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The Brutal Reality of Sexual Gaslighting

Let’s not mince words about sexual gaslighting.

Key points

  • Sexual gaslighting is a manipulative attempt to get a person to question their reality around a sexual situation.
  • Sexual gaslighting does not allow for informed sexual consent.
  • There are many resources available for those who believe they have been the victim of sexual gaslighting.

In a recent article, I discussed the concept of sexual gaslighting. In it, I defined sexual gaslighting as, “the psychological and abusive manipulation of another for the purpose of the other to question their reality around a sexual situation.” To illustrate this, I used the example of a research participant who discussed her partner performing sexual acts on her, acts that she did not consent to, while she was unconscious. Once conscious, the partner claimed she has asked for it, thereby attempting to manipulate her reality. Faking unconsciousness on another occasion proved to her that she was not asking for these sexual behaviors and he was acting against her wishes.

Rodnae Productions/Pexels
Source: Rodnae Productions/Pexels

To add a deeper reflection into what lies at the heart of sexual gaslighting, we need to start with issues of consent. One cannot sexually consent if they are underage, intoxicated, or unconscious. Furthermore, if one is not properly informed (being supplied with necessary and accurate information) they cannot give informed consent. So, if an individual has not given consent regarding a sexual act prior to engagement and is not conscious—that individual has not given and cannot give sexual consent. If sexual gaslighting is the active and intended manipulation of another, then the other is not accurately informed. Therefore, sexual gaslighting does not allow for informed sexual consent. If the act does not include sexual consent, that act is sexual assault. Sexual assault is defined by RAINN as, “sexual contact or behavior that occurs without explicit consent of the victim,” and includes forcing a victim to perform sexual acts, unwanted touching or fondling, and rape. The brutal reality of sexual gaslighting is that it is either a precursor to sexual assault or it is an attempt to convince a victim that sexual assault had not occurred. Some perpetrators use sexual gaslighting as a method to navigate around the fact that they committed sexual assault. In the end, all forms of sexual assault, including rape, are about power, as is the manipulation of another to question the reality of a sexual situation.

Sexual gaslighting presents a unique feature in issues of consent and sexual assault. Victim’s psychological trauma is increased beyond that associated with sexual assault. The victim is left to distrust their own reality and their senses. They may become unable to trust others or even their own autonomy. Essentially, they come to distrust their own narrative.

It is essential that the general public and the justice system recognize sexual gaslighting for what it truly is, and act and shape attitudes accordingly. Sexual gaslighting undermines autonomy and violates sexual consent.

If you suspect or believe you are a victim of sexual gaslighting or nonconsensual sexual behavior, there are many resources available to you including: