If you’re like most sexually active adults, you’ve had a condom misadventure or five. Whether it’s having the condom break, trouble getting it on or whatever, condoms aren’t always the easiest to deal with. Still, we trust condoms to protect us from sexually transmitted infections and pregnancy. More important, we trust that any partner with whom we’ve consented to intercourse will never take the condom off before the deed is done — but terrifyingly, more people than we may realize are taking condoms off during sex without consent, aka stealthing.
An in-depth 28-page paper exploring this new sexual assault “trend” was recently published in the Columbia Journal of Gender and Law and is generating a ton of conversation already. Sure, stealthing is probably something that’s been going on for decades, but attaching this kind of buzzword to it (in such a widespread way) feels new in addition to the compelling evidence that it’s becoming a bigger problem — or at least a more talked-about one.
Written by Alexandra Brodsky, a fellow at the National Women’s Law Center at Yale Law School, the paper’s argument, more than focusing on medical statistics or scientific research, is that stealthing should be treated differently in the eyes of the law. Victims of stealthing, she says, have experienced a crime that, while not rape itself, is rape-adjacent and should be able to prosecute their assailants based on this action alone.
To make her case, Brodsky taps accounts from real women victims as well as perpetrators. Women who’ve been stealthed not only felt fear of STIs and pregnancy, but “a less concrete but deeply felt feeling of violation.” The people she interviewed indicated that stealthing is fairly common among young sexually active people (something I can attest to, having heard more than one account from a friend) and that it’s a “disempowering, demeaning violation of a sexual agreement.”
While this may seem obvious to many women, apparently, to plenty of people with penises it’s not. Some think of sex as their right — and sex without condoms as an extension of it. Brodsky cites online forums in which stealth assailants “justify their actions as a natural male instinct — and natural male right.” So basically, this isn’t about recklessness, carelessness or even pleasure, but deep-rooted misogyny and male sexual supremacy. As if we needed more evidence that we live in a world that hates women, right?
At the end of the paper, Brodsky concludes: “While overlooked by the law, nonconsensual condom removal is a harmful and often gender-motivated form of sexual violence. Remedy may be found under current law, but a new cause of action may promote the possibility of plaintiffs’ success while reducing negative unintended effects. At its best, such a law would clearly respond to and affirm the harm victims report by making it clear that ‘stealthing’ doesn’t just ‘feel violent’ — it is.”
Props to Brodsky — who has spoken up about her own sexual assault experience — for taking on this issue and making it feel immediate and relevant right now, even if it’s something that’s been happening quietly for a while. If we can get new laws to address this disturbing epidemic, it’ll be one more way women can protect themselves from sexual assault.