WTF is DARVO?
This weekend I was mostly reading a conversation online when a term that I had never heard before appeared: DARVO. The term is actually an acronym which stands for Deny, Attack and Reverse Victim and Offender. It was coined by Jennifer J. Freyd in her essay, Violations of Power, Adaptive Blindness and Betrayal Trauma Theory, which is specifically dealing with sexual abuse. The term came about as she was attempting to grapple with the actions of sexual predators when confronted with accusations of their abuse. As she explains it:
". . . I have recently begun to think about a way to conceptualize the events that occur when a victim or a concerned observer openly confronts and abuser about his or her behavior after a long period of silence in which the abuser could abuse without facing consequences. My proposal, currently very speculative, is that a frequent reaction of an abuser to being held accountable is the ‘DARVO’ response. ‘DARVO’ stands for ‘Deny, Attack and Reverse Victim and Offender.’ It is important to distinguish types of denial, for an innocent person will probably deny a false accusation. Thus denial is not evidence of guilt. However, I propose that a certain kind of indignant self-righteous, and overly stated, denial may in fact relate to guilt. I hypothesize that if an accusation is true, and the accused person is abusive, the denial is more indignant, self-righteous and manipulative, as compared with denial in other cases. Similarly, I have observed that actual abusers threaten, bully and make a nightmare for anyone who holds them accountable or asks them to change their abusive behavior. This attack, intended to chill and terrify, typically includes threats of law suits, overt and covert attacks on the whistle-blower’s credibility, and so on. The attack will often take the form of focusing on ridiculing the person who attempts to hold the offender accountable. The attack will also likely focus on ad hominem or ad feminam instead of intellectual/evidential issues. Finally, I propose that the offender rapidly creates the impression that he abuser is the wronged one, while the victim or concerned observer is the offender. Figure and ground are completely reversed. The more the offender is held accountable, the more wronged the offender claims to be. The offender accuses those who hold him accountable of perpetrating acts of defamation, false accusations, smearing, ect. The offender is on the offense and the person attempting to hold the offender accountable is put on the defense. ‘Deny, Attack and Reverse Victim and Offender’ work best together . . ." (29 – 30).
Freyd notes in the above quotation that innocent people will deny a false accusation but that someone who is acting along the lines of a DARVO defense will do so in 'a certain kind of indignant self-righteous, and overly stated, denial.' It won't simply be a case of someone denying an accusation but it will be this substantively different form of avoiding accountability for the act. She details a good example of this sort of behavior shortly after when she wrote:
". . . I have observed that one particularly useful strategy for avoiding accountability that appears in the cases of accusations of sexual abuse and assault uses logic like this: ‘I am innocent until proven guilty. You cannot prove I am guilty. Therefore I am technically innocent. Therefore I am actually innocent.’ . . . The offender takes advantage of the confusion we have in our culture over the relationship between public provability and reality . . . in redefining reality . . .” (30)
When confined to its original meaning the DARVO response makes a lot of sense; however, it has moved beyond its original meaning and has begun to be used to describe the actions of anyone that you don't like who denies an accusation. For example, let's say that you're accused of being a bigot in public through the use of online social media. You're innocent of the accusation but when you demand proof your accusers begin to claim that you're committing a DARVO defense. You haven't engaged in ad hominem or ad feminam attack but rather have focused on asking for evidential proof - something that is completely reasonable under the circumstances and which is the opposite of what a DARVO defense would do - and yet your very asking is being taken as an attempt to use the DARVO defense. When DARVO is manipulated in this fashion it becomes an effective tool against an innocent individual by invalidating everything they attempt to do and say in their defense. It effectively silences them.
Freyd, Jennifer J. “Violations of Power, Adaptive Blindness and Betrayal Trauma Theory.” Feminism and Psychology. Volume 7. 1997. Print pg. 29 - 30