In this series, I dig a little deeper into the meaning of psychology-related terms. This week’s term is the DARVO response to sexual assault allegations.
DARVO is an acronym to describe a pattern of responses that sexual offenders may display when faced with accountability for their actions. Before getting into what DARVO stands for, I’ll touch on the news item that got me thinking about this.
The news article begins with the picture of a smiling man in a suit and tie, with a stethoscope around his neck. He’s a former medical student, oozing with privilege, who was convicted of sexual assault last year after raping an unconscious woman at a party. Obviously, being unconscious, she was incapable of giving consent.
This is in the news now as sentencing hearings are underway. His lawyer argues that he “availed himself of an opportunity”, and he was unable to resist the magnetic pull of his penis because of the level of stress arising from “leading an exemplary life.” The lawyer added that he was “tempted in that moment”, and made “a stupid decision to cave to temptation” while under the influence of alcohol. Furthermore, he said that “there is a significant and meaningful negative impact this is going to have on his life going forward.”
The DARVO acronym was first proposed by psychology researcher Dr. Jennifer Freyd. It stands for:
- D: deny the behaviour happened or that it was harmful in any way, or minimize responsibility by blaming the use of substances like alcohol
- Attack: attack whoever is confronting them regarding the behaviour and their credibility
- Reverse Victim and Offender: take on the victim role, and blame the target of the behaviour
DARVO responses are common among sexual assault perpetrators. People who hear a DARVO response are more likely to blame the victim and find them less believable. DARVO responses also increase victims’ tendency to self-blame.
In this news story, the nature of the offense was minimized, and alcohol intoxication was used as an excuse. It’s difficult to attack a woman who was unconscious, but reversing victim and offender is where this case really shines. Oh, poor med student won’t go on to lead the illustrious life that his privileged upbringing had set him up for. Pity the poor victim.
In the Senate confirmation hearings for Justice Brett Kavanaugh’s appointment to the Supreme Court, he reacted using DARVO. Regardless of whether he did or did not perpetrate a sexual assault, he hit back hard with each element of DARVO.
In an interview, actress Ashley Judd referred to DARVO to describe film producer Harvey Weinstein’s reaction to her allegations of sexual harassment.
Why this happens
An article in Psychology Today suggests several reasons for the pervasive denial around sexual assault. One reason is the myth that a perpetrator somehow looks evil, and therefore someone who looks like they belong to a higher social class may be less acceptable as a perpetrator. People also want to believe that the world is safe. Acknowledging that a “normal” person could commit a sexual offense threatens that safe world belief, and we have a natural tendency to selectively look for information that confirms our beliefs. Additionally, victim-blaming is rampant in sexual assault cases and this feeds into denial around the actions of the perpetrator.
A Canadian provincial government publication identifies an opportunistic type of adult sexual offender. These offenders have no major lifestyle problems, tend to be non-deviant in their sexual preferences, tend to have conflicts with authority or women in the month leading up to the assault, and tend to be motivated by immediate sexual gratification (unlike other types of sexual offenders who are motivated more by power and control). This type of offender, like the med student mentioned, may not fit with the public’s conception of a typical sex offender, which may further fuel denial.
While it’s perhaps unsurprising that perpetrators use a DARVO response, it really disturbs me that attorneys use it. The individual mentioned in the news story above has already been convicted; these arguments were made at sentencing. I think it’s incumbent on the judiciary to send a strong message that arguments that make the convicted perpetrator out to be the victim are not acceptable in our justice system. It would be nice to see DARVO called out for what it is, and rape culture really needs to die.
- Freyd, J. (n.d.). What is DARVO? University of Oregon.
- Harsey, S. J., Zurbriggen, E. L., & Freyd, J. J. (2017). Perpetrator responses to victim confrontation: DARVO and victim self-blame. Journal of Aggression, Maltreatment & Trauma, 26(6), 644-663.
- Institut National de Santé Publique de Québec: Media Kit on Sexual Assault
- Whiting, J. (2019). How Denial and Victim Blaming Keep Sexual Assault Hidden. Psychology Today.
The Psychology Corner has an overview of terms covered in the What Is… series, along with a collection of scientifically validated psychological tests.
Ashley L. Peterson
BScPharm BSN MPN
Ashley is a former mental health nurse and pharmacist and the author of four books.