How Gaslighting Increases Sexual Risk

Man yelling at woman who is hiding her head in her hands, sitting on the floor

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

If you or a loved one are a victim of domestic violence, contact the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-7233 for confidential assistance from trained advocates.

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What Is Gaslighting?

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 pickpocketed 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.

The Link Between Gaslighting and Infidelity

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

  • 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.
  • It affects the victim's competence and belief in their self-worth. This, in turn, 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.
  • 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 the 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.

Press Play for Advice On Dealing With Gaslighting

Hosted by Editor-in-Chief and therapist Amy Morin, LCSW, this episode of The Verywell Mind Podcast shares how to stay mentally strong when you're being gaslit. Click below to listen now.

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3 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Spear AD. Gaslighting, Confabulation, and Epistemic InnocenceTopoi. 2020;39:229-241. doi:10.1007/s11245-018-9611-z

  2. Fraser S. The toxic power dynamics of gaslighting in medicineCan Fam Physician. 2021;67(5):367-368. doi:10.46747/cfp.6705367

  3. Sweet PL. The Sociology of Gaslighting. Am Sociol Rev. 2019;84(5):851-875. doi:10.1177/0003122419874843

By Elizabeth Boskey, PhD
Elizabeth Boskey, PhD, MPH, CHES, is a social worker, adjunct lecturer, and expert writer in the field of sexually transmitted diseases.