I've Been Stealthed-but Was It Sexual Assault?
I really hate starting stories with, “So I was dating this guy,” but unfortunately, that’s precisely how this one begins. Jake, a blindingly handsome man with more game than Steph Curry, and I had been seeing each other somewhere between casually and semi-seriously for a while. We were sleeping together regularly, but we’d never had “the talk” about exclusivity. So, when one night his condom “accidentally” slipped off during sex, I believed it was just that: an accident.
I had been stealthed. That’s the term that has come to denote secret condom removal. Like the bomber of the same name, it happens in darkness and takes its victims by surprise. “Stealthing is the word that I found perpetrators using when they talked about it online,” explains lawyer Alexandra Brodsky, whose paper in the Columbia Journal of Gender and Law drew national attention to this rarely discussed but far-too-common behavior, and brought “stealthing” into the public lexicon. According to Brodsky’s research, there are entire Internet communities dedicated to stealthing and its glorification.
I didn’t realize I had been a victim of this behavior until the second time it happened. He had finished inside me. As angry as I was, I struggled to reconcile how violated I felt with how much I liked him. I’m ashamed to say it, but at the time, I shrugged it off. I even tried to spin it as a compliment. A sign of impending monogamy, perhaps?
My reaction is not uncommon. As Brodsky explains, she’s heard “so many people, who have either had this experience or hear about it from others, [and they] dismiss it as a rude thing to do but not violent, and I think there are a lot of reasons for [that].” One of which is normalization. “Like so many kinds of gender violence, [stealthing] is perpetrated by people the victim is close to, and that kind of betrayal is jarring,” she says. “I think that it’s often easier to try and explain it away.”
And that’s precisely what I did...for a while. Instinctively, a part of me that knew I had been violated, or at least deceived, but it wasn’t in a violent, fisticuffs kind of way. I wasn’t in pain. And that’s part of what’s so tragic about situations like this: Because I wasn’t bleeding or bruised, I dismissed my feelings to protect his. It wasn’t until Jake betrayed my trust in the bedroom in a much more violent fashion—forcibly entering me in a way to which I had explicitly objected—that I started to question how I was being treated. The physical pain of that incident was enough to shock me into realizing that this was part of a disturbing pattern of behavior.
Jake and I broke up shortly thereafter, but I never brought up any of these incidents when we did. I guess I felt guilty at worst, complicit at best.
Learning that this behavior had a name made it easier to talk about with my peers. So many women I know have suffered through similar situations. Amber*, 25, says sex with her stealther started out well enough. “He was very patient. There was lots of making out with clothes on,” she confides. “At a certain point, he goes, ‘Uh, it slipped off,’ but I could hear him taking it off, and then we just finished having sex,” she recounts. They’ve continued to have unprotected sex ever since.
“I am very conflicted,” Amber says. Before she started seeing this man, her former partner had recently moved out of state; so, despite her new partner’s unsettling behavior, he was filling a void. “I’ve sort of compartmentalized the event, so I can keep having this thing,” she admits. With each day that passes in her otherwise mutually satisfying relationship, the original incident feels harder to broach. “Every time that I don’t bring it up, it’s like, ‘Well it’s been this long.’ I’ve basically co-signed at this point,’ she laments.
She also explains away the dangers of unprotected sex. Amber says that she suffers from “vague medical infertility,” so she’s not concerned about getting pregnant, and that she and her stealther discussed STI status prior to sleeping together. Had the stakes been higher, she concedes her reaction probably would have been different.
The things is, the stakes are rather high. Stealthing is how Kelly, 30, conceived her daughter. Kelly’s stealther had been pursuing her for years, despite the fact she repeatedly rejected his advances. Eventually, he forced himself on her. Kelly acknowledges the grey area into which she ventured by ultimately consenting, albeit conditionally and under duress. “We were both drunk,” Kelly recalls. “He forced himself inside me, and I felt I had no way out. I just said, ‘Not without a condom,’ and made him put one on. I sort of disassociated...I just laid there,” she says. “Toward the end he said, ‘I just put a baby in you, please don’t kill it.’ Later I found a dry condom near a pillow.”
Kelly’s experience led to an emotionally traumatic pregnancy. “It was very hard to separate my daughter from the event,” she says. Her family offered little in the way of emotional support. They “told me, ‘It wasn’t rape, he just took the condom off,’ although I didn’t even consent to sex to begin with. It was more like I gave in or bargained with him,” she says. Consent should never resemble anything close to bargaining or capitulation, but the type of victim-blaming Kelly encountered is a hallmark of rape culture.
Whether or not stealthing happens as part of a rape doesn’t change the fact that it blurs—if not pirouettes right over—the line of consent. It’s prevalence is symptomatic of what Brodsky describes as a “culture devoid of mutual sexual respect.” Over the past few months, that boorishness has never been on greater display. The outing of prominent sexual predators has become so frequent, it’s almost episodic (This week on Who Masturbated In Front Of Whom…). And the power dynamics at play in these cases are consistent with the motivations behind stealthing. “Removing the condom is a way of asserting power,” explains Brodsky. “[It’s] a way of prioritizing [one’s] desires and their will over the safety and autonomy of their partner,” she says.
Stealthing is not a compliment. We need to stop perpetuating the idea that condom-less sex is somehow an indicator of how two people feel about one another. Stealthing is, if nothing else, a form of deception. You are lying to your partner when you tamper with birth control. It’s a sin of omission.
And yet, like so many other sexual sins, is there anything that can even be done about it? Brodsky contends that stealthing is “rape-adjacent.” Lawmakers agree. Congresswoman Carolyn B. Maloney (D-NY), a longtime advocate for women’s issues, joined forces with Congressman Ro Khanna (D-CA), and wrote a letter to the House Judiciary Committee in the fall, urging its members to address stealthing.
“It should be prosecuted just as other cases of sexual assault are prosecuted,” says Maloney. “When you secretly remove a condom during intercourse, you are altering the circumstances of consent with your partner. You are committing assault.”
Cases of rape and sexual assault are notoriously hard to prosecute. One studyshows that out of 1,000 rapes, 994 perpetrators will walk free. So, it stands to reason that even if stealthing becomes tantamount to rape in the eyes of the law, getting justice may be a trickier matter. However, the symbolic and cultural relevance of legislating this kind of behavior cannot be understated. This kind of law “would certainly clear up one a grey area of consent. It’s my hope that by doing this, we expand the current national discussion of consent and make clear that sexual assault has many forms,” says Maloney.
She tells me that her and Congressman Khanna’s efforts have been well received by other lawmakers. “I don’t think a lot of lawmakers knew about this issue. I think people are starting to realize that this really is a problem.”
In my very unscientific poll of the men in my life, 100 percent condemned stealthing as deplorable, if not criminal. None of them thought it was normal or okay. In fact, many were completely floored to hear that it had happened to me. “Who are these guys you’re dating?” one asked. The funny thing is, he knew Jake.
A few times, the men compared stealthing to poking holes in a condom or a woman lying about being on the pill. That got me thinking about lying about birth control status or manipulating contraception, generally. Brodsky is quick to condemn this behavior as categorically wrong, but doesn’t put much weight in this kind of “whataboutism.” Without invalidating the male perspective, Brodsky says, “it’s okay to focus on the bad things that men do men to their partners.” Maloney takes an even firmer stance: “I don’t think that is an equal or fair comparison. We are talking about more than birth control, we are talking about the spread of disease and the psychological trauma of having your consent betrayed by someone you are trusting with your intimacy. Lying about birth control status is wrong, plain and simple. However, consenting to sex with a condom and then having it removed unbeknownst to you is deceitful, reckless, and has far reaching consequences physically and psychologically beyond unplanned pregnancy.”
I’d venture to respectfully disagree with the Congresswoman on one point: If a woman lies about her birth control status or tampers with it, the experience can be just as psychologically damaging for her partner.
Mind you, I hadn’t asked Brodsky and Maloney this question in a vacuum. The idea that a woman would coerce a man into commitment by getting pregnant is not a novel one. And even if “pulling the goalie,” so to speak, is a somewhat outdated trope, it still happens. I know a woman who did precisely that. Ashley* and her boyfriend had a somewhat tumultuous relationship, and she often lamented that if she could just get him to “settle down,” things would get better. Much to her discontent, her boyfriend repeatedly objected to having children with her. “What do you think would happen if I just went off my birth control?” she asked me once. I remember nearly choking on my wine. A couple months later, she was pregnant. I quickly booted Ashley from my life after that; her behavior reminded me too much of what had happened with Jake.
Stealthing is nothing new, people just weren’t talking about it. Women from every walk of life have been dealing with murky acts of sexual aggression from men for, well, ever. Stealthing is one of many aspects of a very large cultural and legislative gray area. But appears as though the clouds are beginning to part. As one of my favorite feminists, Sarah Silverman says, “If it’s mentionable, it’s manageable.” The first and most essential step to solving a problem is to define and talk about it. Fortunately, women like Brodsky and Maloney have brought the conversation about stealthing to national stage—it’s up to the rest of us to keep speaking up.