There's a lot of weird language around sex and dating behaviors these days: ghosting, breadcrumbing, orbiting. One "trend" that you should definitely be aware of? Stealthing. This lesser-known form of sexual assault is not only invasive and violating, it can be downright dangerous for both parties involved—and especially for women.
The term—though it's been around for years—made headlines last week, after California Governor Gavin Newsom signed a bill into law making the practice of stealthing illegal, according to The New York Times. Specifically, the bill amends California's definition of sexual battery, adding the act of stealthing to the list of other acts already covered by the law, like intentionally making "offensive contact" with another person's "intimate parts."
In a tweet shared on October 7, Governor Newsom's office wrote: "By passing this bill, we are underlining the importance of consent." California is the first state in the US to ban stealthing, per The New York Times—similar bills have been introduced in Wisconsin and New York, though neither have passed.
What is stealthing?
"Stealthing is the act of non-consensual condom removal," Wendasha Jenkins Hall, PhD, an independent sexuality researcher and educator with expertise in women's sexual and reproductive health, tells Health. "In basic terms, it's when a male partner removes or purposely damages the condom during sex without their partner's clear consent."
The phenomenon came to light in a 2017 report by Alexandra Brodsky for the Columbia Journal of Gender and Law, but Brodsky attributes the term itself to certain corners of the internet (ahem, Reddit). In her paper, Brodsky imagined what legal recourse stealthing victims might have, deeming the nonconsensual interaction "rape-adjacent."
As of yet, though, there are no cases in the US that have prosecuted stealthing as sexual assault, although bills have been put forth to consider stealthing sexual assault in Wisconsin and California, Elizabeth L. Jeglic, PhD, a clinical psychologist, sexual violence prevention researcher, and professor of psychology at John Jay College in New York City, tells Health.
Stealthing is considered sexual assault by sexual violence prevention experts because it essentially turns a consensual sexual encounter (protected sex) into a nonconsensual one (unprotected sex) "Stealthing is a clear violation of informed consent," says Hall.
It's also exceptionally dangerous. Purposefully and secretly removing or damaging a condom opens up both partners to the risk of contracting sexually transmitted infections (which, FYI, are already at an all-time high, according to a scary report published just last week by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). For women, stealthing can lead to unwanted pregnancies. "There's also the violation of trust, autonomy, and dignity, which could have long-term psychological impact," says Jeglic.
Why would someone commit the act of stealthing?
Maybe you've been with someone who claimed sex felt better (for them and you) without a condom—one of the most common reasons men give for stealthing. But as with any kind of sexual assault, it's not just about preference or pleasure.
In her report, Brodsky wrote, "online writers who practice or promote nonconsensual condom removal root their actions in misogyny and investment in male sexual supremacy. While one can imagine a range of motivations for 'stealthers'—increased physical pleasure, a thrill from degradation—online discussions suggest offenders and their defenders justify their actions as a natural male instinct—and natural male right."
Stealthing is a selfish act of power and control, says Hall. "The perpetrator feels entitled to their partner's body," she explains. "The 'pleasure' and 'thrill' is actually derived from asserting their presumed power over their partner by purposely violating them with an act that they would not typically consent to."
How to help protect yourself against stealthing
The deceptive and coercive nature of stealthing make it inherently difficult to avoid. But there are a few things that can decrease your risk of being a victim. First and foremost, "prior to any sexual encounter, be sure to express your boundaries," says Hall. In other words, make it clear that you're only saying "yes" to sex with a condom.
Jeglic also suggests bringing your own condoms to make sure they aren't damaged, checking that the condom remains on throughout intercourse, using condoms that you can feel (i.e. ones that are ribbed), and asking your partner to ejaculate outside of your body (yes, even with a condom on).
If you've been stealthed, the most important thing to remember is that it's not your fault, it's assault. You should seek medical treatment to prevent STIs and pregnancy ASAP, says Jeglic. "And if you want to press charges, then you should go to a rape crisis unit where they can obtain physical evidence—even if your partner is not charged with sexual assault, you can pursue a civil case."
As physically violating is stealthing is, it can also have serious mental health ramifications. So don't shut down or withdraw; seek support from a friend, mental health professional, and/or rape crisis helpline. Not sure where to turn? Visiting the National Sexual Violence Resource Center or RAINN's National Sexual Assault Hotline are two good places to start.
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