Blog: Stealthing - When consensual sex becomes rape
Note: A number of blogs and articles have been included on Leap21 to provide a glimpse into important ideas and discussions taking place with respect to sexual violence.
Love is Respect Article: by Tatiana Shams, Content Manager
In a previous entry, we talked about the idea of sex and consent being mutually exclusive: You can’t have sex without consent because sex without consent is not sex—it’s rape.
It never gets easy when we hear about rape and abuse here at loveisrespect, but we also know that things can get complicated sometimes. So, what happens when people experience other types of abuse that are not so easy to identify, like stealthing?
We can tell you: Victims often feel confused, ashamed and they’re not even sure how to digest what just happened to them. They just know it’s not right. They weren’t looking for it. They didn’t deserve it.
So, what is stealthing, exactly?
Stealthing is when a partner secretly removes a condom during sex without the other person’s consent. Yup, you read that right! Condom removal without the other person’s consent? Like…how? Isn’t that rape? Can it happen to you if you are in a committed, long-term relationship with someone? Sadly, yes and yes.
We know stealthing is not new—in fact, it’s probably as old as condoms themselves (think 300 A.D. according to some studies), but we do know that the reasons why someone may want to stealth a partner can be rooted in the desire to exert power and control over another human being. At the end of the day, stealthing is disrespecting someone’s trustfor the other person’s sexual gain—and that is never OK. Sex can be a normal part of any relationship, in which two (sometimes more) people engage in something that is consensual and meaningful to them, regardless of being in a long-term relationship or not.
Why would anyone want to stealth another person? Here are a few ideas:
1. Stealthing can be considered emotional abuse: Even if you had consented to going “all the way,” with someone, that doesn’t mean that the person you consented to have sex with has the right to bypass said consent and use it to violate your body by removing a condom during sex without your permission. Because that is what stealthing does—it violates your body! It violates the trust you placed in the other person and the agreement you had with that person to respect each other’s bodies and feelings. Therefore, when someone deliberately does this to hurt you, there’s no doubt they are engaging in emotional abuse.
2. Stealthing can also be considered sexual abuse: Although we are seeing and hearing about more stealthing cases every day in the media, there’s currently no formal legislation on sexual assault and rape that identifies stealthing as sexual assault—but that might soon change. In the fall of 2017, members of Congress requested a hearing in the House Judiciary Committee to address stealthing as an “emerging legal problem.” They argued—and rightfully so—that stealthing can have devastating effects on a person’s health and wellbeing. Why? Because if a partner removes a condom during sex without telling the other person, it can lead to unwanted pregnancies or catching a sexually transmitted disease (STD).
3. Stealthing perpetrators rationalize it: “It feels better without a condom:” Choosing to have sex without a condom for your own sexual gratification sounds great—until you consider one of the very real health implications: STDs. Nonconsensual condom removal leaves you and your partner vulnerable to catching STDs such as chlamydia, gonorrhea, syphilis, genital herpes and HIV, some of which can cause infertility and other long-term health concerns if left untreated. Remember, while some STDs are totally treatable, others are not and can stay with you for a lifetime, often without symptoms. But, just because they are asymptomatic doesn’t mean you can’t still pass them on to future sexual partners.
4. Stealthing can be used to get someone pregnant and stuck in a relationship: As we mentioned before, no one has the right to control another human being or their body; therefore, stealthing can be used as a manipulative technique for further coercion and manipulation. If survivors finds themselves pregnant and with no resources or anyone to turn to, the perpetrator has won in their quest to continue exercising power and control over the victim by creating a lifelong tie between them.
5. Stealthing can be rooted in misogynistic thinking: Researcher Alexandra Brodsky published a study about stealthing in the Columbia Journal of Gender and Law and some of her findings were… erm… disturbing. After interviewing several men and women who had been victims of stealthing, reading online forums and conducting research, Brodsky found out that stealthing perpetrators justified their behavior by using misogynist rhetoric like stealthing is a “man’s right” and a “male’s natural instinct.” Or that women “deserve to be impregnated” and that “men are supposed to spread their seed—even when reproduction is not an option.”
If you’ve been a victim of stealthing or if you fear it may happen to you, here are a few ideas that may be of help:
Don’t blame yourself! Although you may have consented to having sex in the first place, you consented to having protected sex. If your partner decided to remove the condom during sex, please remember that was your partner’s choice—and that is not your fault! It may be easy to blame yourself for not noticing, but the reality is that so many things take place at the same time during sex! The lights may have been off or maybe you were not physically in a position to confirm a condom was being used. The reasons are endless, really, so please remember to be gentle with yourself if this happens to you. Practicing some self-care may be helpful to get over these feelings of guilt!
Get tested for STDs or pregnancy: As scary as these may sound, getting tested is the only way to know for sure if you caught an STD or if you became pregnant as a result of stealthing. Although certain things may fall out of your control in this life, you always do have control over your body and reproductive rights. We know getting tested can be scary, but you deserve to know what’s going on with your body and health.
Trust your gut! If something doesn’t feel right, it probably isn’t. Don’t be afraid to speak up just because you are afraid of upsetting the other person or out of fear the other person may want to leave the relationship. You have rights! If you don’t feel safe asserting your rights with your partner, that is a big red flag that you may be in an abusive relationship.
When in doubt, check it out! If you fear your partner may be capable of removing a condom without your mutual consent, it may be helpful to keep an eye out for it, especially if they are acting suspicious or if they pretend to adjust the condom during sex. Keep the lights on if you need to, or conduct a manual inspection to confirm the condom is still in place. If your findings are not satisfactory, remember you always have the right to say no to sex regardless of where you are or who you are with. Remember: It’s your body and you don’t have to do anything you are not comfortable with!
BYOC: Bring Your Own Condoms: Whether you are having casual sex or sex in a committed relationship, it may be helpful to bring your own condoms if you feel your partner may tamper with them. Even when a condom may look brand new, they can still be broken inside and made to look like new if a partner has the intention of stealthing you. And we’re sure you know this, but never, ever open a condom with your teeth!