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DARVO: A Sinister Silencing Tactic

September 13, 2023

By Brylie Turk
4 min read
DARVO is a tactic used by perpetrators, individuals, and institutions alike to silence and shame victims. The phrase, coined by Jennifer Freyd, an American researcher, author, and educator, is an acronym for “Deny, Attack, Reverse Victim-Offender Roles.” The good news? The greater the public awareness of DARVO, the less effective it becomes.

Although a plethora of research exists about reasons for victim nondisclosure and delayed disclosure, there has been little focus on how perpetrators actively discourage victims from coming forward. DARVO is the term coined by Jennifer Freyd used to explain how perpetrators of sexual violence often respond to victim’s allegations of sexual misconduct. Perpetrators may “use denial, engage in personal attacks on victim credibility, and assume a victimized role (Deny, Attack, Reverse Victim and Offender; DARVO) to deflect blame” (Harsey & Freyd 2017). This three-part tactic is used to escape culpability through minimizing the abuse and playing the victim to silence the victim, causing them confusion, and encouraging nondisclosure.

DARVO has been empirically studied and revealed to be a popular strategy for perpetrators of interpersonal violence. In a study conducted with over one-hundred convicted rapists, 59% denied ever committing the offense. Of those, 31% alleged that their victims had ‘lured’ or ‘seduced’ them, “a serious distortion that portrays the rapist as an unsuspecting, passive victim of women’s ploys and transforms the victims into the primary aggressors of the assault” (Harsey & Freyd 2017), reversing victim and offender roles by engaging in victim blaming. Furthermore, 69% of the denying rapists claimed that their victims enjoyed the sexual assault, minimizing the violence they had perpetrated and 84% minimized their responsibility by claiming they were intoxicated. Additionally, 78% of deniers attacked the credibility of their victims by blaming their reputations and labeling them as ‘whores’ or ‘prostitutes’ (Harsey & Freyd 2017). Further research has shown that men charged with sexual violence who had high levels of minimization are significantly more likely to engage in victim blaming and excuse their behavior as being motivated by self-defense, “evidence for the co-occurrence of minimization, victim blaming, and even victim-playing supports the idea that the elements of DARVO frequently are used together as a perpetrator tactic” (Harsey & Freyd 2017).

Obviously, the use of DARVO has a significant negative impact on survivors of sexual assault. Harsey and Freyd’s study on confrontations between victims and perpetrators concluded that the more DARVO an individual experienced during their confrontation with their perpetrator, the more likely the victim was to experience self-blame for the wrongdoing, which is “associated with more psychological distress, maladaptive coping, and posttraumatic stress disorder symptoms” (Harsey & Freyd 2017). Furthermore, self-blame is often the catalyst for delayed disclosure and silence surrounding sexual violence, which significantly contributes to its continuation.

Harsey and Freyd conducted another study in 2020 to understand DARVO’s impact on the perceived credibility, responsibility, and abusiveness of perpetrators and victims. The ability to convince bystanders that no abuse occurred or that a victim is untrustworthy puts abusers at an advantage both socially and legally. This tactic can create doubt of the victim’s narrative and help the perpetrator avoid blame. Perpetrators use many strategies to explain away their behavior and manipulate bystanders’ understanding of their abuse. Two common tactics are used to deflect blame for abusive behavior; “either admit to committing the wrongdoing but emphasize previous good behavior (play the hero) or highlight some past suffering (play the victim)” (Harsey & Freyd 2020). These techniques both utilize DARVO by reversing victim and offender roles and minimizing the abuse.

In the study, the researchers discovered, “Participants who were exposed to DARVO perceived the victim to be less believable, more responsible for the violence, and more abusive; DARVO also led participants to judge the perpetrator as less abusive and less responsible” (Harsey & Freyd 2020). The perceptions of victims and perpetrators can be manipulated, “characteristics such as victim and perpetrator gender, age, and race impact observers’ perceptions of victims and perpetrators…victims’ consumption of intoxicants, lack of resistance during an assault, and flat emotional expression reduce victim credibility” (Harsey & Freyd 2020). However, the greatest factor manipulating such perceptions is a perpetrator’s response to abuse; when DARVO is used, perpetrators are perceived as less accountable, while victims are perceived as more blameworthy and untrustworthy. However, while still advantageous to perpetrators, the use of DARVO can come at some cost to abusers, negatively impacting both perpetrator and victim believability. Regardless, perpetrators who engage in DARVO are often able to obtain favorable outcomes for themselves (Harsey & Freyd 2020).

Additionally, DARVO provides perpetrators with an advantage in the legal system. Without physical evidence, a victim’s credibility becomes the most important factor in legal proceedings of sexual assault cases. If an abuser can undermine a victim’s trustworthiness, their case is unlikely to move forward. Attacking a victim’s moral character or mental health drastically reduces the perceived legitimacy of their claims, making them three and ten times more likely to be declared unfounded, respectively (Harsey & Freyd 2020). These factors contribute to nondisclosure, discouraging victims from reporting the sexual violence committed against them.

Fortunately, if an observer has some knowledge of DARVO, Harsey and Freyd’s research reveals that its effects can be mitigated. Learning about this perpetrator tactic reduces DARVO’s effects and produces more pro-victim assessments (Harsey & Freyd 2020). DARVO-educated individuals are also more likely to believe the perpetrator should be punished and are less likely to believe the victim should be punished. In summary, a rudimentary DARVO education can produce more favorable outcomes for victims of sexual violence.

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