A new study explores the phenomenon of “stealthing” ― the purposefully nonconsensual removal of condoms during sex ― and how those who fall victim to the practice can move forward.
The study, written by Alexandra Brodsky for the Columbia Journal of Gender and Law, features interviews with victims of stealthing. Brodsky also does a deep dive into the online world of men who feel entitled to “bareback” sex without their partner’s consent, regardless of that partner’s gender.
Ultimately, Brodsky argues, stealthing is an act of gender-based violence that may violate a number of civil and criminal laws.
Brodsky told The Huffington Post that she wanted to study the phenomenon because, as she entered law school in the fall of 2013, she realized how many of her women friends were “struggling with forms of mistreatment by sexual partners that weren’t considered part of the recognized repertoire of gender based violence ― but that seemed rooted in the same misogyny and lack of respect.”
Brodsky, who now serves as a Legal Fellow for National Women’s Law Center (but wrote this article outside of her role for the organization), told HuffPost that what she found in her research was a group of victims who knew that something about being stealthed felt incredibly violating, but they “didn’t have the vocabulary” to process it.
She opens the study with the story of one woman, Rebecca, who had been stealthed herself, and who worked on a sexual violence crisis hotline. She found that many women were calling the hotline to try to suss out their experiences of having been stealthed.
“Their stories often start the same way,” Rebecca said. “’I’m not sure if this is rape, but...’”
Victims are confronted with not only the potential repercussions of condom-less sex ― pregnancy, STIs, HIV and AIDS ― but similar feelings of confusion and shame to those who have been victims of other kinds of sexual violence. After all, women who have been stealthed have been forced into a sexual act to which they have not consented. One victim in the study called the act of stealthing “rape-adjacent.” Another shared how the experience left her feeling violated and “freaked out.”
“Obviously the part that really freaked me out...was that it was such a blatant violation of what we’d agreed to,” she said. “I set a boundary. I was very explicit.” (It’s also worth noting that, earlier this year, a man in Switzerland was convicted of rape for this very act.)
In the study, Brodsky writes, “Survivors [of stealthing] describe nonconsensual condom removal as a threat to their bodily agency and as a dignitary harm. ‘You have no right to make your own sexual decisions,’ they are told. ‘You are not worthy of my consideration.’”
One can note that proponents of 'stealthing' root their support in an ideology of male supremacy in which violence is a man's natural right.
Brodsky highlights the online communities who defend stealthing as a male “right,” particularly a right of every man to “spread his seed” ― regardless of if said man is engaging in straight or gay penetrative sex. 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.
“One can note,” Brodsky writes, “that proponents of ‘stealthing’ root their support in an ideology of male supremacy in which violence is a man’s natural right.” (The Huffington Post attempted to reach out to two publicly vocal and proud stealthers for this story but did not hear back.)
Because of the connection between stealthing and sexual assault, and the fact that both acts are rooted in beliefs of male dominance and supremacy, Brodsky believes there is reason for victims to pursue justice.
In the study, she highlights the preexisting tools in the legal system, should victims of stealthing wish to pursue any kind of legal recourse (none of the victims featured in the study did).
“Survivors experience real harms ― emotional, financial, and physical ― to which the law might provide remedy through compensation or simply an opportunity to be heard and validated,” she writes.
But Brodsky also acknowledges that the systems in place to support sexual violence survivors often do the opposite.
“We know that the law doesn’t work for gender violence survivors,” she told HuffPost. “Many of the myths and assumptions and forms of skepticism that we see from judges approaching rape victims and other kinds of sexual assault victims are likely to be present in stealthing cases.”
Which is why, in the study, she concludes that a new statute might be the best way to go ― not just because victims might want to press charges or pursue a case against the person who stealths them, but because having the vocabulary and means to discuss more forms of gender violence will be helpful in both preventing the acts and recovering from them.
“The law isn’t the answer for everyone, and it can’t fix every problem every time,” Brodsky said. “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.’”
Head over to the Columbia Journal of Gender and Law for the whole study.
Need help? In the U.S., call 1-866-331-9474 or text “loveis” to 22522 for the National Dating Abuse Helpline.