How this form of psychological abuse involves dangerous risks and relationships.
- Sexual gaslighting is a form of psychological abuse; it can involve physical sexual risk and harm.
- Sexual gaslighting is used by a manipulating partner to have their partner question their sexual reality.
- Responding to sexual gaslighting requires direct engagement and may need the involvement of health professionals and legal authorities.
The term “gaslighting” has become a more entrenched cultural aspect of the American lexicon since 2016. Today, most people tend to use it in terms of politics. But gaslighting is applicable to and can be found in a wide array of cultural and social aspects. Sexual gaslighting, for instance, is readily evident in many abusive relationships and toxic sexual encounters. Recognizing sexual gaslighting is vital for psychological and sexual well-being.
What is gaslighting?
Gaslighting is a term that originated as the title of the 1944 film wherein a young woman is driven to believe she is mentally ill through the manipulative techniques of her husband. In the film, for example, he strategically places items in her possession that he can accuse her of stealing. He also sways her from her belief that the lights are dimming as he lowers the gas to the lights, hence the title of the film. His manipulation is strong enough for her to question her reality and mental health.
Essentially, gaslighting involves the psychological manipulation of another into questioning their sense of reality. Paige L. Sweet (2019) refers to it as a term that indicates “mind-manipulating strategies of abusive people” (p. 851) and notes that it is particularly effective when “rooted in social inequalities, especially gender and sexuality, and executed in power-laden intimate relationships” (p. 852). Sexual gaslighting, therefore, is the psychological and abusive manipulation of another person for the purpose of getting them to question their reality around a sexual situation.
What does sexual gaslighting look like?
Sexual gaslighting, at its foundation, is about power. It’s about controlling the sexual narrative and the sexuality of the person being victimized. The primary goal is for the gaslighter to get their victim to doubt their sexual reality. This is often accomplished by reshaping reality—“This is what you wanted, not me.”
A participant in a study of mine (Wahl, 2020) had a partner who would ply her with alcohol until she was unable to focus on her surroundings, at which time he would have anal sex with her. Anal sex was not a sexual behavior she would consent to. The next morning, when it was physically obvious to her what had occurred, her partner would argue that she wanted to engage in anal sex and had asked for it.
Despite it not being something she desired or would consider, she passed it off as a possibility as she was drunk and may have acted differently in that state. She began to think that maybe she had, in fact, asked for it. With each proceeding occurrence, the gaslighting became easier as her reality was reshaped by the thought that if she had asked for it in the past, perhaps she had done it again.
Beyond the goal of reframing reality, a gaslighter is quick to dismiss the feelings or concerns of their partner, and if the gaslighting is a conscious behavior, there will be no apologies offered. The gaslighter will also limit discussion on their partner’s side. The more the victim talks, the greater the chance they will talk themselves into a pattern of logic and come to an accurate conclusion other than the gaslit reality. It is important for the manipulator to dominate the conversation and bring it to a swift end.
Finally, all the blame will be put on the victim. In the previous example, the victim was blamed for drinking too much—“Maybe if they weren’t so drunk, they wouldn’t ask for and engage in sexual behaviors like that.” Furthermore, the victim may be blamed for attempting to cause conflict in the relationship, thereby not caring about the relationship or their intimate partner. Guilt thereby becomes a powerful weapon in the manipulation.
What can you do if you are being sexually gaslighted?
First, you must recognize sexual gaslighting for what it is—psychological abuse. Being sexually gaslighted must be dealt with in a direct manner. If not, one can lose their ability to navigate their own sexuality and control the development of their sexual selfhood. Sexual gaslighting also denies informed consent.
Furthermore, sexual gaslighting can increase sexual risk. For instance, if infidelity is part of the gaslighting, and unprotected sexual practices are part of the behavior, the chances of getting STIs are increased—and the person being gaslighted will be the one blamed if an STI comes into the picture.
If you are being gaslighted by a narcissist (not all gaslighters are narcissists), it’s futile to attempt to get them to admit to it—chances are, they never will. Apart from dealing with a narcissist, there are things you can do to combat sexual gaslighting. Gaslighting is not necessarily a conscious act. Talk about it with your partner. There is the possibility that your partner is unaware of what they are doing.
But let’s say they know exactly what they are doing. You may need to seek professional help to guide you through the issues. If the gaslighting puts you in a situation where there is not informed sexual consent on your part and the behavior amounts to rape, you need to contact the authorities.
Gaslighting can be a cover for sexual assault. Ultimately, you may have to leave the relationship in order to put an end to the manipulation. Remember, if you are being sexually gaslighted, you are not at fault. Sexual gaslighting is psychological abuse at its core.
Sweet, P.L. (2019). The sociology of gaslighting. American Sociological Review, 84(5), 851-875.
Wahl, D.W. (2020). Speaking through the silence: Narratives, interaction, and the construction of sexual selves. Iowa State University. Proquest Publishing.
Reprinted with permission.