I became sexually active in the early 1990s, when Britain was in a heightened state of fear about AIDS and, consequently, when gay and straight men and women were particularly diligent about condom use during penetrative sex – except for a small minority of men, seemingly sure of their invincibility, who preferred to ride “bareback”. Condoms minimised sensation and dulled orgasm, they bleated. Stern conversations invariably followed; the non-negotiable terms and safety regulations of the sexual transaction were firmly laid down and generally followed. But a sly hardcore of these men, we heard regularly, still walked among us, pretending to play ball, sneakily removing consent from the sexual act by changing its conditions. I heard of gay men and women finding condoms – still wrapped – under the mattress, or hidden in the bed, removed and empty. Some women would realise they’d been deceived only when they stood up, before rushing into the shower and down to the STI clinic for a morning-after pill, desperately hoping that an early pregnancy was the most they’d ever have to contend with.
Over 20 years later, “stealthing” – the monstrous act of removing a condom without a partner’s consent – finally has a name, albeit a grotesquely flattering one. It’s the subject of a new study by Alexandra Brodsky at Yale Law School, published in the Columbia Journal of Gender and Law. “Nonconsensual condom removal during sexual intercourse exposes victims to physical risks of pregnancy and disease and … is experienced by many as a grave violation of dignity and autonomy,” Brodsky states. The widely publicised article has resulted in the stealthing phenomenon being described by most news outlets as a new sexual “trend” – language one might use for a fad as ephemeral as, say, espadrilles or Himalayan pink salt.
But the act of stealthing – often performed during the changeover of positions (particularly to doggy style) – has been around for ever and there doesn’t seem to be any evidence it’s on the rise or peaking now, in 2017. An impromptu Twitter poll resulted in eight per cent of my 993 respondents claiming they’d been “stealthed", and several private messages, including one from a woman who said it had happened to her and all her girlfriends at least once, and another from a woman describing a brazen act of stealthing during her very first sexual experience by a man who went on to become a teacher in a boys’ school. Every gay man and woman in my friendship group knows of someone who has been stealthed at some time or another.
But what is suddenly visible, and what prompted Brodsky to write the paper, is the worrying rise in online communities (such as “The Bareback Brotherhood”, cited in the study), in which stealthing is celebrated. The report quotes forums where men gather to brag about their stealthing and to exchange tips and techniques on how to deceive women into putting themselves at risk of infections like HIV, chlamydia and gonorrhoea, not to mention unwanted pregnancies.
When there’s no punishment, only huge reward, for men who brag about grabbing women by the pussy, then why police one’s speech or acts of stealthing at all?
These are the internet forums who first euphemistically rebranded sexual assault and coined the term “stealthing” – a big, masculine word normally reserved for military operations and embarrassing team names on The Apprentice. They describe the “intense rush” felt while breaking the contract of consent, and describe their “right” to “spread their seed” as they see fit, regardless of what has previously been agreed with their partner. Members virtually pat one another on the sac, emboldening one another’s decisions and minimising their victims’ pain. The forums don’t just disregard their victims’ reproductive freedom, sexual agency and autonomy – they are openly turned on by the act of removing them, of dominating proceedings and dehumanising their partners. Stealthing makes them feel powerful and masculine. “One can note,” Brodsky writes in her report, “that proponents of ‘stealthing’ root their support in an ideology of male supremacy in which violence is a man’s natural right.”
The forums make for a shocking read, but how surprising is their shamelessness and assumed impunity, really? How can we realistically expect shame, when rape victims are hounded off the internet, when a man who has been accused by over a dozen women of sexual assault, who dismissed his own bragging about non-consensual sexual contact with women as mere “locker room talk”, was elected into the White House? When there’s no punishment, only huge reward, for men who brag about grabbing women by the pussy, then why police one’s speech or acts of stealthing at all?
The law – at least in America and the UK – doesn’t have any answers, either. Many women and men are asking what can be done legally about an act that support groups, charities and many victims describe as “rape adjacent”, but what seems like a perfectly straightforward and wilful act of turning a consensual sexual act into a non-consensual one, violating clearly agreed boundaries, has no specific precedent in UK law. This year, in Switzerland, a 47-year-old man was convicted of rape after removing a condom without his female partner’s consent. Should exiled Wikileaks founder Julian Assange ever make it to Sweden, he’ll face (among other charges) a charge of sexual molestation for allegedly engaging in non-consensual condom removal.
Until then, and with depressing inevitability, the internet doesn’t always see what all the fuss is about, and is already engaging in classic victim-blaming. “How could a woman not know?” they say, as though stealthing happens only to the stupid. “Women secretly vandalising condoms to conceive a baby is just as bad,” seems to be the Twitter response du jour, as though forums of condom vandalisers are springing up everywhere, or any decent human would celebrate the deceit of sperm thieves. Tell Mumsnet about tricking a man into fathering your baby and see how you get on. I anticipate short shrift, rather than sisterly air-punching and tip-swapping. “What’s even wrong with it? It’s hardly rape,” say the stealth-apologists, without a hint of irony or self awareness at how, in disregarding or minimising the feelings of stealth-victims, they themselves are dehumanising women.
Clearly, not everyone will feel “raped” following stealthing. Not everyone will feel traumatised, ashamed, fearful of future sexual encounters, unable to trust men and, consequently, find it difficult to form relationships and enjoy sex. But many will, and do. And almost all will feel angry at the wilful moving of goalposts after consensual sex has begun, and wonder what gave someone the right to do whatever they wanted to another person’s unwilling body. And until we accept stealthing for what it is – a morally unlawful violation – what will happen is the continued normalisation of non-consensual sexual acts. Whether the law finally recognises the relationship between stealthing and other, accepted definitions of sexual assault remains to be seen. But, as a society, we can work faster and call out stealthers for what they are: misogynists and assailants who share way more in common with monstrous rapists than with decent men