Definition of a thing

tw: discussion of sexual consent, gaslighting, rape culture

Gaslighting gets tossed around a lot and you probably know what it is or have inferred it. Here is how I define it – you doubt your own lived experience to the point where you question reality and in more extreme cases, your sanity.

It actually comes from a stage play that was made into a movie with Ingrid Bergman, if you want a popular culture touchpoint.  Often times a low harm version of gaslighting is practical jokes like changing out someone’s pants for a smaller or larger size to convince them they are gaining or losing weight (M*A*S*H) did a B plot episode about it. I offer that example because it’s so often put into the context of things like sexual assault which is already heavily freighted that emotionally it is hard to separate out the physical violation from the psychological one.

At its heart, gaslighting is lying. The goal is to make the victim second guess their choices and decisions about what happened. By the way, propaganda is gaslighting.

Rape culture. In the US, and in much of what is currently defined as western culture female-identified and female-presenting bodies are generally considered to not actually belong to the consciousness that resides in them. Before you jump into the comments to argue with me about it I suggest you consider reproductive health as a case study. It’s not the point of this piece to argue this sub-point and there are a million essays about abortion, tubal ligation, and for goodness sakes, school dress code that prove my point. Instead, I say that because rape culture assumes that as a given.

One of the shortfalls of the English language is that we don’t often have good words and concepts for things and so we fall into the habit of shortcuts. So, rape. What is rape? Rape is ‘unlawful sexual intercourse or any other sexual penetration of the vagina, anus or mouth of another person, without or without force, by a sex organ, other body part, or foreign object, without the consent of the victim.

THEREFORE – when you put rape together with rape culture as I have defined it above (which is not an all inclusive definition) as something that’s impossible, right? If female-presenting people don’t actually own their bodies, then how can they consent?

Note: This is not the post to derail with ‘but men get raped too’. Yep. Absolutely. Anyone regardless of presentation can get raped. Did you know that men who get raped commit suicide at something like five times the rate that women do? Because often times they see themselves as being as weak as a woman or perceived as a woman and that is so terrible to them that they cannot find a way to cope. Male rape is an incredibly complex topic and one that should be discussed and we should undo toxic masculinity which by the way, feeds into rape culture, and honestly, if we started respecting women as people whose body’s we respected, we’d reduce the rape of rape all the way around. Funny that.

So, if there is nothing to consent to, then how can I possibly rape or sexually assault her? She dressed a certain way (btw, there is no good way to get dressed to not get raped). The way to stop sexual assault is to not sexually assault people. Sexual assault is one huge vat of victim blaming and oh yeah, gaslighting.

You misunderstood. He likes you.

It’s been normalized in jokes, tv, music, advertising, and images that violence, that sexual coercion are not only okay, but encouraged. Also? That it is inevitable. I’ve seen in the last year at least two facebook posts (one by a man, one by a female-presenting person) who talked about sexual assault and then got hundreds of comments with personal stories about it. And in nearly all of them the women, myself included, take it as a given part of our experience on the planet. We have no expectation of safety.

I’m going to repeat it. There is no expectation of safety. That’s how expected it is. When women came up to me at that con? It was just a validation, a double-check of ‘oh, is it the dude in the checked shirt?’ level of questioning. Not the ‘are you sure?’

No, the insidious gaslighting of ‘Are you sure, he’s a good dude?’ came from his friends later. It always comes from their friends later. Or from random people on the internet.

Why do we doubt people? Well, part of it is gaslighting, part of it is that it’s a traumatic event and our brains literally can’t give us a linear sequence of events to form a coherent narrative. Ever been robbed? In a car accident that you took physical harm from? Beat up? Now add how intensely personal the violation is, and that most likely it’s someone you know and it’s no wonder.

And if you think you’re different I suggest you hie yourself off to a university where they can cut open your brain and study to see if you are an alien. Because no, the way people’s brains react under extreme trauma is well understood.

But the other part of it is the fact that we don’t allow body autonomy.  And I’m betting some of you out there are going to argue I’m a hysterical feminist and I’m saying everything is rape culture. Nope. Enthusiastic consent is deeply sexy.

Finally, would you really want to report that your consent was violated to a system that isn’t going to believe you? It’s like trying to talk to an unsympathetic boss – ain’t nothing going to change and it’s just going to make him mad AND I’m going to get shit for it endlessly. Nope.

Note 2: I have not gone into any detail about other aspects of rape culture, about victimizing, about toxic masculinity, about humiliation, about purity culture, about damaged goods, about the tens of thousands of untested rape kits, about Tailhook, about partner rape. It’s an incredibly complex topic. I’m just taking on the tiniest slice of it.

More tomorrow.

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