Given the climate of our society and of our campus, there are cultural discussions about abuse allegations that must happen within the University of Michigan community. With that said, there are other reasons we need to hold these ongoing discussions as a collective: the master of manipulation and denial of former President Donald Trump in the present, and the manipulations of former President Bill Clinton in the distant (and not so distant) past. Given an abundant lack of cultural understanding for why this keeps happening, I am writing not hoping to simply enlighten you, but to provide fodder for ongoing discussion.
This might seem like an invocation of misogyny and why it’s wrong, but we’re not here for that. I’m writing to you, the uninitiated reader who has likely never heard of DARVO, because we simply must talk about it. We need to analyze the discourse surrounding not only accusations but some of the most common defenses and attacks deployed against them.
For the uninitiated, when asked if they’ve heard of Deny, Attack and Reverse Victim and Offender (DARVO), it’s possible that nothing immediately comes to mind. DARVO might sound like a quirky baby name. It may remind you of an episode of your favorite cartoon. To me, it sounded like a brand name for a vacuum cleaner that is also a talking robot (though in a legal sense, that is effectively what DARVO is).
While it’s true that DARVO doesn’t apply solely to one type of abuse, it’s also likely that you might automatically associate it with sexual misconduct alone. After all, when anyone is accused of sexual misconduct, the narratives that emerge turn the entire situation against the accuser from the very beginning.
This is no accident and has its roots in medieval society. Women were considered seducers and manipulators of men by their very nature, so accusing a man of somehow falling for his own inappropriate desire was a moot point under the law when women were framed as the instigators by virtue of their sex. Men were only punished under medieval law if they were found guilty of spoiling the property of another man — since women were, after all, the property of men.
I digress. Here’s DARVO:
Deny (D). The perpetrator denies that any of it happened, or if there is enough undeniable evidence that something happened, they deny the very nature of the offense. They manipulate the overlap between what is appropriate and what is inappropriate. They use their skills with language and their charisma to flay the person they’ve already victimized because they do not have empathy for the victim; it is always about themselves.
Attack (A). They repeatedly flay the alleged victim, or anyone who may be willing to stand up for the alleged victim. They get other people to criticize the victim and rip them apart on paper; they hire expensive lawyers to look up any filthy pasts. They likely wouldn’t need to do this if they had done nothing wrong, but the institutions supporting them might be more than willing to look the other way. They don’t feel bad about it — neither affiliated institutions or the perpetrator — because they are afraid of the consequences of their own actions. They cannot even admit the gravity of the allegations to themselves: If they are willing to admit this to themselves, it’s very likely because they believe it was justifiable or the victim wanted it.
It may come as no surprise then that today’s society, filled with vestiges of such a medieval past, is filled with psychological abusers of which sexual abusers are but one variant. They are often known to be charismatic, charming and magnetic. They often thrive because they frequently think very highly of themselves. In their mind, it is possible that abusers truly believe their target is somehow lucky to have them force their will upon them. So, from the beginning, the accuser’s portrayal of what they believed to be a situation no one could possibly resist is a jab at their ego.
But what comes next is much more sinister, and we see the attendant rhetoric all the time in the media: He was a family man, he rooted for good causes, he employed women and he’s betrothed to someone brilliant — why would someone accuse a person who looks so good on the surface of having done something so awful?
Perhaps, then, we continue to miss the point. These components of DARVO are smokescreens. Surely, there are false accusations, but to get to the bottom of such accusations you would first have to actually show there was an underlying motive for the false allegation. Could money be the motivation for false allegations? Well, let’s talk about why money is even involved in the first place — often, it is used to cover up true allegations.
Money is involved because perpetrators accused of sexual misconduct — and the people who enable them — might not want the truth to come to light. Nondisclosure agreements signed years after an incident usually come into play because the statute of limitations for criminal prosecution is lost in the past, and the forces involved do not want their reputations besmirched.
NDAs are also commonly deployed because they allow any affiliated institution to elude the law or anyone else who might seek to hold them accountable. Without NDAs, the entirety of the circumstances surrounding the allegations might be exposed. There are often legal threats underlying NDAs, such as threats to expose someone’s indecent past — no matter if the past in question has nothing to do with the allegations whatsoever.
Let’s talk about why a quick response is necessary for justice to transpire. People have to respond properly according to a web of legal procedures and institutional processes, which only happens if every necessary factor is put in place once other people are made aware of the situation. If the ball is dropped at any point, the window of opportunity to collect evidence is gone — just like that. This happens all the time. It happens to the point that sometimes, it is difficult to believe the non-response wasn’t on purpose, but in our distorted cultural lens, the onus is somehow always placed on the victim.
This is classic victim-blaming that stretches on across decades, from the days of free love and liberation when the idea of female hitchhikers vanished into thin air to the neoliberal society we have today. Institutions that claim to take sexual offenses seriously can exploit this option because of plausible deniability.
The entanglement of money and reputations — of both the perpetrator, their affiliates and others along the way (like “grooming allies”) — leads into the last and most desperate step from the perpetrator:
Reverse Victim and Offender (RVO). This is the most desperate and, sadly, the most effective stage embedded in the DARVO strategy. It is invoked to make it seem as if the accused are infallible and would never do anything wrong, and to transform the perpetrator into the victim through the disparagement of the person making the allegations. It works, and as a result, every last effort by investigating bodies and expensive lawyers — instead of thoroughly investigating the accused — is placed in service of manufacturing reasons for why a victim would hypothetically fabricate a situation where they were victimized in the first place.
It seems as if most every known or alleged serial sexual predator, from Woody Allen to Harvey Weinstein to Jeffrey Epstein, has hammered out DARVO to excellent effect. Now that you know what this is, perhaps it is almost appallingly obvious that it works. This is what happens when the accused is afraid of appropriate scrutiny; the only manipulation device left for them to use is to play victim.
It’s the sexual predator equivalent of playing dead.
When there is nothing left to distract from any evidence of who they really are, the predator plays the victim. They know the only option left is to pay someone to manufacture intent, or when they run out of money, to use their diligent evasion to pretend they are the victim until the very end. The only defense mechanism left is to manufacture intent as if their behavior was no choice.
Let’s talk about DARVO. If we see the melee of media surrounding allegations of sexual misconduct through its lens, maybe we’ll stop being misled by the smokescreens and traps of predators.
Sierra Élise Hansen can be reached at email@example.com.
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