Thursday, May 28, 2015

How Perpetrators Make Themselves the Vicitms: "Deny, Attack, and Reverse Victim and Offender" (DARVO)

It's a well-known feature of perpetrators that they generally deny what they have done, attack the accusers (often attempting to destroy their character), and then reverse the situation so that they claim to be the victims.

If you have any doubt about this, look closely at EVERY situation in which Marc Gafni has been accused of sexually inappropriate relationships with his students (often two or more at a time), which includes forcing them to lie about the relationships and controlling their contact with others outside his circle of trust.

Psychologist Jennifer J. Freyd, at the University of Oregon, has detailed this behavior in a model she calls DARVO = Deny, Attack, and Reverse Victim and Offender. What follows comes from her web page on this topic. Freyd is one of the world's experts on betrayal trauma.

Her books include:
Freyd, J.J. (2014). What is DARVO? Retrieved 5.28.2015 from

What is DARVO?

Jennifer J. Freyd, University of Oregon

Short Definition

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 or even blames the accuser of being the perpetrator of a false accusation. 
  • DARVO as a concept is based on observation and analysis. The author has not completed systematic empirical research testing the coherence or frequency of DARVO. However, research is currently in progress in the author's laboratory at the University of Oregon.
  • Other observers have likely noted the same phenomena and related phenomena using different terms; the author has been informed that some people have found the term DARVO a helpful mnemonic and organizing concept.
  • Also the presence of DARVO is not necessarily evidence in support of the accusation of guilt; a truly innocent person may deny an accusation, attack the person making the accusation, or claim the victim role. Future research may be able to determine the probability of a DARVO response as a function of guilt or innocence. The author hypothesized that some sorts of denials and reactions such as DARVO are more likely when the perpetrator is guilty than innocent (Freyd, 1997); however this hypothesis has not yet been tested. Furthermore, even if research indicates that a DARVO reaction is more likely when there is actual guilt, it would be an error to use a DARVO reaction as proof of guilt.
  • For now the concept of DARVO is offered as potentially memorable and useful term for anticipating the behavior of perpetrators when held accountable, and for making sense of responses that may otherwise be confusing (particularly when victim and offender get reversed). Research is needed.
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

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 credicility, 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: Why We Fool Ourselves We Aren't Being Fooled

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 instutional betrayal. DARVO is a particularly pernicious form of denial (see p 119 of Blind to Betrayal).
Two Common Types of Denial

Two common forms of perpetrator (or bystander) denial are:

  1. It didn't happen (an instance) or It rarely happens (a type of event)
  2. It wasn't harmful
Put together they can take the form: "It didn't happen, but if it did, it wasn't that bad" or "It rarely happens, but when it does it isn't harmful." The two claims both serve to deny, but they depend upon different sorts of evidence. They may both be true, but they are sometimes somewhat suspicious when claimed simultaneously (or by the same person at different times), as for instance can occur in response to allegations of rape or child sexual abuse.
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