You’ve been DARVOed and you don’t even know it
Cynthia Vialle-Giancotti, Graduate Dissertation Fellow
Have you ever spoken up for yourself when someone was treating you unfairly (or worse) to hear your offender Deny your claim, Attack your credibility instead and Reverse the Victim and Offender roles? Well, it turns out you have been DARVOed, and you are not alone.
This psychological manipulation tactic is more common than we suspect, and it preys on our lack of awareness, explains Jennifer Joy Freyd, founder and president of the Center for Institutional Courage and professor emerit of psychology at the University of Oregon. Freyd initially named and studied this behavior in 1997. She recently presented on DARVO as part of the Clayman Institute Faculty Research Fellows program.
DARVO is a tactic typically observed in instances of sexual misconduct (from mild to violent), where the resolution of “he said/she said” scenarios still often depends solely on the victim’s credibility.
Her research shows that the public’s lack of awareness of this pernicious stratagem not only plays right into an offender’s scheme, but also has consequences for the victim and for society at large.
DARVO is a tactic typically observed in instances of sexual misconduct (from mild to violent), where the resolution of “he said/she said” scenarios still often depends solely on the victim’s credibility. Notorious and infamous examples are Bill Clinton’s reaction to Lewinsky’s accusations (“I did not have sexual relations with that woman, Miss Lewinsky. These allegations are false”); Donald Trump’s vituperations against claims of sexual harassment and misconduct (“These claims are all fabricated, they’re pure fiction and they’re outright lies”) and Harvey Weinstein’s general practice of smearing the reputation of women who refused his sexual advances.
In 2020, Sarah Harsey, PhD in psychology, and Freyd studied the public’s reaction to DARVO strategies by using an experimental vignette depicting a situation of interpersonal violence. They found that whenever DARVO was part of the vignette, their subjects were more likely to doubt the victim’s credibility. Even worse: Harsey, UC Santa Cruz Psychology Professor Eileen Zurbriggen and Freyd found in a 2017 study that when victims are DARVOed, it is more likely they’ll blame themselves, which in turn, as Freyd points out, “leads to self-silencing.”
Freyd is currently taking a step back to observe the larger picture and is questioning DARVO’s relation to the general mistrust of women’s narratives. Does DARVO play an active role in fostering society’s mistrust of women’s narratives or does it simply exploit this iniquitous state of affairs? The answer is worth exploring and even epoch-making, for example in the context of the #MeToo movement. By uncovering DARVO’s expedients, Freyd has also shown a way out: education about DARVO reduces its power to destroy the victim’s credibility. Thus, in either case, i.e., DARVO generates mistrust or thrives in it, by educating the public about DARVO, society in general will benefit.