What is DARVO?

Jennifer J. Freyd, PhD

Fellow 2018-19, Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences, Stanford Univerity

and Professor of Psychology, University of Oregon

Short Definition | Press  | Disclaimers |  History | Denial TypesFAQs

Short Definition of DARVO

DARVO refers to a reaction perpetrators of wrong doing, particularly sexual offenders, may display in response to being held accountable for their behavior. DARVO stands for "Deny, Attack, and Reverse Victim and Offender." The perpetrator or offender may Deny the behavior, Attack the individual doing the confronting, and Reverse the roles of Victim and Offender such that the perpetrator assumes the victim role and turns the true victim -- or the whistle blower -- into an alleged offender. This occurs, for instance, 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 a false accusation.

In a 2017 peer-reviewed open-access research study, Perpetrator Responses to Victim Confrontation: DARVO and Victim Self-Blame, Harsey, Zurbriggen, & Freyd reported that: "(1) DARVO was commonly used by individuals who were confronted; (2) women were more likely to be exposed to DARVO than men during confrontations; (3) the three components of DARVO were positively correlated, supporting the theoretical construction of DARVO; and (4) 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."

In our newest research, still under review, Sarah Harsey and I completed two experiments. In one experiment we presented participants with accounts of abuse followed by a DARVO response versus a control response. We found exposure to the DARVO response was associated with less belief of the victim and more blame of the victim. In the second experiment Sarah Harsey and I examined whether learning about DARVO could mitigate its effects on individuals' perceptions of perpetrators and victims. DARVO-educated participants (compared with control) rated the perpetrator as less believable. While much more research is needed, these results suggest that DARVO is an effective strategy to discredit victims but that the power of the strategy can be mitigated by education.

Institutional DARVO occurs when the DARVO is committed by an institution (or with institutional complicity) as when police charge rape victims with lying. Institutional DARVO is a pernicious form of institutional betrayal.


DARVO in the News

DARVO Discussed:

DARVO Illustrated:

Public events have been remarkably illustrative of the pattern we see in DARVO. From some of my tweets about this, referencing a New York Times article:

And strikingly: "Trump on sex assault allegations: 'I am a victim'" (CNN reports)

For more see: Fitzgerald, L.F. & Freyd, J.J. (2017) Trump’s DARVO defense of harassment accusations. The Boston Globe, 20 December 2017.


History of Terminology & Writings about DARVO

Jennifer Freyd introduced the term "DARVO" near the end of a 1997 publication about her primary research focus, "betrayal trauma theory." (For more on betrayal trauma theory, see http://pages.uoregon.edu/dynamic/jjf/defineBT.html.)

The reference for the 1997 article introducing the term is:

Freyd, J.J. (1997) Violations of power, adaptive blindness, and betrayal trauma theory. Feminism & Psychology, 7, 22-32.

In that paper Freyd explained that DARVO responses may be effective for perpetrators. "...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..... [T]he offender rapidly creates the impression that the abuser is the wronged one, while the victim or concerned observer is the offender. Figure and ground are completely reversed... The offender is on the offense and the person attempting to hold the offender accountable is put on the defense." (Freyd, 1997, p 29-30)

These ideas were further developed in an article by Veldhuis and Freyd (1999):

Veldhuis, C. B., & Freyd, J. J. (1999). Groomed for silence, groomed for betrayal. In M. Rivera (Ed.), Fragment by Fragment: Feminist Perspectives on Memory and Child Sexual Abuse (pp. 253-282). Charlottetown, PEI Canada: Gynergy Books.

In the 1999 article Veldhuis and Freyd explore the separate components of DARVO, and they also note a connection between DARVO and "betrayal blindness," a concept from betrayal trauma theory (Freyd, 1996).

"By denying, attacking and reversing perpetrators into victims, reality gets even more confusing and unspeakable for the real victim. .... These perpetrator reactions increase the need for betrayal blindness. If the victim does speak out and gets this level of attack, she quickly gets the idea that silence is safer." (Veldhuis & Freyd, 1999. p 274).

Since then the concept of DARVO has appeared in various writings, the most significant of which is our new book Blind to Betrayal (Freyd & Birrell, 2013).

blind to betrayal Freyd, J.J.& Birrell, P.J. (2013).  Blind to Betrayal.  John Wiley & Sons. 

In Blind to Betrayal we urge institutions to cherish the whistle blower (see p. 173) and we offer suggestions for specific steps institutions can take to prevent and repair institutional betrayal. In Blind to Betrayal we also talk about institutional denial which plays such a crucial role in institutional betrayal. DARVO is a particularly pernicious form of denial (see p 119 of Blind to Betrayal).

The first empirical research specifically testing the concept of DARVO was recently published (Harsey, Zurbriggen, & Freyd, 2017). See above for more details.