a victim, but a martyr: “[My enemies] knew they would throw every lie they could at me and my family and my loved ones. They knew they would stop at nothing to try and stop me... I never knew it would be this vile, that it would be this bad, that it would be this vicious.” He concluded his martyr imagery by telling his supporters, “Nevertheless, I take all of these slings and arrows gladly for you” (Source: Freyd and Fitzgerald, Trump’s DARVO defense of harassment accusations).

The benefits of understanding abusive tactics like DARVO.

Dr. Harsey determined the following:

  1. Simply having an awareness of DARVO and its use by perpetrators may serve to mitigate some of the negative effects associated with DARVO, particularly the increased sense of self-blame in victims.
  2. For individuals who wish to confront their abusers, knowing about the occurrence of DARVO may better prepare them for the possibly undesirable and hostile response they might receive during the confrontation.
  3. Such preparation would equip victims with the knowledge that their abusers may try to simultaneously make the confronters feel responsible for the abuse, deny that any abuse happened, and employ personal attacks.
  4. Readying oneself for the possibility of being subject to these confusing and harmful responses may lessen DARVO’s impact and allow victims, rather than feeling disoriented after a confrontation, to make sense of their abuser’s reaction.

Perpetrators in our lives, communities, and systems are expert practitioners of DARVO.

Can you think of any recent examples? I know I can think of a few.

We can begin to put an end to DARVO by calling it out when we see it. We can not only prevent it from working, but also use it as a valuable indication that the man in question is addicted to power, incapable of apology, and afflicted with such [ego] that he cannot bear to be out of control. Such a response to accusations or disclosure is itself a behavior for which men must be held accountable. If the accusations are true, a man who is not addicted to "masculine" power will apologize. If it isn’t true, he can just state the facts (Source: Freyd, When the True Victim is Blamed).

Let's start calling them out, shall we?

advocate for victim/survivors of violence || writing for They Matter & published in An Injustice!, COSY, The Collector, Equality Includes You, CrimeBeat, & more

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