What is gaslighting, and what does it have to do with sexual risk?

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"Gas lighting" or "Gaslighting" is a form of toxic manipulation that can occur within sexual relationships. It is a particular insidious form of emotional abuse. It involves behaviors by the abuser that make the person being abused start to question their own judgements and their own reality. The victim of gaslighting may start to wonder if they're paranoid or going crazy.

The term gaslighting comes from the 1930's thriller "Gaslight" where the protagonist exhibited this sort of behavior.

In the film, a cheating husband makes his wife doubt her sanity by engaging in overt manipulation. For example, he places his own watch in her handbag and convinces her she has pickpocked it without realizing she has done so. He tries to convince her that she is only imagining the gas lights in the house flickering, to dissuade her from realizing that they are changing because he is searching the house for a lost treasure. 

However, gaslighting is not always so obvious. Sometimes it's a more subtle series of behaviors. For example, when a woman suspects her partner is cheating on her because of a series of events she observes. Her partner might gaslight her by suggesting that she's paranoid or controlling in order to divert her from following the evidence of his infidelity. He might try to convince her that he really was working late, even though he didn't pick up the phone at the office when she called to see when he'd be home.

Gaslighting and Infidelity

Despite it's theatrical origins, gaslighting in real life usually isn't about an attempt to get the victim institutionalized so that the perpetrator can search for the family jewels. Instead, research on gaslighting is usually about the behavior in the context of marital and other relationship infidelity.

Furthermore, it is in the context of such relationships where gaslighting behavior is clearly linked to sexual risk in several ways.

  1. The abusive partner may be engaging in unprotected sex in multiple relationships without informing their victim. This puts the abused partner at risk of sexually transmitted diseases and other consequences. It also denies their victim the autonomy and agency to make informed decisions about their sexuality. It makes it impossible for them to give informed consent, let alone enthusiastic consent.
  2. It affects the victim's competence and belief in their self worth. This, in turns, decreases their self-efficacy around negotiating behaviors such as condom use. It also makes it harder for them to negotiate in their own interests in other ways, because they may start to feel like they no longer have a strong grasp on reality.
  3. It affects the victim's ability to connect with others and get help from their support system. This may also make it harder to get appropriate healthcare. After all, if you don't trust your own understanding of the world, you're not as likely to bring up your concerns with your doctor. Particularly if your sexuality is at the foundation of how and why you're being gaslighted.

    Gaslighting is an insidious behavior because of the way in which it makes its victims mistrust their own perceptions. That can be devastating both to feelings of self-worth and ability to engage in self-care. You can't negotiate your sexual relationships if you don't feel like you have control of your body. You can't feel like you have control of your body if you feel as though you've lost your grip on the world.

    Sources:

    Gass, G.Z. & Nichols, W.C. (1988) "Gaslighting: A Marital syndrome." Contemporary Family Therapy 10(1):3-16

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