How Gaslighting Increases Sexual Risk

The Dangers of Sexual Gaslighting

How Gaslighting Increases Sexual Risk

  • Sexual gaslighting is a form of psychological abuse; it can involve physical sexual risk and harm.
  • Sexual gaslighting is used by a manipulating partner to have their partner question their sexual reality.
  • Responding to sexual gaslighting requires direct engagement and may need the involvement of health professionals and legal authorities.

Source: David Pereiras/Shutterstock

The term “gaslighting” has become a more entrenched cultural aspect of the American lexicon since 2016. Today, most people tend to use it in terms of politics.

But gaslighting is applicable to and can be found in a wide array of cultural and social aspects. Sexual gaslighting, for instance, is readily evident in many abusive relationships and toxic sexual encounters. Recognizing sexual gaslighting is vital for psychological and sexual well-being.

What is gaslighting?

Gaslighting is a term that originated as the title of the 1944 film wherein a young woman is driven to believe she is mentally ill through the manipulative techniques of her husband.

In the film, for example, he strategically places items in her possession that he can accuse her of stealing. He also sways her from her belief that the lights are dimming as he lowers the gas to the lights, hence the title of the film.

His manipulation is strong enough for her to question her reality and mental health.

Essentially, gaslighting involves the psychological manipulation of another into questioning their sense of reality. Paige L. Sweet (2019) refers to it as a term that indicates “mind-manipulating strategies of abusive people” (p.

851) and notes that it is particularly effective when “rooted in social inequalities, especially gender and sexuality, and executed in power-laden intimate relationships” (p. 852).

Sexual gaslighting, therefore, is the psychological and abusive manipulation of another person for the purpose of getting them to question their reality around a sexual situation.

What does sexual gaslighting look ?

Sexual gaslighting, at its foundation, is about power. It’s about controlling the sexual narrative and the sexuality of the person being victimized. The primary goal is for the gaslighter to get their victim to doubt their sexual reality. This is often accomplished by reshaping reality—“This is what you wanted, not me.”

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.

Despite it not being something she desired or would consider, she passed it off as a possibility as she was drunk and may have acted differently in that state.

She began to think that maybe she had, in fact, asked for it.

With each proceeding occurrence, the gaslighting became easier as her reality was reshaped by the thought that if she had asked for it in the past, perhaps she had done it again.

Beyond the goal of reframing reality, a gaslighter is quick to dismiss the feelings or concerns of their partner, and if the gaslighting is a conscious behavior, there will be no apologies offered.

The gaslighter will also limit discussion on their partner’s side. The more the victim talks, the greater the chance they will talk themselves into a pattern of logic and come to an accurate conclusion other than the gaslit reality.

It is important for the manipulator to dominate the conversation and bring it to a swift end.

  • What Is Gaslighting?
  • Find a therapist who understands manipulative behavior

Finally, all the blame will be put on the victim. In the previous example, the victim was blamed for drinking too much—“Maybe if they weren’t so drunk, they wouldn’t ask for and engage in sexual behaviors that.

” Furthermore, the victim may be blamed for attempting to cause conflict in the relationship, thereby not caring about the relationship or their intimate partner.

Guilt thereby becomes a powerful weapon in the manipulation.

What can you do if you are being sexually gaslighted?

First, you must recognize sexual gaslighting for what it is—psychological abuse. Being sexually gaslighted must be dealt with in a direct manner. If not, one can lose their ability to navigate their own sexuality and control the development of their sexual selfhood. Sexual gaslighting also denies informed consent.

Furthermore, sexual gaslighting can increase sexual risk. For instance, if infidelity is part of the gaslighting, and unprotected sexual practices are part of the behavior, the chances of getting STIs are increased—and the person being gaslighted will be the one blamed if an STI comes into the picture.

If you are being gaslighted by a narcissist (not all gaslighters are narcissists), it’s futile to attempt to get them to admit to it—chances are, they never will.

Apart from dealing with a narcissist, there are things you can do to combat sexual gaslighting. Gaslighting is not necessarily a conscious act. Talk about it with your partner.

There is the possibility that your partner is unaware of what they are doing.

But let’s say they know exactly what they are doing. You may need to seek professional help to guide you through the issues. If the gaslighting puts you in a situation where there is not informed sexual consent on your part and the behavior amounts to rape, you need to contact the authorities.

Gaslighting can be a cover for sexual assault. Ultimately, you may have to leave the relationship in order to put an end to the manipulation. Remember, if you are being sexually gaslighted, you are not at fault. Sexual gaslighting is psychological abuse at its core.

image: David Pereiras/Shutterstock


Sweet, P.L. (2019). The sociology of gaslighting. American Sociological Review, 84(5), 851-875.

Wahl, D.W. (2020). Speaking through the silence: Narratives, interaction, and the construction of sexual selves. Iowa State University. Proquest Publishing.

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Gaslighting — Therapy Blog

How Gaslighting Increases Sexual Risk

Gaslighting is a type of emotional abuse. Someone who is gaslighting will try to make a targeted person doubt their perception of reality. The gaslighter may convince the target that their memories are wrong or that they are overreacting to an event. The abuser may then present their own thoughts and feelings as “the real truth.”

The term originates with a 1938 play called “Gas Light.” In the play, a woman’s husband tries to convince her that she is mentally unstable. He makes small changes in her environment, such as dimming the gaslights in their house. He then convinces his wife she is simply imagining these changes. His ultimate goal is to have her committed to an asylum so he can steal her inheritance.

People experiencing gaslighting may benefit from finding a therapist.

Find a Therapist

Gaslighting is an abusive tactic aimed to make a person doubt their own thoughts and feelings. The abuse is often subtle at first.

For example, if a person is telling a story, the abuser may challenge a small detail. The person may admit they were wrong on a detail, then move on.

The next time, the abuser may use that past “victory” to discredit the person further, perhaps by questioning the person’s memory.

The person may argue back at first. They may intuit something is wrong in the relationship or marriage. But because each gaslighting incident is so minor, they can’t pinpoint any specific cause for their unease.

Over time, the person may second-guess their own emotions and memories. They may rely on their abuser to tell them if their memory is correct of if their emotions are “reasonable.

” The abuser uses this trust to gain control over their target.

Popular culture often depicts gaslighting as a man abusing his wife. Yet people of any gender can gaslight others or be gaslit themselves. Gaslighting can also occur in platonic contexts such as a workplace. Anyone can be a target.

Gaslighting Techniques to Watch Out For

Gaslighting can take many forms. Sometimes it can involve manipulating a person’s environment behind their back. Other times, the abuse is entirely verbal and emotional.

Common techniques include:

  • Withholding: Refusing to listen to any concerns or pretending not to understand them.
    • Example: “I don’t have time to listen to this nonsense. You’re not making any sense.”
  • Countering: Questioning the target’s memory. An abuser may deny the events occurred in the way the target (accurately) remembers. They may also invent details of the event that did not occur.
    • Example: “I heard you say it! You never remember our conversations right.”
  • Forgetting/Denial: Pretending to forget events that have happened to further discredit the victim’s memory. An abuser may deny making promises to avoid responsibility.
    • Example: “What are you talking about? I never promised you that.”
  • Blocking/Diversion: Changing the subject to divert the target’s attention from a topic. An abuser may twist a conversation into an argument about the person’s credibility.
    • Example: “Have you been talking to your sister again? She’s always putting stupid ideas in your head.”
  • Trivializing: Asserting that a person is overreacting to hurtful behavior. This technique can condition a person into believing their emotions are invalid or excessive.
    • Example: “You’re so sensitive! Everyone else thought my joke was funny.”

A gaslighter often uses the target’s “mistakes” and “overreactions” to cast themself as the victim.

For example, an abuser may scream accusations at a person until the other party must raise their voice to be heard.

The abuser may then cut the conversation short, claiming the other person is “ control” and “too aggressive.”  In some cases, the abuser may accuse the other person of being the true gaslighter.

How to Fight Gaslighting

Often the first step to protect yourself from gaslighting is to recognize its presence. Once you know you are being manipulated, you can determine your own reality more easily.

Ideally, someone experiencing abuse would get help and possibly leave the relationship. Yet sometimes barriers prevent a person from leaving right away. The person may be financially dependent on their abuser, or there may be children involved.

If you are a target of gaslighting, here are some tips you can use to defend yourself:

  • Don’t take responsibility for the other person’s actions. The other person may claim you provoked the abuse. If you avoid the actions that offended them in the past, the gaslighter will ly come up with new excuses for their abuse.
  • Don’t sacrifice yourself to spare their feelings. Even if you dedicate your whole life to making them happy, you will never completely fill the other person’s desire for control. People who gaslight others are often trying to fill a void in themselves. But they will not fix their heart by breaking yours.
  • Remember your truth. Just because the other person sounds sure of themself doesn’t mean they are right. The gaslighter may never see your side of the story. Yet their opinion does not define reality. Nor does it define who you are as a person.
  • Do not argue on their terms. If the other person is fabricating facts, you are unly to have a productive discussion. You may spend all your energy debating what is real instead of making your point. The other person may use gaslighting techniques to declare they won an argument. But you do not have to accept conclusions a faulty premise.
  • Prioritize your safety. Gaslighting often makes targets doubt their own intuition. But if you feel you are in danger, you can always leave the situation. You do not need to prove a gaslighter’s threats of violence are sincere before calling the police. It is often safest to treat every threat as credible.
  • Remember you are not alone. You may find it helpful to talk about your experiences with others. Friends and family can offer emotional support and validation.

Therapy is a safe place where you can talk through your feelings and memories without judgment. A therapist can help you recognize healthy and unhealthy behaviors. They can also teach you how to resist psychological manipulation. In some cases, a therapist can help you develop a safety plan for leaving the relationship.

Why Do People Gaslight Others?

One of the most common reasons people gaslight is to gain power over others. This need for domination may stem from narcissism, antisocial personality, or other issues. most cases of abuse, gaslighting is about control.

As gaslighting progresses, the target often second-guesses their own memories and thoughts. Their self-doubt may put them on the defensive, preventing them from criticizing the abuser’s behavior. The target may rely on the abuser to verify their memories. This trust can give the abuser more opportunity to manipulate their target.

Over time, the abuser may convince the target that they cause the abuser’s aggression. The target’s efforts to apologize and repair the relationship often feed the abuser’s ego. Yet the target’s submission rarely offers lasting satisfaction. Someone with narcissistic personality may become “addicted” to gaslighting, needing more control to keep up their self-esteem.

Many gaslighters use the target’s shame and confusion to isolate them. The person may withdraw from loved ones for fear they will side with the abuser. The gaslighter’s goal is often to make the target completely dependent on them alone. If they reach this goal, the abuser may discard the target and seek a new person to “conquer.”

Effects of Gaslighting

Gaslighting can have catastrophic effects for a person’s psychological health. The process is often gradual, chipping away the person’s confidence and self-esteem. They may come to believe they deserve the abuse.

Gaslighting is an insidious form of abuse that thrives on uncertainty. A person can grow to mistrust everything they hear, feel, and remember.Gaslighting can also affect a person’s social life. They abuser may manipulate them into cutting ties with friends and family. The person might also isolate themself, believing they are unstable or unlovable.

Even after the person escapes the abusive relationship, the effects of gaslighting can persist. The person may still doubt their perceptions and have trouble making decisions. They are also less ly to voice their emotions and feelings, knowing that they are ly to be invalidated.

Gaslighting may lead a person to develop mental health concerns. The constant self-doubt and confusion can contribute to anxiety. A person’s hopelessness and low self-esteem may lead to depression. Posttraumatic stress and codependency are also common developments.

Some survivors may struggle to trust others. They may be on constant guard for further manipulation. The person may blame themself for not catching the gaslighting earlier. Their refusal to show vulnerability might cause strain in future relationships.

Other survivors may become desperate for validation. They may try to keep other people around them with people-pleasing behaviors. Their submissiveness may put them at risk to be another abuser’s target.

Recovering from Gaslighting

Gaslighting is an insidious form of abuse that thrives on uncertainty. A person can grow to mistrust everything they hear, feel, and remember. One of the most important things a survivor can get is validation.

A survivor may benefit from reforming any relationships they pulled back from during the abuse. Other people can verify one’s uncertain memories. Sympathy from others can reduce feelings of shame. As a person rebuilds their social circle, they can relearn how to trust others and themselves.

Those who have experienced gaslighting may also wish to seek therapy. A therapist is a neutral party who can help reinforce one’s sense of reality. In therapy, a person can rebuild their self-esteem and regain control of their lives. A therapist may also treat any mental health concerns caused by the abuse, such as PTSD. With time and support, a person can recover from gaslighting.


  1. De Canonville, C. L. (n.d.) The effects of gaslighting in narcissistic victim syndrome. Retrieved from
  2. Firth, S. (n.d.). What is gaslighting? The Week. Retrieved from
  3. (n.d.). Retrieved from
  4. Tracy, N. (n.d.). Gaslighting definition, techniques and being gaslighted. Healthy Place. Retrieved from
  5. What Is Gaslighting? (2014, May 29). Retrieved from
  6. 7 signs you are a victim of gaslighting. (2015, July 2). The Good Men Project. Retrieved from

Last Updated:06-13-2018


7 Signs Of Gaslighting In Relationships + How To Stop It

How Gaslighting Increases Sexual Risk

When you're in a relationship with someone you love, the last thing you'd expect is for them to gaslight you. Here are a few signs you can look out for to determine if you're a victim of gaslighting in your relationship, plus tips to help you navigate it.

What is gaslighting in relationships? 

Gaslighting is a form of psychological manipulation used in relationships in order to maintain control over another person.

The origin of the term can be traced to a British play in which an abusive husband manipulates the surroundings and events with the goal of making his wife question her reality.

Gaslighting can happen in families, friendships, and even in workplaces, and it's often a sign of an abusive relationship.

People use gaslighting to «gain an upper hand and avoid accountability,» according to Andrea Papin, RTC, and Jess Jackson, LMT, therapists at Trauma Aware Care. It involves the covert use of mind games that make it difficult to know if you are experiencing gaslighting, and that is the point.

«Gaslighting at its core is always about self-preservation and the maintenance of power/control—namely, the power/control to construct a narrative that keeps the gaslighter in the 'right' and their partner in the 'wrong,'» therapist Aki Rosenberg, LMFT, tells mbg. 

1. You find yourself doubting your reality. 

Every relationship has its challenges, and sometimes that means confronting your own behaviors. However, when you second-guess your reality to the point where you feel you're «losing it,» that's a major sign of gaslighting.

«The most destructive thing about gaslighting is that it makes it difficult to trust yourself,» Rosenberg explains.

This can happen over time, so it's not easy to detect immediately, but if you constantly find yourself asking «Am I losing it?» or saying «I'm not sure if what I'm feeling is valid,» that's a big indicator of being gaslit. 

2. Your partner is dismissive of your feelings.

When you bring up a concern or share your feelings with your partner, they may convince you that you're the one mistaken or that you're overthinking.

In the context of a healthy relationship, your partner will listen to your concerns and address them.

Clinical therapist Alexis Sutton tells mbg that partners who gaslight will sometimes say, «You're too sensitive» or «You don't have a right to feel that way.» Some partners will even deny events happened.

3. They never let you talk during a conflict.

When you're in the middle of an argument with them, you might feel they're constantly cutting you off and not letting you explain your point of view. «If you find yourself recording your conversations or writing long emails to get your point across because you can never get a word in when you speak to a person, you're probably experiencing gaslighting,» Sutton adds.

4. Your partner doesn't apologize when you express hurt.

If you share with your partner that you are hurt and they lack empathy, that is a red flag.

 «If your partner doesn't apologize when you express hurt but convinces you that you shouldn't think what you are thinking or feel how you are feeling,» that's another telltale sign of gaslighting, says Rosenberg.

She explains that if a partner is never willing to take accountability for their actions and «you exhaust yourself, trying to justify your feelings in order for your partner to determine whether or not they are valid,» you are being gaslit by your partner.

5. Your partner blames you or outside circumstances.

If you notice that your partner often blames you when conflict arises or blames their actions on outside factors, that is a sign of gaslighting.

Sutton explains that people who gaslight might «change the topic to something you have done instead of addressing what they have done.

» Papin and Jackson add that some partners may take it as far as belittling you, calling you «too sensitive» as a way to avoid taking accountability for themselves. 

6. You start believing that you're just not working hard enough in your relationship.

At some point in your relationship, you may begin to believe that you are not doing enough. Your partner has denied, minimized, or placed the blame on you when you've tried to voice your concerns. Over time this can cause you to internalize those messages to the point where you believe that it is your fault.

«This is objectively impossible,» Rosenberg reminds. «In a healthy relationship, both partners will make mistakes and both partners will apologize when they are in the wrong. If it's one-sided all the time, it's an indication that the relationship dynamic is organized around themes of power and control.


7. Using your voice brings about feelings of guilt.

Your relationship may get to the point where sharing any of your feelings becomes incredibly difficult to do. If the thought of bringing up a concern or sharing your true feelings starts making you feel guilty, therapist Mariel Buquè, Ph.D.

, says that's a sign that «there is control at the center of your relationship, which is a key marker of gaslighting.

» She recommends paying attention to if you are feeling suppressed or «if you are feeling voiceless in your relationship,» as that is a sign of being gaslit.

Examples of gaslighting in a relationship.

What you'll notice in every situation of gaslighting is an avoidance of taking responsibility for that person's role in the relationship. 

Here's an example: Lupe and Sam are a couple whose friendship blossomed into dating.

As soon as they started their romantic relationship, it became increasingly hard for Lupe to bring up her concerns to Sam about not spending enough time with her.

When they were out together, Sam would treat Lupe as if they were still platonic friends and flirt with other people. This made Lupe confused and prompted her to initiate a conversation about their developing relationship. 

When Lupe brought up her concerns around flirting with other people and asked to spend more quality time together, this made Sam upset. His reaction was, «You're acting I don't care about you at all,» and «Am I a bad person for trying to make new friends?» Sam deflected his behavior, making Lupe feel she was in the wrong for trying to gain clarity around their relationship.

«Gaslighting can make the perpetrator feel more powerful and in control,» Papin and Jackson explain.

A person who gaslights might not have the capacity to sit with their emotions or self-reflect and may even have feelings of low self-worth that they are uncomfortable dealing with.

In some cases, gaslighting is used by someone psychologists would identify as a narcissist, where the person has no sense of remorse for their actions or empathy for their partner. 

Gaslighting can be done either consciously or unconsciously, they add. Although gaslighting is never justified, there are some people who may not realize they are even doing it.

Some people consistently rely on gaslighting as a tactic to maintain control in relationships, so they might not realize how harmful it is.

«Some folks have been gaslighting those around them for so long that it's a second-nature survival strategy,» Papin and Jackson explain.

They and Rosenberg also drew parallels between gaslighting in relationships and larger social issues. Papin and Jackson note that gaslighting «can often intersect with misogyny and white supremacy.

These intersections have often excused and encouraged gaslighting behavior to maintain positions of power.

Gaslighting is a common method to keep power structures in place and oppress folks who have less access to support and resources.»

These power dynamics can show up within intimate relationships as well. «The more privilege one has, the more their experience gets centralized as 'normal' or 'correct,'» Rosenberg explains. «Gaslighting can show up in relationships as the more privileged partner discounting the experiences of the less privileged partner.»

1. Seek support to affirm your experience.

The therapists agreed that seeking support from trusted people outside of your relationship is crucial to helping you feel validated and affirmed in your experience. «Because gaslighting is so invalidating and manipulative, reminders and empathy can feel deeply supportive,» Papin and Jackson explain. «You might turn to a trusted friend, or a therapist, if you have access to one.»

2. You can choose to confront your partner about their gaslighting.

There is a chance that your partner does not realize they are gaslighting you. In this case, Buquè suggests it may be worthwhile to help them understand what gaslighting is, how they are enacting it, and how it makes you feel.

«It, unfortunately, places the burden of proof and teaching on the person that's being hurt by gaslighting, but it can actually make a difference in them deciding to shift their ways in the service of removing toxic patterns from the relationship,» she explains.

3. If you're dealing with a narcissist, confronting them is futile. 

It's unly that a toxic person will admit to manipulating the relationship in order to have a sense of control. If you are experiencing gaslighting in the moment, Dr.

Sutton recommends removing yourself from the situation: «Don't engage. If possible, end the conversation.

Gaslighters aren't interested in your perspective or feelings,» and it would take you more energy and suffering to try to convince them otherwise. 

4. Leave the relationship if gaslighting persists.

If that gaslighting is pervasive and confronting your partner is not an option, do consider leaving the relationship. Sutton urges that if your partner becomes enraged while they are gaslighting you or puts you in danger, it is even more imperative that you consider ending the relationship altogether. This may not be easy, but it may be a necessary step toward feeling safe.

«Regardless of if you choose to stay or go, develop an understanding of your own attachment patterns,» Rosenberg recommends. «Sometimes we legitimately can't see this behavior coming, but often, when we look back on a bad relationship, we recognize all the red flags and gut instincts we overrode in the hopes of receiving love and connection.»

6. Recognize it is not up to you to stop the gaslighting.

The experts all shared this sentiment: Gaslighting is never your fault.

Even though your partner may have convinced you that the toxic pattern is because of you, it is never your responsibility to stop the gaslighting from happening.

In a healthy relationship, both partners are accountable to their own behaviors, and when it comes to gaslighting, the person doing it must have a willingness to change.


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