Removing a condom during sex - known as stealthing - transforms a consensual act into a non-consensual one.
It's a little-discussed form of gender violence, but that is all changing thanks to a new study into the phenomenon, published last week.
When a man removes a condom during sex - often unbeknownst to his partner, be they man or woman - he is opening them up to the risk of pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections.
But mostly, he’s committing an act he was not permitted to do, which many people are claiming is “rape-adjacent.”
For most men, the reason they remove condoms - often when changing positions so their partner doesn’t notice - is because they prefer the feel of sex without wearing one. But some also do so to exert power over their partners.
Apart from unwanted pregnancies and STIs, “survivors experienced nonconsensual condom removal as a clear violation of their bodily autonomy and the trust they had mistakenly placed in their sexual partner,” study author Alexandra Brodsky, a legal fellow at the National Women's Law Center, writes in the Columbia Journal of Gender and Law.
“Survivors [of stealthing] describe non-consensual condom removal as a threat to their bodily agency and as a dignitary harm,” she explains. “‘You have no right to make your own sexual decisions,’ they are told. ‘You are not worthy of my consideration.’”
Her report explores the phenomenon and shares the experiences of a number of victims.
“Obviously the part that really freaked me out was that it was such a blatant violation of what we’d agreed to,” one woman quoted in the study said. “I set a boundary. I was very explicit.”
— Mike P Williams (@Mike_P_Williams) April 24, 2017
Brodsky also shares the story of a woman called Rebecca who had herself been stealthed and now works for a sexual violence crisis hotline.
“Their stories often start the same way,” Rebecca said. “’I’m not sure if this is rape, but...’”
Brodsky says she decided to undertake the research when she was in law school in 2013 and realized how many of her 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.”
Many women - for it is predominantly women - who are victims of stealthing feel conflicted about it as they don’t know the act of removing a condom during sex has a name. They knew they felt violated, but “didn’t have the vocabulary” to process it, Brodsky explained to the HuffPost.
“Everyone knew that it felt like a serious violation,” she says. “Everyone knew it was a betrayal of trust.
“A number of the people I talked to felt like because it wasn't something they'd heard discussed, because it wasn't something they had a name for, they struggled to know how to think about it in the context of other disrespectful and violent sexual experiences they'd had.”
Brodsky hopes her research will end this by shedding light on the practice, as it’s possible stealthing is on the rise.
I literally feel sick reading articles on #stealthing. What kind of person thinks that is ok? Vile, horrible creatures.
— Nicola (@oh_nicola) April 25, 2017
As part of her research, Brodsky delved into dark corners of the internet where she found communities of men discussing how to get away with stealthing and swapping tips. These are men who think it is their “right” to “spread their seed” with every woman they have sex with.
“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.”
One man, for example, has published a “comprehensive guide” to committing the act:
He reveals how his first experience of stealthing gave him a rush “more intense than I can describe” and how he’s over time developed different techniques.
“Of course,” he writes, “You can always try the, 'What's wrong? I thought you knew it was off? You mean you didn't feel it? I thought you knew!!' approach which for me has had a surprisingly high success rate.”
Brodksy believes stealthing may violate a number of criminal and civil laws and victims have the right to pursue justice, but none of the victims in the study took legal action.
However, earlier this year a Swiss man was convicted of rape for stealthing in a landmark case.
“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.
Just heard #stealthing exists and i think i want to be sick now.
— Derek Lavery (@DHLavery) April 24, 2017
But many of the existing laws are insufficient: “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.”
In the UK, the the Istanbul Convention, which aims to bring violence against women - including all non-consensual acts of a sexual nature - was ratified earlier this year, so stealthing would definitely come under that.
Brodsky thinks a new law specific to condom removal should be introduced.
Furthermore, she doesn’t want to give any power to the men who commit stealthing: “I think that term really trivialises the harm; it obscures the violence and makes it sound sneaky and maybe regrettable but ultimately an inevitable part of sex, and that's not true. We deserve better than that.