As a college student, I hear all kinds of stories about the stupid things men say to get out of using a condom, like: “It’s too tight”, “It’s uncomfortable” or “But it just feels better without one.” Each one earns an eye roll. No one should put their body at risk of STIs or pregnancy just for someone else’s pleasure!
But there’s another, more devious way that men are getting out of using condoms. I was in my sophomore year when I first heard the term, “stealthing”: the removal or tampering of a condom without a partner’s consent. Many domestic violence advocacy agencies refer to this as “reproductive coercion” or simply, “non-consensual condom removal”.
Some lawmakers and advocates want it classified as rape, yet some men don’t see it as wrong at all. This discrepancy occurs because people think that stealthing is in some kind of gray area – but it’s not. If your partner wouldn’t have sex with you without a condom, and you take it off without their consent, that is sexual assault.
Is Stealthing Common?
I have never been a victim of stealthing, but I’ve had enough interactions with college-aged men to realize this was probably happening to people around me. So I reached out on social media to see if anyone I was connected to had experienced stealthing. The responses blew me away. Within 24 hours, I had 3 interviews set up with victims of stealthing.
First, I spoke with Jenny*. Jenny had just gotten out of a relationship, and said she was in a “Tinder Phase”. Following a common script, the 21-year-old matched with a guy online, hit it off, and decided to have a late night “hang out.”
After they got to know each other, the two began to have sex. It became a bit rougher than Jenny had anticipated. She says they stopped to take a breather, but never left the bed. They resumed having sex a few minutes later.
Her date didn’t tell her that he had removed his condom during their quick break, and never put one back on. The small amount of trust she had put in this stranger was gone.
Jenny said his excuse was, “Oh sorry I forgot to put one back on.” He never asked her if this was OK. By making this decision, he put Jenny’s health in danger, but also his own.
“I actually have herpes. So, when I use a condom, I don’t usually tell people,” Jenny said. “Maybe I should have told him before, but how was I supposed to know he was going to take the condom off?”
The incident sparked a very uncomfortable conversation, and Jenny never saw that guy again, even though he messaged her a few times after that night. This experience left her worried about more STIs, but not an unplanned pregnancy because she was on birth control. Mostly though, she says her trust was hurt. Jenny says her date knew that she bought condoms right before he came over.
“He was obviously very aware that I wanted him to wear one. It was definitely a violation of my trust and consent,” She said.
There's An Increased Awareness of Stealthing
Stealthing has come into the spotlight in the last few years following the #MeToo movement. It has been featured in television series like HBO’s recent “I May Destroy You” and there has been legislation attempting to make stealthing a crime in certain U.S. states, like California, since 2017.
But this isn’t some problem that just pops up in TV episodes. Stealthing happens a lot- especially in cases of domestic abuse. According to the National Domestic Violence Hotline (NDVH), one in four callers report reproductive coercion or birth control sabotage.
“Survivors of domestic violence don’t always recognize reproductive coercion as part of the power and control their partner is exerting over them in their relationship,” said NDVH Operations Manager Mikisha Hooper in a press release. “This form of abuse can be shrouded in secrecy and may be uncomfortable for people to talk about it.”
Stealthing Has Been Around As Long As Condoms
Elizabeth Herrera Eichenberger is the executive director of True North, an advocacy organization for survivors of domestic and sexual violence in Missouri, where I live. She says stealthing is nothing new.
“You know with stealthing, it’s kind of a new term to describe something that has probably been happening since condoms have existed,” Herrera Eichenberger said.
There has been evidence through online examples that some men don’t see anything wrong with stealthing, or they support it. Cristina Garcia, California’s assembly member representing the 58th district, said in a press release about stealthing legislation, “Online communities have arisen where it is defended as a male’s “right” to “spread his seed” with coaching and support of how to have nonconsensual sex without a condom”.
Is Stealthing Legal Where I Live?
According to most state laws, stealthing is completely legal. Yes, you read that correctly. Someone can put you in danger of pregnancy or STIs without your consent, and face no repercussions. Doesn’t make sense right?
I spoke to a prosecuting attorney in Missouri, Jenny’s home state, to see when, if at all, stealthing could be considered a crime. Jessica Caldera, an Assistant Prosecuting Attorney, says that the action would only be considered criminal if the person knowingly passed on a dangerous disease to another person through stealthing.
This is because diseases could cause someone immediate danger. Stealthing has the potential to cause dangerous diseases, but unless it actually does, it is not considered assault.
However, there are specific requirements about which STD is considered dangerous. According to the CDC, in 34 U.S. states, including Missouri, there are laws regarding transmitting HIV without your partner’s knowledge. STIs like chlamydia, gonorrhea and pregnancy are left out of the statutes in most states.
A few states, like Washington however, have laws about exposing someone to an STI, and classify it as a misdemeanor. In states like Alabama and Tennessee, you could be punished for even putting someone at risk for getting an STI without their knowledge.
While there are a few states that penalize STI transmission, there are none that explicitly classify stealthing as sexual assault. The lack of classification is harmful for anyone who has been a victim of stealthing.
Stealthing In the Gay Community
According to Ryker*, stealthing has become prevalent among men in the LGBTQ+ community.
One night, Ryker was out drinking with a guy he had been dating casually. The couple went to Ryker’s apartment to have sex. Without Ryker’s consent, his partner tried to have sex with him without a condom. Ryker says he immediately confronted his partner.
Ryker asked him if he understood why this behavior was unacceptable, and his partner’s answer was: “I guess… I just don’t understand why it’s a big deal”.
With the rising use of HIV prevention drugs like PrEP and PEP, and the fact that people with penises can’t get pregnant, Ryker says many gay men think they are in the clear.
“There’s a lot of gay people that believe that like they don’t have to wear a condom because – and this is a direct quote that I’ve heard from other people – that ‘the AIDS epidemic is over’,” Ryker said.
However, there are more STIs than just HIV/AIDs. And besides just diseases, experiencing stealthing can be traumatizing.
The Trauma Caused By Stealthing
As a queer sex worker, Cam* says he knows the dangers of his job, but his repeated experiences with stealthing have been terrifying.
Reporting sexual violence can be difficult for queer sex workers like Cam. Not only is his work illegal, but it can also be hard to get help from people like police, medical providers or therapists, because they may believe his sexuality and line of work are morally wrong.
Luckily, Cam says he finds support in the sex worker community.
“Yes, there are certain dangers that come along with this, you know, line of work,” Cam said. “But it’s the fact that, like, we’ve got a community… and we have each other’s back.”
Efforts To Change Stealthing Laws
Several European countries have existing laws surrounding stealthing, and Singapore recently outlawed it in 2019. There are also legal precedents in some countries like Germany, where a man was convicted for sexual assault for stealthing someone in 2018.
Because the US lacks laws about stealthing, some state lawmakers across the country have tried to pass legislation regarding this issue.
CA Assemblywoman Cristina Garcia tried to pass an anti-stealthing law in California starting in 2017. Part of the reason she pursued this issue is because she had experienced it herself.
“This type of assault has happened to me. I did not consent to being exposed to STDs or an unwanted pregnancy. I consented to protected sex. That was rape,” Garcia said in a press release.
The law hasn’t passed yet because of lack of support from fellow assembly members, but Garcia continues to try. The bill was reintroduced again in 2018, with little success.
[UPDATE: In October 2021, thanks to Assemblywoman Garcia, California became the first state in the U.S. to outlaw stealthing. The state law makes it a civil offense for someone to remove a condom without their partner's consent.]
What You Can Do To Make Stealthing Illegal
Manipulating or removing a condom without a partner’s consent is assault. Other countries have made laws against it, so why is the US so far behind?
Luckily, there are things you can do to help.
Call your representatives. Tell them that you don’t want perpetrators of stealthing to continue to cause trauma and spread diseases in your state.
Bring attention to stealthing. Whether it’s your story or someone else’s (with their permission), tell people that this is happening, and it is wrong.
Always have a conversation with your partner(s) about what contraceptives you plan on using before intercourse, and let them know that you expect them to abide by your rules. This establishes clear boundaries and will leave no room for excuses if your partner decides not to listen.
What To Do If Stealthing Happens To You
If you or someone you know has experienced stealthing, contact a domestic and sexual violence advocacy center near you, or call the NDVH at 1-800-799-7233. Two weeks after experiencing assault, you should always get tested for STIs and/or pregnancy.
Talk to people you trust. Share your stories with people who will support you, like friends, family or counselors. You are not alone.
And never blame yourself. As Ryker says, “You can’t control that, like, someone’s gonna pull a dick move…literally.”
* Victims have been given aliases to protect their identities.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
A senior at the University of Missouri, Veronica Mohesky is studying Emerging Media Journalism. She is also a sexual health peer educator at her university. She works for local media outlets while in school, and you can find her other journalistic work at veronicamohesky.com. She will graduate in December 2020 and hopes to work for a nonprofit or public media outlet. Veronica loves to report on sexual health issues and believes it is important to have conversations to de-stigmatize sex, pleasure and STIs. You can find her on instagram at @veronicamohesky13.