Gaslighting is a form of psychological abuse “in which information is twisted, selectively omitted to favor the abuser, or false information is presented with the intent of making victims doubt their own memory, perception, and sanity.” Essentially, gaslighting is a tactic used to destabilize a victim’s understanding of reality, making the individual constantly doubt their own experiences.
Most of the time, this tactic is used to further uneven power balances with abusive partners, making victims second guess themselves when they feel they are being abused or attacked. Even if a relationship seems otherwise non-abusive, gaslighting is emotional and mental violence. This process in and of itself is toxic and unhealthy, regardless of whether there are other abusive behaviors taking place within the relationship.
The thing about gaslighting is that it’s an especially terrifying tactic because it makes the victim feel they cannot trust their own mind, that their memories and experiences are not valid or trustworthy, that their reactions are illogical and irrational. For people who already have a fluid perception of reality, this can make them feel like nothing they take in is real or can be trusted; and this mistrust in themselves also makes it extremely difficult to identify when they are the victim of gaslighting.
Take the story of this survivor, for example:
I think I might have been raped 10 years ago. I had a good first date with the guy and on the second when we were kissing, he got handsy. Before the third, I told him the limits of how far I wanted to go (and before, I practiced what I was going to say so many times) and he agreed. Half an hour later, he starts doing the things I said I wasn’t ready to do. I kinda froze and became compliant. I partly wanted to just get it over with since it was obvious he wanted it so much. Also, I thought that since I’d gained a lot of weight since the last time I had a boyfriend, I wasn’t going to do any better. I wasn’t scared or threatened, I just felt like I couldn’t say no.
That’s what makes me so unsure, because many years ago when I was 10, my cousin tried to rape me and I fought back and got away. Of course, he was obviously violent in his attempt. But with this other guy I wasn’t frightened so I don’t get why I didn’t just tell him to stop. I’ve thought about this before though I used the terms that he pressured me into sex. But the more I’ve read about consent, the more I wonder if there are stronger words to describe it. The thing is, I don’t really know what he would’ve done if I said no. He might have stopped completely. So I blame myself. I don’t know what to think. On one hand, there were times I could’ve said no and asked him to take me home, but on the other, I felt like I just couldn’t say no. I don’t think I have PTSD from it, per se (I did after the rape attempt when I was 10) but my depression did get dramatically worse right after. But then he dumped me soon after and I was begging him to take me back so maybe I’m doing the scorned woman thing. All I know is that I haven’t dated since then and the idea of me having sex really grosses me out. It’s like I’m tainted everywhere he touched me. – Cardinal Rules (21st Century Advice On Life, Love and Sundry)
A very important tool of rape culture is gaslighting, which is where a victim is made to doubt their own experience of assault. Rape culture gaslights victims by teaching the mythology that rape must always happen in a certain way for it to be real. There has to be violence. The victim has to say “no” at least once. The victim must be afraid. No one is drunk, especially the victim. No one knows each other. The victim said “no” loud and clear, right at the beginning. The victim screamed and cried out for help. The victim fought back, but was held down. The victim has visible bruises. The perpetrator used force. There were witnesses. And on and on.
So, when an individual is raped, and it doesn’t fit the rape culture narrative of what rape is, victims doubt and blame themselves, and nobody believes the account should they ever speak out. They get confused, and try to rationalize it in their minds, sometimes the perpetrator is the one who gaslights the victim based on knowledge from rape culture, and so the rape incident is called something else.
Many rape victims, like the one in the story, still go on to experience aftereffects that can be classically linked to sexual assault. After-effects like; depression, feeling dirty or tainted, anger, confusion, etc. In trying to determine what constitutes rape, harassment, and other forms of assault, it is crucial that the key perspective is that of the recipient of the behaviour, the victim – based on the level of violation the individual felt. Reminder: Sexual activity without active, voluntary, and enthusiastic consent is sexual assault. Yes, and only yes, means yes. Most especially “Yes” gotten without coercion and/or manipulation. Consent is a question, and an answer, with all parties involved able to freely give either “Yes” or “no” as both equals. Consent can be revoked or given at any time. “Giving in” is not consent. Consent is an enthusiastic “YES!”