The flurry of #MeToo tales that followed the sexual assault accusations against Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein have propelled America into what appears to be a social revolution in the workplace.
Accusations of verbal abuse, inappropriate groping and molestation have left many high-profile men apologetic and shame-faced, albeit not always in a way some women would like. And some cases have included allegations of rape, which none of the accused men has yet to confess to.
Despite this wrenching period of conflict between the sexes, when a Google News search on “sexual harassment” yields over 2 million-and-counting results, the national conversation has unfolded with a fair degree of civility and a general acknowledgment that the status quo is unacceptable.
In other words, a backlash is coming.
Rumblings of discontent have already cropped up on Twitter. For example, here’s Swedish author and TV personality Alexander Bard:
Let’s be clear: As of yet, there are no public examples of “careers destroyed over merely saying a flattering comment.”
Michele Dauber, a law professor at Stanford University, calls this sort of straw-woman accusation “vile.”
“He’s using some pretty standard strategies by calling women neurotic or that this is a gossip incident,” says Dauber. “This is just a way of undermining the credibility of women coming forward.”
Dauber says a random tweet may not do much harm, but it’s a different story when it comes from someone who wields power and influence. Many commentators, as well as political opponents, have interpreted a recent tweet by President Trump about Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand as a clear case of “slut-shaming.”
“It’s much more worrying when you see the president of the United States using a similar strategy,” Dauber says. (The administration denies Trump was making a sexual reference.)
Typical Ploys to Silence Victims
Psychologists like Jennifer Freyd, a professor at the University of Oregon, have studied the strategies used to discredit victims of sexual harassment. Usually the first tactic is simple denial, which is followed by attacks, which can take the form of gaslighting.
“You’re a liar. You’re crazy. You’re not a reliable person,” Freyd says. “You have some ulterior motive.”
The last step taken by perpetrators or those defending them is trying to make victims feel guilty: “ ‘You are hurting my reputation. You’re destroying me.’ ”
Dauber says she’s watched predators twist the story time and again.
“I mean this is something women have been experiencing for decades,” she says. “And it’s part of the reason that so few victims come forward.”
Anita Hill’s Story
Freyd says some of the most obvious public examples of these tactics were evident in the U.S. Senate confirmation hearings for Clarence Thomas as Supreme Court justice, in 1991. Thomas’ former colleague, Anita Hill, accused him of making unwelcome sexual comments. Republican senators, as well as witnesses in support of Thomas, raised the possibility that Hill was prone to fantasizing about her relationships with men. Here’s a clip of someone who knew Hill and had been a classmate of Thomas, stating he believes she expressed an unrequited romantic interest in him:
Thomas denied any wrongdoing and was confirmed by the Senate 52-48.
Freyd believes Hill was telling the truth. “It is hard to imagine someone being more credible in that situation. And yet the [attack] seemed effective.”
After watching Hill’s ordeal, Freyd created the acronym DARVO, for “Deny, Attack, Reverse Victim to Offender,” to help victims remember and anticipate the tactics of predators.
“My hope is that if we can identify the behavior pattern and call it out, [then] we can make it less disorienting and confusing — we can defang it some,” she said in an email.
Yet people should also be careful not to assume someone accused of sexual misconduct is guilty just because he is using DARVO tactics, she cautions.
“A truly innocent person may deny an accusation, attack the person making the accusation, or claim the victim role,” she writes on her website. “Future research may be able to determine the probability of a DARVO response as a function of guilt or innocence.”
Jon Brooks contributed to this post.