A new study explores the phenomenon of "stealthing" — the practice of non-consensually removing a condom during sex — giving a name to an act many people have experienced as extremely violating, but may not have had the words to articulate or explain. The study argues that stealthing is an act of gender-based violence, and it likely violates several civil and criminal laws.
The study, by Alexandra Brodsky for the Columbia Journal of Gender and Law, is an important addition to the literature and conversation about how we define sexual assault, sexual violence, and rape, both colloquially and legally. She interviews survivors of stealthing, while also researching the online communities and spaces that advocate for the practice. Unsurprisingly, these communities consist of men — both gay and straight — who believe they have a right to "spread their seed," and who "root their support [for stealthing] in an ideology of male supremacy in which violence is a man’s natural right,” Brodsky told The Huffington Post.
For survivors of stealthing, they may experience many of the same traumatic effects that other survivors of sexual violence do. But because stealthing is not clearly defined as sexual assault, they may feel confused as to why they're feeling this way. Not having the language to explain what happened can also make it harder to seek support for the trauma.
It is important to be clear that non-consensual condom removal is sexual assault: it forces people into a sexual situation that they were not expecting and did not agree to. In fact, a man in Switzerland was recently convicted of rape for this very act. Wikileaks' Julian Assange was also accused by multiple women of tampering with or non-consensually removing a condom during sex, and UK officials determined there was probable cause for him to be extradited to Sweden to face rape charges.
On top of the shame, confusion, and trauma that survivors of stealthing must deal with, they also face all of the potential consequences of unprotected sex, like pregnancy and STIs. One survivor in the study called the act of stealthing “rape-adjacent.” Adding to the feelings of shame and confusion can be the fact that the offense was perpetrated by someone the person had begun having consensual sex with, so the violation occurs in a situation where some level of trust has been established. This is consistent with the statistics regarding rape in general; the majority of rapes (7 in 10, according to RAINN) are perpetrated by someone known to the survivor.
In the sexual and domestic violence fields, advocates already have a name for this kind of violence: reproductive coercion. The American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG) defines reproductive coercion as "behavior [that] includes explicit attempts to impregnate a partner against her will, control outcomes of pregnancy, coerce a partner to have unprotected sex, and interfere with contraceptive methods." This kind of violence often happens within abusive relationships and is another way that abusive partners attempt to gain control over their partners.
The challenge with this kind of sexual violence, however, is how difficult it can be to prosecute, should a survivor choose to use the criminal justice system to seek retribution. This is for many of the same reasons that the majority of rapes are not prosecuted — the element of he said, she said makes the burden of proof impossibly high in many cases — but also because there is no clear legal statute that addresses the act of stealth condom removal.
In the Assange case (in which he maintains his innocence), "A lot comes down to what can be proved in court, however," Dr. Sinead Ring of the University of Kent told Broadly. "If it's proved the woman consented to sex with a condom and he changed the circumstances under which she'd consented, it's quite possible he'd be convicted of rape. But a jury would have to determine that he didn't have a reasonable belief in consent and just went ahead and did it anyway."
This is why, in the study, Brodsky concludes that a new statute could be the best course of action. This would not only help survivors pursue criminal charges if they choose to, but the clear language can help people understand what happened to them and hopefully receive support in the aftermath of the violation. “One of my goals with the article, and in proposing a new statute, is to provide a vocabulary and create ways for people to talk about what is a really common experience that just is too often dismissed as just ‘bad sex’ instead of ‘violence,'" Brodsky says.
If you have experienced sexual violence and are in need of crisis support, please call the RAINN Sexual Assault Hotline at 1-800-656-HOPE (4673).