Does “Yes” Mean “Yes”? Sexual Consent, Manipulation and Gaslighting

Revelations in recent years as to the extent of sexual assault on campuses, in the military and in other institutional settings has lead to some changes in the idea of what constitutes “consent” to a sexual act. There is increasing recognition that simply failing to say the word “no” does not automatically imply consent in the sense of actual willingness to do the act in question. Hence the new standard that only “yes” means “yes”. But does it?

It is clear that children and teens who are under the legal age of consent cannot legally (or meaningfully) say “yes” to a sex act. But there are any number of other situations in which agreeing to engage in a sex act may be the product of undue pressure, unequal power, mental abuse or deception.

The most obvious of these are cult situations and other situations in which adults are conditioned by intimidation or undue pressure to conform end up agreeing to whole sets of behaviors including sex.

Recruiting people for the purpose of pornography provides a particularly weird example. The age of legal consent varies from state to state. If you are 16 in Nevada you can legally consent to sex. But if that consensual sex act is filmed, then the pornographer can be charged with producing “child” porn although no one can be charged with statutory rape.

Consent and unequal power in relationships

Adults, and women in particular, “consent” to have sex in all kinds of situations in which their wellbeing or the wellbeing of someone they care about is at stake. Any situation of unequal power is potentially a place where “yes” may not really mean “yes”. These include workplaces, campuses, prisons and religious institutions, not to mention the military. So unequal power casts doubt on whether consent is freely given, consent in general and sexual consent in particular. Acknowledgment of this fact has lead to perpetrators of sexual harassment being civilly liable. In these cases consent is seen as not relevant, as described here:

“Given the power dynamics that often operate between victim and harasser, a victim may not resist or may even consent to sexual conduct out of fear of job loss or other repercussions if he or she objects. In recognition of this reality, sexual harassment may occur even if a victim consents.”

Unequal power is not always built into a situation as it can be in an institutional setting. Unequal power can be cultivated in a relationship through various kinds of manipulation. It can be a process that gradually erodes one person’s ability to freely choose. This process is obvious when sexual predators who are coaches or clergy gradually win the trust of a potential victim and/or undermine his or her sense of self-worth.

Manipulation and gaslighting

But even in supposedly equal relationships like marriages, one partner can gradually break down the other person’s ability to trust their own reality. In other words, a person can come to trust their partner more than they trust their own instincts. This is a breakdown of the normal human boundaries that protect the sense of self. Paralysis and fear replace rational decision making. It is also a process that feeds on itself in that the person being manipulated is increasingly afraid and ashamed about what others might think of their situation, further undermining their ability to act.

Gaslighting” is the name taken from the classic movie Gaslight about the deliberate attempt to make someone doubt their own sanity. This kind of conscious attempt to control another person’s sense of reality seems quite sinister and pathological. However, many spouses of sex addicts claim to be the victim of this kind of manipulation. Rather than a systematic attempt to destroy their partner’s life, the gaslighting often reported by partners of sex addicts seems to be part of the overall attempt by the addict to cover his or her tracks.

The practicing addict wants to stay in denial of their problems. This makes them expert liars and manipulators. The addict also wants to throw their partner off the scent by any manipulation that comes to hand. Thus the addict may try to convince the partner that they are overly paranoid or imagining things. They may also attempt to blame their partner for being over-emotional, up-tight, or unresponsive sexually. The more the denial and manipulation continue, the more the partner is likely to withdraw into self doubt. At this point overt threats of abandonment may be part of the addicts arsenal.

Self-defense strategies in relationships

The situation of the partner who experiences gaslighting is similar enough to other mentally coercive situations that the ways to defend against it may be applicable to anyone who is under pressure to give up their power.

1. Remember that someone who is gaslighting you is weak and insecure. They will do anything to avoid losing control and are fearful of abandonment. Such a person needs power over you to feel safe and the more power you give up the more they seem to need.

2. Don’t be ashamed of feeling jealous or threatened. The fear of being seen as paranoid is part of the manipulation. Accusations of being sick or paranoid are designed to shame you into accepting things that make you uncomfortable. The antidote is to be willing to say when you feel threatened or uncomfortable with a situation and be assertive about what you need.

3. Attend to inner cues instead of behaving in the way you think you should or telling yourself you are being silly. Pay attention to what feels wrong to you. Many times this will be felt as a bodily sensation. Don’t ignore your intuitions it by chalking them up to your own insecurities.

4. Don’t isolate. Romance is not about being preoccupied or obsessed with someone. And it’s certainly not about hiding and keeping someone’s secrets. Check in with someone you trust other than your partner.

5. Don’t argue with someone who is gaslighting you. You don’t have to prove everything to their satisfaction. It is OK to just say what you feel and to disagree with someone who is trying to talk you out of it. It’s not a matter of logic, so let them go on about poking holes in your reality and stay convinced that what you feel is what you feel.

Love in an intimate, committed relationship is only possible between equals. Gaslighting in intimate relationships serves to make you fearful and disempowered which is a recipe for disaster. If you feel shaken and full of fear and self doubt then get away. Move toward validation, at least until you get your bearings. Anyone who undermines your sense of yourself isn’t worthy of you.

Find Dr. Hatch on Twitter @SAResource and at www.sexaddictionscounseling.com

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