Sexual Gaslighting Is a Thing (and How to Define It)

Gaslight denies someone a sense of reality. It is a general term that usually describes a very specific type of emotional anguish. People who use gas light on their loved ones usually do so verbally, creating whole spheres of false reality for their victims that they seek to manipulate. But gaslighting can also take on a sexual dimension, where a similar feeling of manipulation follows non-consensual intercourse.

What is Sexual Gaslighting?

You are probably familiar with the concept of traditional gaslighting where one person denies the other person’s sense of reality. This often happens through a series of verbal tricks, such as denying that something has taken place, or denying someone else’s interpretation of the event.

To embody the concept in its most crude form, it is advisable to return to its origins in the middle of the 20th century. As Lifehacker wrote last month:

The term owes its origin to the 1944 film Gaslight , which described the relationship between a man and his wife, who, he gradually convinced, was losing her mind, encapsulating gaslighting in its purest form. It is a particularly manipulative form of communication in which one person constantly tries to convince the other side that their interpretation of reality is false.

Sexual gaslighting takes on a similar character, although it always involves intercourse. This usually entails persuading – or coercing – someone to do something they did not agree to, and then insisting retroactively that they wanted to do it. Psychologist David Wahl recently gave one particularly nasty example of how this might work for Psychology Today :

A participant in my study (Wahl, 2020) had a partner who treated her to alcohol until she could focus on her surroundings, after which he had anal sex with her. Anal sex was not the sexual behavior she agreed to. The next morning, when it was physically obvious to her what had happened, her partner objected that she wanted to have anal sex and asked for it.

In some cases – and if the gaslighting is persistent enough – victims may conclude that they may have asked for or consented to have intercourse, when in fact they did not. In a sense, it is a means to hide sexual abuse with an insidious psychological tool.

Sexual gaslighting can also occur during times of infidelity, such as when the cheating partner insists that his significant other prompted him to commit the act. This, of course, can increase the likelihood of sexually transmitted diseases and all the other ugly consequences of infidelity. But it also makes the cheated person feel ashamed, assuming that the wrong relationship is in fact their fault.

What to do if you are experiencing sexual gaslighting

As Val writes, not all gaslighters are aware of what they are doing, and not everyone is going to manipulate. This is why it is so important to make it clear directly that you feel that you are quenching. Perhaps your partner will be shocked and scared to learn about your feelings, and therefore will be ready to change.

However, the act of sexual gaslighting can be incredibly destructive and can be a cover-up for sexual assault and rape; if you feel like this has happened to you, you can ask for help. There are many resources, including the Rape, Abuse and Incest Network (RAINN) , which can be contacted at 800-656-4673.


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