Asking a man to wear a condom during consensual sex is perfectly normal – and safe – sexual practice. Not only does it prevent unwanted pregnancy, but it also protects both partners against contracting STIs. That’s why the practice of ‘stealthing’, when a man removes a condom during penetrative sex without his partner’s consent, is so dangerous. It is also sexual assault.
Alexandra Brodsky, a fellow at the National Women’s Law Center, has published a new study into ‘stealthing’ in the Columbia Journal of Gender and Law. She explains that the previous lack of language to describe ‘stealthing’ has made it difficult for women who have experienced it to recognise it for what it is – yet another form of gender-based violence.
For the report, Brodsky interviewed a number of survivors of ‘stealthing’ a well as exploring online communities of men who practice the act, as part of her research.
She speaks to a rape crisis hotline worker called Rebecca, who tells Brodsky that she receives calls from vulnerable women who have experienced ‘stealthing’ all the time. Their conversations, she says, almost always start with ‘I’m not sure this is rape, but…’ Brodsky goes on to form potential legal responses to the act she has deemed to be ‘rape-adjacent’.
— Siobhán Stewart (@vonny_bravo) April 24, 2017
The survivors Brodsky interviews document a range of different experiences, from those who didn’t realise the condom had been removed until the moment of re-penetration, to those who had no idea what had happened until their partner ejaculated inside of them.
“The part that really freaked me out… was that it was such a blatant violation of what we’d agreed to,” one survivor said. “I set a boundary. I was very explicit.” It later turned out that Rebecca, the call centre worker, had experienced ‘stealthing’ herself. “I agreed to f**k him with a condom, not without it,” she said. The theme between all survivors? A feeling of fear, shame and violation. They were scared of unwanted pregnancy, worried about contracting STIs and upset that their right to choose what happens to their bodies was taken away from them.
Then there’s the part about the online ‘stealthing’ communities, in which seasoned assaulters teacher newer guys how to get rid of the condom during intercourse without their partner noticing. Brodksy writes: “Online discussions suggest offenders and their defenders justify their actions as a natural male instinct — and natural male right.
“Men who stealth assault other men display similar rhetoric focused on a man’s ‘right’ to spread his seed — even when reproduction is not an option.
It’s both affirming and terrible to write about an under-acknowledged form of gender violence and hear a chorus of “me, too” in response
— Alexandra Brodsky (@azbrodsky) April 24, 2017
“Situating nonconsensual condom removal within the broad category of gender violence reveals that the practice is an ethical wrong with practical, psychic, and politically salient repercussions for its victims,” she concludes.
Again, the matter boils down to two main issues. The toxic masculinity that sees men use sex as a form of power and control over women – the very same that sees women catcalled in the street and groped at gigs – and the issue of consent. Consenting to having sex with someone with a condom is different to consenting to a man not wearing one.
At the moment, it is consent that is often the legally determining factor between sex and rape. But should our laws be adapted to more explicitly include ‘stealthing’, too? In Switzerland, for example, there is already a legal precedent that man who removes his condom without his partner’s consent during sex is guilty of rape.
None of the survivors considered pursuing legal action for being victims of ‘stealthing’. In the UK legal system, ‘stealthing’ isn’t something that is recognised alone. However, in the extradition case of Julian Assange v Swedish Prosecution Authority , the President of the Queen’s Bench Division argued that the “issue of materiality”, the relevance of the complainant consenting to have sex with a condom but not with one, could be considered a crime under section 74 of the 2003 Sexual Offences Act. Legal guidelines for ‘intentional or reckless sexual transmission of infection’ also exist. You can read them in full on the CPS website here.
Even so, with so few rape cases even getting to court, the evidence needed for the Crown Prosecution Service to even consider putting a ‘stealthing’ case in front of a jury would be difficult to obtain.
If you are concerned by a sexual experience like ‘stealthing’ or any other form of potential assault, call Rape Crisis on 0808 802 9999. The hotline is available from 10am until midnight every day. It is confidential, and they will be able to give you expert advice legally and practically.