It should go without saying, but stealthing, or the non-consensual removal of a condom during sex (also known as "stealthing"), is not only a consent violation, it is straight-up sexual assault. Although estimates suggest 6-10% of young men may engage in stealthing and 19-32% of women may be victims, it doesn’t make this literal dick move any less morally or ethically irreprehensible.
Stealthing is a Sex Crime
“Informed consent is an essential part of every sex act,”
“Informed consent is an essential part of every sex act,” says Leah Carey, sex and intimacy coach and host of the Good Girls Talk About Sex podcast. “That means both partners know what’s going to happen and opt into the activity.” Consent is a key element of safer sex and sex education, and the conversations we have around consent can help define our safer sexual experiences.
Read: A Step-by-Step Guide to Negotiating Consent
For example, Sarah Melancon, Ph.D., sociologist, sexologist, and the sexuality and relationships expert for SexToyCollective.com points out, if one partner consented to sex under specific conditions (i.e., using a condom), then secretly changing those conditions violates the consent agreement. There’s no such thing as non-consensual sex. The absence of consent mean it is an assault. If a partner doesn’t consent, it violates a partner’s sexual autonomy and the right to make their own sexual and health decisions, says Melancon.
Here are a few other stealthing stats Melancon brings to light:
- While less researched, men who have sex with men also experience stealthing. In one study, 19% of male patients with male sexual partners were victims.
- In a study of men who admitted to stealthing, they engaged in this act an average of 3.62 times.
- Stealthing is more common among men who are hostile towards women.
- Relatedly, sex workers are particularly likely to be targeted.
- Stealthing is often associated with binge drinking or recreational drug use.
- In one study - unsurprisingly - men who stealthed were almost twice as likely to be diagnosed with an STI or have a partner with an unplanned pregnancy.
Carey notes that consent violations don’t just cause physical harm (in this case, risk of unplanned pregnancy or STIs), they cause emotional harm as well. “A person who has experienced stealthing may move into their next sexual encounter with suspicion and fear, regardless of how ethical their next partner may be,” she says. “That suspicion and fear is the opposite of what is required to relax into a truly fulfilling sexual experience.
"Suspicion and fear is the opposite of what is required to relax into a truly fulfilling sexual experience."
California recently became the first state in the U.S. to make stealthing illegal. “The criminalization of stealthing is a significant milestone marking how far our justice system has come in ensuring everyone's safety, especially in contexts concerning sexual consent,” says a California lawyer who declined to be named as a source. “This legislation is critical as it addresses the gaping hole in the crimes act, finally amending current consent provisions. With the purpose of reinforcing the justice system's categorization of stealthers as sexual abusers, this law will explicitly highlight the act as a clear negation of an individual's consent through intentionally misrepresenting using a condom during sexual activity,” they said.
Read: Everyday Violations of Consent We Don't Think About
The lawyer goes on to explain that technically, the Californian law on stealthing is just an amendment to the civil code, making the act a civil offense when done. “However, it is legally seen as a misdemeanor sexual battery despite not being explicitly named in the criminal code,” they say. “While it's not the penal code, this anti-stealthing law eliminates the ambiguity in any civil claim made highly guaranteeing the protection of people who experiences it, as if the act was a criminal offense.”
Ultimately, the anti-stealthing law is a timely and relevant tool that equips the court with more bullets to protect and uphold principles related to the current global climate of women’s safety. “While this law is not an exact antidote to cure rampant cases of sexual abuse, it is at the very least, the mark of continuous progress to achieve social justice while continually enhancing criminal justice,” says the source.
“While this law is not an exact antidote to cure rampant cases of sexual abuse, it is at the very least, the mark of continuous progress to achieve social justice while continually enhancing criminal justice,”
It’s a start, but the United States still has a long way to go. For instance, stealthing is considered rape in the UK – although there’s only been one successful conviction, and that was in 2019. (Under UK law, consent is required for each sexual act and is specific to what is agreed-upon.) After Germany overhauled its sex crimes laws in 2016, the first case was prosecuted two years later when a police officer was found guilty after stealthing his partner.
Read: A Short History of Sexual Consent
Swiss and Canadian courts have also prosecuted cases of condoms broken or removed by people with penises unbeknownst to their partners. And as of this month, steathing has been made a crime in the Australian Capital Territory (ACT) – the first territory to do so in Australia.
Hopefully, the new law will spark others like it — and make space for the hard conversations and necessary reform that needs to be had surrounding sexual assault.
Ryn Pfeuffer is a versatile print and digital writer specializing in sex, lifestyle, and relationship topics. Over the past two decades, her work has appeared in more than 100 media outlets including Marie Claire, Playboy, Refinery29, The Globe and Mail, The Washington Post, WIRED, and Thrillist.
She adopted a pseudonym and was AVN’s (Adult Video Network) first female porn reviewer – while penning children’s books at the same time. More recently, she is the author of 101 Ways to Rock Online Dating (2019). She lives in Seattle with her rescue dog, Mimi. You can find her on Twitter @rynpfeuffer or IG @ryn_says