To gaslight someone is to deny their sense of reality. It’s a common term, and it usually describes a very specific brand of emotional torment. People who gaslight their significant others typically do it verbally, creating whole spheres of false reality for their victims, who they seek to manipulate. But gaslighting can also take on a sexual dimension, in which a similar sense of manipulation follows a nonconsensual sexual act.
What is sexual gaslighting?
You’re probably familiar with the concept of traditional gaslighting, which involves one person denying another’s sense of reality. This often ensues through a series of verbal tactic, such as denying that something took place, or negating someone’s interpretation of an event.
To encapsulate the concept in its rawest form, it’s wise to go back to its origins in the mid-20th century. As Lifehacker wrote last month:
The term owes its origins to the 1944 movie Gaslight, which chronicled the relationship of a man and his wife, whom he slowly convinced was losing her sanity, encapsulating gaslighting in its purest form. It’s an especially manipulative form of communication in which one person continuously attempts to convince the other party that their interpretation of reality is false.
Sexual gaslighting takes on a similar dimension, though it always involves a sexual act. Commonly, it’ll entail convincing—or forcing—someone to do something they hadn’t consented to, then insisting in hindsight that they wanted to do it. The psychologist David Wahl recently referenced one particularly galling example of how this might work for Psychology Today:
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.
In some instances—and if the gaslighting is persistent enough—victims may come to believe that they may have requested or consented to a sexual act when they, in reality, had not. In a way, it’s a means of obscuring sexual assault through an insidious, psychological tool.
Sexual gaslighting can also occur during infidelity, such as when a cheating partner insists that their significant other drove them to commit the act. This, of course, can increase the likelihood of sexually transmitted diseases, and all of the other ugly fallout of infidelity. But it also heaps shame on the person who’s been cheated on, in a suggestion that the unfaithful relationship is actually their fault.
What to do if you experience sexual gaslighting
As Wahl writes, not all gaslighters are aware of what they’re doing, nor do they all intend to manipulate. That’s why it’s important to make it clear, in a direct way, that you feel you’re being gaslit. It’s possible that your partner will be shocked and horrified to learn of your feelings, and thus be amenable to change.
Still, the act of sexual gaslighting can be incredibly destructive, and can be a way to cover up sexual assault and rape; if you feel this has happened to you, you can reach out for help. There are myriad resources out there, including the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN), which can be reached at 800-656-4673.