Legally, ‘stealthing’ is rape. So why don’t we take it seriously?
We spoke to a lawyer to explain the implications behind removing a condom without consent
Even if you’ve never heard of the term “stealthing” before, chances are you have – or know someone who has – experienced it. The ‘sex trend’ of removing a condom mid-sex without telling your partner is finally becoming something we recognise as sexual violence, thanks to a new study by Andrea Brodsky.
In her study, Brodsky calls stealthing “rape adjacent”, a small act which transforms consensual sex into a non-consensual experience. Basically, it’s a crime. And yet it’s one that’s depressingly prevalent and often considered – wrongly – not that big a deal.
Emma* told me: “I was eighteen and seeing a guy who was a bit older (he was twenty-five). I had had sex maybe a couple times before this and really didn’t know what I was doing, at all. One time we were having sex, a bit drunk, and afterwards he said the condom must have slipped or something. I believed him.
“Next time, he said he’d run out and I was pretty besotted so despite my better judgement had sex with him anyway. However his roommate revealed that the guy always had a ton, and even gave him one the day after; he’d lied about it so he didn’t have to use one, and it makes me wonder if he’d lied before about the condom “falling off”. At the time I didn’t really think much of it but when I look back now it makes me so angry to think of how he took advantage of my inexperience for his own gain, and put me at risk just because he didn’t ‘like’ having sex with a condom.
“I literally just took him at his word and didn’t even realise until years later how shitty it really was. To be honest if you’d risk STDs and getting someone pregnant, against the consent of the person you’re having sex with, you literally don’t deserve to be having sex, end of.”
A Huffington Post article on Brodsky’s study notes that there are even online communities who “defend stealthing as a male right”. It writes: “The study quotes from comment threads and forums in which men “train” other men about stealthing best practices, and offer support and advice in their pursuit of nonconsensual condom removal during sex.'”
Another girl, Lauren*, told me a depressingly familiar story of not really knowing whether she could report what happened to her. She said: “In my first year of college, I had sex with someone who took off a condom without my consent. He always wanted to go bare, but I was always scared of the consequences so I would always make him put one on. We finished with sex and I saw that the condom he had on was stuck on his back. That’s when I realized that when I thought he was just ‘readjusting’, he must have taken it off.
“After, he kept trying to comfort me saying that we would be fine and that his ‘pull out game is strong’, but I left there terrified of any STIs or pregnancy. I went with my gut and got tested and I got chlamydia. I told him about it, but he insisted he was clean and that he got lucky he didn’t get it from me. I got it treated, but sometimes I still worry that it has long term effects on my reproductive health that I don’t know about. I knew it was wrong, but he was my friend and I was scared to speak up.
“I told someone else about it and she referred to it as a form of sexual violence, but it was so hard for me to think that a friend could do that to me. I’ve come to terms with it now, but I wouldn’t wish that on anyone else.”
I spoke to Sandra Paul, a solicitor at Kingsley Napley, who explained the legalities of stealthing. Despite the assumption that “consent” is only an issue in rape cases, Sandra says it’s much more complex than that. Consent in the law is specific, and only applies to each act.
That means: if you have sex with someone who has said they’re going to use a condom and they don’t, consent is removed, and they could be convicted. One case saw a husband convicted of rape because his wife only consented to have sex with him if he withdrew, and he didn’t. He appealed the conviction but lost.
Sandra says: “If I say I’m going to have sex with you in a certain way, if you do it different, you don’t have consent for the other act. This would be considered rape.”
So if you’d experienced “stealthing” and, like Brodsky says women often do, are stuck thinking something like “I don’t know if it’s assault, and it’s probably not that big a deal, but…” here’s your explanation. It’s inexcusable, it crosses a boundary, and legally, it’s rape.
*Not their real names.