A picture of Davros from Doctor Who.

The DARVO of TERFism


Many people noticed that in Helen Joyce’s new transphobic book, there was a claim that trans activism is funded by a sinister cabal of wealthy individuals. Many people also noticed that this has parallels with Nazi and neo-Nazi conspiracy theories about secret Jewish control over everything — particularly as two of the wealthy donors named are Jewish and the other, while not Jewish, is frequently accused of being Jewish by neo-Nazis.

There’s a lot to discuss about the conspiracy theory itself, such as its apparent origins with Jennifer Bilek, its factual inaccuracies (such as the claim that George Soros contributed to the Human Rights Campaign when he actually contributed to separate organisation Human Rights Watch), the fact that none of the beneficiaries of these donations are specifically trans organisations, but merely general liberal or LGBT+ organisations that deal with trans issues as part of their remit. But I’m not here to talk about that — I’ll leave that to others. I’m here to talk about Joyce’s response to people noticing it.

Joyce tweeted:-

I see a number of people are accusing me of antisemitism. This is profoundly untrue, hurtful and damaging. I will give people who have tweeted such accusations 48 hours to delete their tweets. If this isn’t done I will consider legal action.

Helen Joyce, Twitter, 17 July 2021

Given that “profoundly untrue, hurtful and damaging” is a quote that could grace the back cover of her book, it’s pretty hypocritical to use those terms to speak of criticism of the book. There is in fact a term for Joyce playing the victim because people noticed she had been hateful.

DARVO isn’t the pictured Doctor Who villain (that’s Davros), but is an acronym for Deny, Attack, and Reverse Victim and Offender, coined by the psychologist Jennifer Freyd in the 1990s. It’s mostly used in the context of abusive relationships, but it’s also used to describe the behaviour of hate groups.

Denial occurs when the offender is confronted with something they’ve done. Sometimes it’s an outright denial that they did it, or sometimes it’s a denial that the thing they did was really all that bad. This denial may or may not involve gaslighting.

Having denied the offence, the offender moves onto attack. “How dare you confront me with this?” Thus the roles of the victim and offender are reversed: “Actually you’re the bad person for attacking me when I didn’t even do anything wrong.”

It’s worth noting that DARVO isn’t always intentional. People don’t wake up and say, “I think I will do some DARVO today.” People simply get defensive when confronted with evidence that they may not be good people — I’ve been as guilty of that as anyone in my personal life, but I’ve realised I can either insist I am good or make the effort to be good, and good people choose the latter. TERFs are not good people, but it is only natural that they want to believe that they are. I think DARVO happens when that defensiveness is extreme and coupled with a lack of self-awareness or emotional maturity, or perhaps a false sense of entitlement. Whether or not that’s true, the lack of intention doesn’t make it any less abuse.

When used by hate groups, DARVO leads to attitudes like “calling someone racist is as bad as being racist (which I’m definitely not)”. Or, replace ‘racist’ with ‘transphobic’ and you get the TERF version.


Sometimes the denial can take the form of a question, like when transphobes ask regarding Daily-Stormer-approved TERF JK Rowling, “what did she say that was transphobic?” This is a rhetorical question, intended to cast doubt on the fact that any transphobia actually occurred. Knowing that we are not eager to revisit the comments that caused us such pain and distress in the first place just to find citations to satisfy the personal curiosity of people who hate us, transphobes use this to dismiss any hurt that we were caused. Of course, some people have done the tremendous work of cataloguing exactly what was transphobic and why, but unsurprisingly, TERFs ignore that too, because it is not a genuine question; it is a denial. This kind of denial is similar to sealioning.

Then they follow it up with “look at all the hate poor Rowling is getting just for saying sex is real“. The hurt and harm Rowling caused trans people in the first place has been completely denied, and the response to that hurt and harm is made to look unreasonable (especially if the hate group can find some extreme troll response to pretend is representative of trans people, Reichstag-Fire-Decree style). That is mass-scale DARVO.

Sometimes the denial is indirect — instead of denying that the offender did anything wrong, the tack is taken of painting the offender as a saint who couldn’t possibly do any wrong. They focus on innocence of character rather than innocence of deed. That’s why the transphobic media in particular (as well as TERFs in general) love to note that a transphobe who has done transphobic things is a ‘mother’ (or ‘grandmother’ or, for that matter, “beloved author”). Could a mother possibly do the terrible things the bad transes are accusing them of?

Of course they could. To suggest otherwise is an appeal to a deeply conservative view of family, which is a well-worn strategy to scapegoat ‘outsider’ groups, or some other mythologised part of the offender to distract from what they’ve actually done. It is also, of course, DARVO.

The statement “I don’t want to sleep with trans women” would not be transphobic if it were what the transphobes actually meant, but what they actually mean is: “I am attracted to women, and I am not attracted to trans women, therefore trans women are not women”, which is transphobic (not to mention that it correlates womanhood with fuckability, which is, y’know, intensely misogynistic).

When we object to that implication, TERFs come out with “trans women want to force lesbians to have sex with them!” This is, of course, a completely fabricated leap from “trans women want to be recognised as women”. They all but call us rapists because we had the temerity to notice them being transphobic. That is DARVO, and what’s more, a form of DARVO that is used to incite violence against us.

A thing I’ve had to say far more often than the zero times it should need to be said is: “The problem trans people have with transphobes is all of that transphobia.”

Despite its obviousness, I have to say it a lot because of the frequency with which TERFs pretend that objecting to their transphobia (which they of course deny) is actually misogyny or homophobia. That is DARVO.

I would be remiss not to point out that Jennifer Bilek, the likely source of the antisemitic conspiracy theory in Joyce’s book, also has a post where she accuses trans people of DARVO. I wouldn’t normally link to it, but it has to be seen to be believed. Even in a post ostensibly about DARVO, Bilek can’t help saying, “transphobia isn’t a real problem and actually it’s trans people who are the bad ones for bringing it up”. Just… Jesus Christ. You would think I’d be inured to TERF hypocrisy by now, but that’s something else. Needless to say, that is DARVO.

Bilek, to be fair, is correct that DARVO is a behaviour exhibited by Men’s Rights Activists. She’s just not correct that trans people are MRAs, or are engaging in DARVO. But it’s unsurprising to see TERFs using MRA tactics: As we well know, TERFs have more in common with misogynists than they do with feminists.

Twitter’s Complicity

Deliberately upsetting people and then blaming them for getting upset is bullying at is most naked and unvarnished. It is not bullying “in a way” or “from a certain perspective”. It is simply, unequivocally, bullying.

But what’s worse is that this is not a form of bullying that Twitter Support merely fails to address; it is a form of bullying that Twitter Support actively enables. The favourite TERF pastime of deliberately upsetting trans people and then using Twitter’s report system on the upset responses to silence their critics is a form of DARVO in which Twitter is utterly and inexcusably complicit.

But this is a position trans people have been pressed into. We wouldn’t have to make upset responses to TERFs’ inflammatory lies about us if Twitter would actually enforce their own rules regarding hate speech. If we could trust Twitter to deal with hate speech appropriately, we could simply report the offending tweets and wouldn’t have to argue with them.

But we can’t. We know, for whatever reason, that reporting transphobes isn’t nearly as effective as reporting trans people is. Whether that’s down to fuckawful system design, inherently prejudiced automation, or Twitter itself being infested with bigots, I won’t speculate. Point is, it doesn’t work. We’re left to fend for ourselves and then told that fending for ourselves isn’t fair play.

If Twitter Support continues to not only ignore but enable abuse on the platform, then it needs to be replaced, from the top down, with people who will actually do their fucking jobs.

The Abuse of Power

It’s worth noting that, aside from Twitter, Helen Joyce’s DARVO was enabled by the lack of anti-SLAPP laws in the UK. A SLAPP, or Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation, is a form of intimidation whereby someone seeks to suppress criticism by burdening the critic with legal costs to such an extent that they will abandon their criticism. Most of the US (31 of the 50 states) has laws to prevent this kind of thing, and the EU is considering similar legislation, but there’s nothing like that in the UK. Joyce joins the likes of other transphobes like Joanna Cherry, John Boyne, JK Rowling, and James Dreyfus in using this bullying tactic to silence people who had noticed them being transphobic, abusing the legal system in a particularly heavy-handed form of DARVO. As an aside, it’s fascinating that the people very concerned that calling a transphobe a transphobe is an “affront to free speech” (and not, y’know, an exercise of free speech) are not at all bothered about this form of legal intimidation to silence criticism, but that’s for another day.

Firstly there is no legal recourse for defamation of an entire group. There is no such thing in the UK as a class action lawsuit (and even in the US you can’t really file a class action lawsuit for defamation). There is technically something called a group litigation order, but it’s opt-in (class action lawsuits are opt-out) and in practice the larger the group is, the less chance it has of succeeding.

Secondly, defending oneself against a charge of defamation is not free. There are eye-watering legal costs involved. If I say something about JK Rowling, even if what I have said is factual and legally I am in the right, it doesn’t matter because if she decides to threaten me with a defamation lawsuit, I will run out of money long before she does and will not be able to afford to defend myself in court.

JK Rowling has accused me of making rape and death threats, as she has every trans person. She has overtly said that listening to trans people means supporting rape and death threats. I have never made a single such threat, but because she didn’t single me out by name, there would be no legal recourse even if I could afford it.

Meanwhile, because activists for trans rights are not Nazi psychopaths, we are interested in things that people have actually said and done, as opposed to spreading hateful rumours about an entire group.

But what this illustrates about DARVO is that it’s at its most effective when it plays on an existing power imbalance. DARVO from random nobodies is a nuisance, but it’s not nearly as harmful as DARVO from people with wealth and/or power.

The point of Helen Joyce’s antisemitic conspiracy theory was not just for its own sake. The stated purpose of it was to “prove” that there is no grassroots trans activism.

Except… that doesn’t follow. Even if the conspiracy theory were true (which it’s not), that doesn’t in any way preclude regular trans people speaking on their own behalf without having to be influenced by a shadowy cabal. Of course trans people can speak to their own interests – that’s guaranteed by trans people being, y’know, people.

What Joyce was actually doing was looking for an excuse to ignore trans people speaking on their own behalf saying, “you’re harming us”. It was a denial of trans people’s very personhood to assert authority to talk over us. It was a pre-emptive attempt to silence the very people the book was intended to hurt. The denial, the first element of DARVO, was baked into the very text itself.

It is very easy for trans people — myself included! — to get bogged down in defending ourselves against attacks