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‘Stealthing' is sexual assault and should be treated as such

By Maya Khamala

There’s a lot of weird-as-shit language around sex and dating nowadays: ghosting, benching, breadcrumbing, catfishing, orbiting, phubbing, the list goes on. But one trending term we should all definitely be aware of is “stealthing,” a common form of sexual assault wherein men nonconsensually remove a condom during sex without their partner knowing. A truly disturbing mutli-level violation—yup, I know. Fucking gross.

While little research exists on the topic, some preliminary US data shows that 14% of sexually active female undergraduates have experienced stealthing on at least one occasion, and a 2019 survey of Canadian undergrads found that 18.7% had experienced stealthing as well. While the phenomenon appears to largely affect straight women, gay men are also survivors of stealthing.

Why it’s NOT ok by any stretch of the imagination

Upon discovering their partner has removed the condom without their consent, many survivors of stealthing report feeling angry, disrespected, scared, violated, disgusted, shocked, upset, betrayed, and used—plus, they tend to become understandably anxious about the dangers of STIs and unwanted pregnancy. Stealthing tends to have a similar emotional, mental, and physical impact as more “official” sex crimes.

When you break it down, stealthing is traumatic. It takes away your agency, your decision making power. On top of the physical health and reproductive risks, there is also depression, anxiety, a lack of trust in future partners, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Yet because stealthing is far from understood on a societal level, survivors end up minimizing their experiences. The thing is, learning more about stealthing and its context can actually help survivors better understand why it is they feel like shit afterwards—and how to better deal with it.

Truth: stealthing is sexual assault

Let’s start with a pop culture reference, since those have a real way of creeping into our collective imagination: stealthing was actually explored onscreen in 2020 in the BBC One drama I May Destroy You. In the fourth episode, the leading lady Arabella has sex with a guy who removes the condom without her knowing. Much like many women, she doesn't process it as rape until she later hears a podcast on stealthing.

Although stealthing has been happening forever, the term first became popularized in 2017 when Alexandra Brodsky published an article about the practice in a report in the  Columbia Journal of Gender and Law. It should be noted, however, that the term had been used in the gay community since 2014. Brodsky argues that stealthing is sexual assault and should be treated that way, asserting that since existent laws don’t even recognize it as a thing, a new statute is necessary to address this shockingly common violation of sexual and reproductive choices.

In fact, as we speak, advocates in several states are urging legislatures to declare the act a form of criminal sexual assault. Although there’s not a lot in the way of positive precedents out there, here’s one: in 2017, a Swiss court convicted a man of rape after he took off his condom without informing his partner. The court concluded that she would not have consented to sex without the condom. And in 2018, an Australian man was charged with rape for allegedly removing a condom without consent, although the actual trial has yet to happen due to delays associated with the pandemic.

The “trend”

All this begs the question: why would a man choose to “stealth”? I mean, even the most vile, unfeeling character must understand that he’s putting himself at risk at the same time, right?

Let’s start with the basics: men who stealth see their partners as possessions, rather than human beings who have the right to make their own decisions about sex. There are actually online communities out there dedicated to teaching men how to stealth—no joke—and even praising those who do. Vomit.

According to a recent study by gynecologist and academic Sumayya Ebrahim, the reasons for stealthing cited in these online forums include: “sex feels better without a condom,” “the thrill of degradation,” and “a right to spread their seed.”

“[These statements] are reflective of the dismissive attitude that stealthers have toward their partners' rights and wishes,” she writes. “It is also reflective of them prioritising their own sexual gratification at the expense of their own health and their partner's health and wishes.”

A self-identified stealther who called in to the ABC radio program Triple J Hack in 2017 offered this in the way of explanation: “there's a risk crossing the road and we all do that.”

According to Dr. Brianna Chesser, a registered psychologist and senior lecturer in criminology and justice, we can boil stealthing down to an exertion of dominance and power. And she believes it can happen to anyone.

How to deal if it happens to you

We’ve all got enough to think about when it comes to sex and dating, I know. And yet, taking precautions against stealthing as well as having a plan in place should it happen to you is important.

First, a frank and honest discussion about expectations around continual condom use during intercourse is not going overboard, and any sexual partner worth their salt will understand that. You might also opt for ribbed condoms (if they feel good), so that they can be felt more easily. Periodically checking that the condom is still there with your hands/eyes ain’t overkill either. Some experts suggest carrying your own condoms, insisting your partner use them, as well as  asking said partner not to cum inside you.

As far as reporting acts of stealthing goes, the success of criminal and civil prosecution is still up in the air, but if you experience stealthing, you might consider reporting it to either the police or a rape crisis center, as well as seeking prompt medical attention so that physical samples can be taken; your case documented; and unwanted pregnancy and STIs curbed asap.

While there are brave stealthing survivors out there pushing for their rights to the full extent of the law, the reality is unsurprising: most police lack an appropriate understanding of stealthing or anything that strays from textbook sexual assault. Hell, even in “cut-and-dry” cases where a woman is assaulted by a man in a dark alley, victim-blaming abounds, and the onus tends to be on the survivor to generate proof—if they can withstand being retraumatized by law enforcement and the courts. Once a rape case does actually make it to court (as very few do), the conviction rate is relatively high, but to make it to this point, there must evidence beyond the survivor’s account. In cases of stealthing where sex began as consensual, this is next to impossible. All this to say that the decision to report an incident to the police is not for everyone (much less women of color with a history of being racialized and profiled by police), and the last thing you should do is judge yourself for choosing not to.

I say, do what you need to do to support yourself—whether that involves healing in private, sharing your experience with friends and family, publishing an exposé, or grabbing a megaphone and taking to the streets. Above all, move at your own pace. If you need outside support and are not sure who to contact, visit the National Sexual Violence Resource Center or RAINN's National Sexual Assault Hotline for starters. <3

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