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The Not-So-New Act of Stealthing

Trigger warnings: stealthing, sexual assault.

No, we’re not talking about stealthing in terms of gaming or gender. I wish.

Stealthing: the act of removing a condom during sex without the consent of the partner. In 2010, the term was used to describe someone who had intercourse with an individual without disclosing their HIV/STI status, putting the partner’s health at risk. Google shows an upward tick in articles regarding stealthing around the fall of 2017, but this term first hit the headlines in 2012 when “how to stealth” discussion boards gained popularity (many of which have since been removed), although the act is not necessarily new, just rarely discussed.

This term has since moved to include the act of deliberately and secretly removing protection, not only lacking disclosure, since Alexandra Brodsky published her legal article Rape-Adjacent: Imagining Legal Responses to Nonconsensual Condom Removal.

Some activist groups are organizing to have the act renamed, signally they feel this pop culture term lacks clarity as a form of sexual assault and all of its potential consequences: trauma, exposure to STIs/HIV, unwanted pregnancy, abuse of boundaries, and emotional harm. While stealthing can happen to people of all types of sexualities and gender identities, it most commonly effects women.

Shawn Schutt is a professional in public health education, particularly in the area of sexual violence prevention and healthy masculinity. To beginning our talk regarding stealthing with Shawn, we have to take a few steps back for the larger picture…

What is toxic masculinity, and how does it affect women?

“Toxic masculinity, or hyper masculinity, is the culmination of ideas that our society believes make a man a ‘real’ man. They are standards that must be met in order to designate one’s self as a real man. Some of these standards are believing that a man needs to be strong, in control, make money, have sex with multiple women, be aggressive instead of compassionate, and not express any emotions except for anger.

“These beliefs impact men and women differently. For men, if this rigid blueprint of what it means to be a man isn’t followed or can’t be accomplished, it leads to men being violent, unable to expressed themselves emotionally, and depression. This would be part of the reason why we see a higher rate in completed suicides among men. For women, because of men believing they need to be in control in the relationship and not being able to communicate effectively about what they are feeling, it can lead to men believing that women aren’t equal to men and could lead to violence in the relationship.”

What role does toxic masculinity play in the act of stealthing?

“Toxic masculinity’s role in stealthing is one that comes from a man’s sense of entitlement. We (society) expect men to sleep with as many women as they can and we have raised our men to believe women aren’t their equals, thus making men respect women’s opinions or decisions less than their own. This combination leads to men wanting to sleep with whoever they want and however they can. When a woman tells them no to having sex without a condom, a man may see that as a challenge instead of a firm no.”

How can stealthing be considered a form of sexual assault?

“Stealthing is a form a sexual assault. Because consent must be given for every sexual act in a sexual encounter, consent wasn’t there for sex without a condom. Sure, consent was there for sex with a condom, but as soon as the man takes that condom off mid-sex, consent is gone. The man has not asked the woman if it’s okay for him to remove the condom and keep going.

“Think of it like a boxing match. Both people in that match have consented to get into that ring and take punches from the other person. Well, after a few rounds one of the fighters decides it would be better if they could also kick the other person so they start to kick them. That boxer will be disqualified because they did something against the rules.

“Same thing as our stealthing situation. Both have consented to sex with a condom but when the man decides it would be better without it, they take it off. That man as gone something against the agreed upon ‘rules’ for that sexual encounter and therefore committed sexual assault.”

The act of stealthing displays the entitlement that men have towards women’s bodies due to the toxic culture they’ve grown up in and have been exposed to. This toxic masculinity has endless negative effects on men, but it’s important to realize the effects it has on women, as displayed through stealthing. Stealthing can lead to life-altering STDs, STIs, unwanted or unplanned pregnancy, and the trauma that accompanies all forms of sexual violence– risks of which all seem to take a backseat to men’s sexual desires.

How do you think we can bring an end to stealthing?

“I think we can bring an end to it, but it is going to be tough. It requires us to help our men and boys unlearn what society has taught them and teach them to respect and care about what women are saying. Stealthing comes from a place of entitlement. Men have been entitled to a lot since the dawn of humankind. If we want to see real change start to happen, some of that entitlement is going to have to end and we can start by combating toxic masculinity and this idea that men (and their sexual preferences) are more important than women.”

Recently two Congress members from New York and California have brought the issue to Washington, but current American law does not address stealthing. Many rape crisis centers recognize stealthing as a form of sexual assault and providing services, but stealthing has no history of successful prosecution or case law. Sexually violent crimes are known to have a low prosecution rate– as low as 1.1%— due to lack of physical evidence, the socially taboo nature of the topic, and the common culture of victim-blaming a case away. To make it to prosecution in the first place, there must be more evidence than only a victim’s account of the assault. Prosecution faces the burden of proving not only did sex occur, they have to prove the nonconsensual aspects. In cases where sex began as consensual such as with stealthing, it can be nearly impossible to have a jury understand the idea that consent is limited to a sexual encounter that included protection and turn into assault the moment protection was removed. In instances of stealthing, it would be common to hear that the women “should have checked” or “should have realized it felt differently.”

As Shawn states and as many anti-sexual violence activist groups rally, stealthing is a form of sexual violence. It can only end through a cultural-shift driven by education for better prevention, prosecution, and men that respect women more than sexual desires, power, and control.

If you or someone you know needs help dealing with sexual assault or violence, please visit the link provided.

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