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Gaslighting and sexual gaslighting

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Gaslighting is a form of psychological manipulation.

Gaslighting (a term inspired by the 1944 film “Gaslight”) occurs when an abuser attempts to sow self-doubt and confusion in their victim’s mind, causing them to question their own judgement and perception of reality and to feel less justified in defending themself. Abusers distort information, presenting it in another light or completely omitting certain details.

Here are a few examples of words that can invalidate or undermine someone’s emotions and perception of reality, and that could be a sign of gaslighting:

  • It was just a joke! Don’t make such a big deal out of it.
  • I would have never done that to you.
  • That’s just not true.
  • Why are you always so defensive?
  • You’ve got it all wrong. That’s not how it happened at all.
  • You always get so emotional about everything!

In a context of sexual violence, gaslighting consists in manipulating the victim to believe that they wanted to have sex or that they consented, when the opposite was true.

When people involved in any kind of healthy relationship are having a heated argument, they will try to remember to speak kindly to each other, using words that show their compassion and respect.
  • I’m sorry—I thought I was being funny, but I obviously wasn’t.
  • I didn’t realize that what I did was hurtful. Thank you for telling me.
  • I feel you’re on the defensive—what’s happening? Is something wrong?
  • I’m sorry that all this is making you feel so bad.

Gaslighting and sexual violence can happen in all kinds of situations: in a couple that has been together for years or in a brand-new relationship. It can also happen in the context of a friendship, at work or at school.

When a person whom we trust (someone in a romantic or platonic relationship, a family member, coach or teacher) starts making sexual advances or taking intimate photographs without our consent, it’s hard to see what’s happening. We can’t understand how someone we are so close to could commit an act of sexual violence.

Incomprehension sows doubt in the victim’s mind—doubt that can lead to feelings of guilt, sadness, shame or anger. Many victims have these reactions.

If a person who has committed an act of sexual violence is also gaslighting their victim, that person is a greater risk of doubting themself and suffering from more serious consequences.

To escape from this kind of situation, start by expressing your doubts to someone who will listen to you without judgement (a good friend or family member, for example). If you feel there is no one you can safely confide in, the counsellors at the Sexual Violence Helpline are always available to help you name what is happening to you.

Talking about your concerns in a safe environment is the first step in your recovery.