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In the second year of #MeToo, the perpetrator playbook was upended

If the first year of #MeToo was about believing women, the second year might just have been about believing men.

Matt Lauer, former co-host "Today" on NBC. Lauer denied a new charge of rape in an angry and defiant letter released by his lawyer last week and said that his public silence since his firing had been a mistake.
Matt Lauer, former co-host "Today" on NBC. Lauer denied a new charge of rape in an angry and defiant letter released by his lawyer last week and said that his public silence since his firing had been a mistake.Read moreRichard Drew / AP File

For the first year or so after the #MeToo movement awakened the public consciousness to sexual harassment and assault, those accused of being perpetrators relied largely on the same playbook: They denied they had committed a crime, but apologized, and then they slipped away into relative obscurity.

The second year of #MeToo was, in some ways, about the comebacks of the accused: the public freak-outs, the lawsuits over due process, the forceful denials, and the playing-the-victim tactics.

Tuesday marks two years since actress Alyssa Milano, in responding to allegations of sexual harassment and assault against Harvey Weinstein, started a conversation by tweeting: “If you’ve been sexually harassed or assaulted write ‘me too’ as a reply to this tweet.” (One-time Philadelphia activist Tarana Burke created the #MeToo movement in 2006.)

Thousands of people have come forward with their stories since then. The response to many was, “Believe women.”

Along with that: Hundreds of alleged perpetrators have been called out, both publicly and privately, resulting in firings, resignations, criminal charges, and for a select few, jail time.

Today, though, it seems that more of the accused — in addition to plotting and executing their public comebacks — are coming out to say, “Believe men.”

This shift was demonstrated last week by Matt Lauer, the former host of NBC’s Today show, who released a lengthy open letter saying his “silence has been a mistake.” In a book by journalist Ronan Farrow that was to be published Tuesday, former NBC employee Brooke Nevils reportedly accuses Lauer of raping her in 2014 at the Sochi Olympics.

» READ MORE: In the wake of #MeToo, how can we reconcile women’s reality with men’s perspective? | Opinion

Lauer was fired in November 2017 after NBC officials received multiple complaints of sexual misconduct. At the time, he issued an apology, saying: “Some of what is being said about me is untrue or mischaracterized, but there is enough truth in these stories to make me feel embarrassed and ashamed.”

This time around, after Variety published excerpts of Farrow’s book, Lauer came out swinging, admitting only to having extramarital affairs, and saying Nevils’ story “is filled with false details intended only to create the impression that this was an abusive encounter.” He went on to say that the women with whom he had extramarital relationships had “abandoned shared responsibility.”

“They have done enormous damage in the process,” he wrote. “And I will no longer provide them the shelter of my silence.”

This reaction actually has a name: DARVO, for deny, attack, reverse victim and offender. The term was coined two decades ago by Jennifer Freyd, a professor of psychology at the University of Oregon and a visiting scholar at Stanford who studied Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas’ response to Anita Hill’s allegations of sexual harassment.

DARVO is an effective tactic, her research suggests, in that people who “get DARVO’d” may be more likely to blame themselves for what happened. Prior research shows self-blame is associated with silencing.

Freyd said high-profile people have recently used DARVO with some success, which could make others more likely to try it. She pointed to President Trump, who was elected after denying allegations of sexual misconduct, and Justice Brett Kavanaugh, who forcefully denied allegations of sexual misconduct before he was confirmed to the Supreme Court last year.

“When people have a DARVO response, that is potentially damaging both to those in the situation and to our larger community,” she said. “DARVO is a conversation stuffer. It’s intimidating and scary to the person who gets DARVO’d or to other people who might want to speak about an experience.”

In a different sort of tactic, there were instances this year of people reversing course by expressing regret about how they handled their initial apologies, denials, or silence.

Locally, that was the case for Larry Wittig, a former Pennsylvania education official recently banned from USRowing over alleged sexual misconduct in the early 1980s, claims first reported by The Inquirer in 2017.

The Inquirer reported last week that Wittig admitted to investigators with the U.S. Center for SafeSport that he had engaged in a sexual relationship with one of the women who accused him of misconduct, Annette DeMichele, when she was 17, though he had denied her claims two years ago.

“What were the rules? I had sex with a 17-year-old for three months before she turned 18,” Wittig said, according to SafeSport documents, asking whether that automatically made him guilty. He described himself as “head over heels in love” with DeMichele and said she had control in their relationship. He told investigators that their relationship began only after she initiated it.
That contradicted Wittig’s 2017 assertion to The Inquirer in which he “categorically denied” the women’s allegations, including DeMichele’s claim. He later told a Tamaqua-area newspaper that he did have sex with DeMichele but that it was not “an ongoing relationship” as she contended.
He also told SafeSport investigators he had denied the allegations to The Inquirer on the advice of his attorney at the time. “ ‘I just denied, denied, denied because I was completely out of my element,’ ” the SafeSport report quotes him as saying.

The SafeSport investigation concluded Wittig had engaged in sexual misconduct with DeMichele and another minor athlete. Wittig is appealing the decision and said last week he was confident it would be reversed.

Plenty more high-profile people have attempted to stage comebacks. The comedy world has watched as Louis C.K., who admitted to masturbating in front of women without their consent, has returned to the stage. Meanwhile, Aziz Ansari has a new standup special on Netflix, in which he talks about the allegation against him — the one that changed the momentum of the #MeToo movement as watchers debated whether missed cues really count as misconduct.

“We are still dealing with the ‘he said, she said’ of the past. That hasn’t gone away for many of these situations,” said Deborah Weinstein, an expert in anti-harassment training and founder of the Philadelphia-based Weinstein Firm. “Much has changed. But that hasn’t.”

And then there’s political commentator Mark Halperin, accused by nine women of harassment and unwanted sexual contact, announcing in August that he’d signed a book deal. Former NPR host Garrison Keillor, accused of workplace sexual harassment, went on a speaking tour. Ditto for former U.S. Sen. Al Franken, who faced multiple allegations of sexual misconduct and bowed out of the Senate under pressure from colleagues — seven of whom publicly said this year that they have regrets about calling for his resignation.

Kelly Accetta, a Texas-based life coach and author who has experienced sexual violence, said redemption is possible under certain circumstances.

“I don’t think somebody should be reviled for life if they truly have realized the error of what they’ve done and they have true remorse, apologized to the victim, and they’ve done everything they can to make amends and change the industry they’re in,” she said. “We all love a great comeback story.”