Stealthing – the act of non-consensually removing a condom during sex – has been hitting headlines for the past few weeks.
Social media users have been arguing over whether the practice should be deemed as rape with plenty of victims – both male and female – speaking out.
Alexandra Brodsky was behind the original study that popularised the term. In the report, she spoke to several women who had never talked about their experiences and found disturbing online forums where men deemed stealthing as a “natural male right.”
A question over double standards arose with men stating that a woman lying about being on birth control should be treated with the same disdain.
One man who had a child due to an ex lying about being on the contraceptive pill wrote: “Both parties are equally responsible. If you think you are responsible enough to have sex, then you are responsible enough to deal with whatever comes as a result of having sex. Long story short: don’t have sex with someone you don’t completely trust and aren’t prepared to create and raise life with if that happens.”
But should women and men really abstain from sex unless they’re 100% sure that they’re not putting themselves at risk of potential pregnancy or STIs? And is stealthing really a form of rape?
We spoke to several victims along with criminal and sexual health experts to find out more about the dangerous sex act.
What is it like to be stealthed?
“It happened when I was a teenager,” 25-year-old Rose tells Yahoo Style UK. “I was at a party, flirting with a male friend. We went to my car to hook up.
“I had a condom on me and asked him to put it on. We were both drunk and in a dark car so I never realised that he didn’t put it on,” she continues. “In fact, I only realised when I found the unopened wrapper.”
Rose admits she was “mad” about the betrayal, which had effectively taken away her consent to the sexual intercourse. “I felt violated,” she says. “And I cut that person out of my life. I did tell my friends what happened. But we never talked about it as a form of sexual assault.”
Years later, Rose reconnected with her friend and explained why she had been so upset. (“He didn’t even remember it happening. And he was remorseful and apologetic.”) She firmly believes stealthing should be treated as rape.
“Now that I understand more about rape culture and the patriarchy, I realised it was more than just a shitty thing to do. It was dangerous and disrespectful. And even though I don’t think it was done maliciously, it made me feel like my sexual safety didn’t matter.”
“I think it should be classified as rape. Rape has to do with sexual acts not being consented to. I would never have consented to unprotected sex because I wouldn’t want to run the risk of contracting a disease or becoming pregnant.”
Another victim, 20-year-old Jonni, feels stealthing isn’t quite as clear-cut. “In most cases, I believe it should be deemed as rape. But there are exceptions,” she states.
In Jonni’s case, she didn’t realise her partner had taken the condom off halfway during sex: “I was having consensual sex with someone I knew and we were using a condom at first. He stopped and I noticed it felt different. I asked him to stop and that’s when I saw he had slid the condom off.”
Jonni recalls how she felt after asking the man to leave: “I wasn’t upset or anything. I just felt like he was being misleading.”
That word, ‘misleading’, crops up a lot in stealthing conversations. Particularly in the current media furore that has solely focused on female victims, conveniently forgetting the community that knows this illegal act inside out.
Gay men have been dealing with stealthing “since we’ve been using condoms,” says 32-year-old John. “I’m irritated because it does feel like vulnerable gay men have been forgotten about and not cared about. Stealthing has only been made a big deal when straight women have realised they too can become a victim of this.”
John was happy to talk about his own experience of being stealthed. “I was having sex with a new partner. We’d agreed on condom use explicitly before (not just as a default without discussion, as is often the case with gay men),” he begins.
“At one point, I noticed I couldn’t feel the condom. I asked where it was and he said matter-of-factly: ‘Oh, I took it off. It felt so good.’ In the moment, I couldn’t think rationally. He gave me the ‘I promise I’m clean’ (meaning HIV negative) line. It’s really hard to renegotiate consent in the moment so I just carried on.”
He still clearly remembers the “sense of violation and abuse of trust” and feels “guilty” of betraying himself. “With a clear head, I would have made different decisions. Of course I should have stopped it. Of course I should have kicked him out.”
However, John is adamant in saying he doesn’t feel like he was raped, adding: “It’s a thing that happens and a risk that we take.”
Instead, he believes the coverage surrounding stealthing needs to change from a question of “is it rape?” to a more balanced view. “Stealthing is presented as a sexual health issue for gay men but a sexual assault issue for straight women. Our feelings of trauma and violation are ignored. Stealthing is not a new ‘trend’. Gay men have faced this forever.”
What are the risks?
It’s no surprise to hear that there are significant health risks to stealthing.
“People choose to wear condoms because they are the only form of contraception that protect against both sexually transmitted infections and pregnancy,” says James Long, Education and Wellbeing Coordinator for sexual health charity Brook.
“Any act that jeopardises or undermines this choice and leaves people vulnerable to STIs and pregnancy is dangerous and unacceptable.”
“In any sexual encounter, both partners have the right to say no and stop at any time and I would hope that people are respectful of that. If you have been affected by stealthing, I would urge you to visit your local sexual health service and arrange to speak to a professional and be tested straight away.”
What can you do if you have been stealthed?
People are unclear whether stealthing is actually against the law. Several experts have confirmed that the act is in fact illegal.
“Both the law and the Crown Prosecution Service are clear that so-called ‘stealthing’ is a very serious sexual offence,” Katie Russell from Rape Crisis England & Wales comments.
“Anyone has the right to consent to one type of sexual activity but not another and if one party has received consent for sex on the basis they wore a condom and then remove the condom without the other person’s knowledge or permission, consent is lost. Sex without consent is rape.”
“If you’ve experienced this, however you’re feeling is completely valid,” Katie continues. “Whatever the circumstances, this was not your fault and what happens next is entirely your choice. Talking to someone trusted can help and specialist Rape Crisis centres provide confidential listening, support and information.”
Sandra Paul from legal firm Kingsley Napley confirms that stealthing is indeed rape. “Any penetrative sex where there is no consent is rape,” she states.
“The issue that makes stealthing an offence of rape is that B (the person being penetrated) has made their consent conditional on a functioning condom being used. Where A (the person doing the penetrating) is aware of that condition and deliberately does not comply, then A does not have consent and so is guilty of rape.”
UK law has a “very clear definition of consent”, says the lawyer. Section 74 of the Sexual Offences Act 2003 states that “a person consents if he agrees by choice, and has the freedom and capacity to make that choice.”
That choice “has to be informed choice,” continues Sandra. She admits that there will always be an issue of proving that there was a lack of consent in court but mentions that there have been high-profile cases of stealthing.
Wikileaks founder Julian Assange is in fact being accused of tampering with and non-consensually removing condoms during sex by multiple women. UK officials concluded that there was enough reason for him to be extradited to Sweden to face rape charges.
Obviously, this hasn’t yet happened as the 45-year-old is still holed up in the Ecuadorian embassy.
Nevertheless, Sandra is “really pleased to hear about anything that increases the likelihood that people, particularly young people, will have a conversation about sex and consent and what that means.”
“Stealthing is not pranking or funny. Fundamentally, it is often associated with other forms of control and disrespect which are warning signs. If this has happened to you, or if you have done this to someone, there is really good help and information available which can be accessed independently.”
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