Over the last week, the Huffington Post broke a story about the practice of “stealthing” – removing a condom during sex without the knowledge of one’s partner. According to HuffPo – and the many outlets that boosted the signal – it’s a practice that’s on the rise, with online communities devoted to teaching men how to “stealth” others.
Now, while it’s arguable whether this is a trend or media outlets trying to make fetch happen, it is important that we talk about stealthing. Regardless of any secret cabals – real or resulting from the media outcry – stealthing does happen, and with great frequency. In fact, it’s happened to several friends of mine. The “growing new trend” may not be real, but stealthing is part and parcel of the conversation we need to have about consent, rape, sexual assault, and what we can do about it.
What Is Stealthing?
The increased visibility1 of “stealthing” came with the publication of the study “‘Rape-Adjacent’: Imagining Legal Responses to Nonconsensual Condom Removal” in the Columbia Journal of Gender and Law. Study author Alexandra Brodsky interviewed multiple women who had been victims of “stealthing” by their partners and explores the possible legal options victims may have.
Other parts of Brodsky’s study focus on the online communities where “stealthing” is not only advocated but taught – at times in increasingly baroque ways, including sabotaging condoms in advance.
One thing that’s important to note: stealthing isn’t something that exclusively happens to women. In fact, nonconsensual condom removal happens to gay and bi men with similar levels of frequency. Blogger Mark Bentson of the now-closed iBlastInside, for example, had an extensive write-up about stealthing primarily for tops who want to trick bottoms into bareback sex.
Reading the interviews is harrowing, as are several of the stories that Brodsky links to. Almost every time, the victims report feeling violated and humiliated… but also unsure of what to do. From Brodsky’s interview in the Huffington Post:
“Their stories often start the same way,” Rebecca said. “’I’m not sure if this is rape, but…’”
That phrase, “I’m not sure if this is rape,” is telling. Despite the violation and betrayal, very few people are willing to call “stealthing” rape.
This is actually incredibly important. As other writers point out: giving it a cutesy name like “stealthing” makes nonconsensual condom-removal seem like a lark, a prank, a goof. The name carries the implications of it being a naughty game, something wily men pull on their partners.
This light-hearted treatment of the subject matter is why it’s important to talk about stealthing… and the motivations behind it.
It’s Not About The Condom (Or: It’s Consent, Stupid)
When the topic of stealthing comes up, there’s almost always immediate pushback. One of the most common responses is a tu quoque fallacy- insisting that this is no different than women lying about being on the Pill or sabotaging condoms to get pregnant. Others will call for a slippery slope argument, insisting that penalizing stealthing means that condom slippage or breakage could lead to a man being thrown in jail for rape.
First, it must be pointed out that nonconsensual condom removal and lying about fertility aren’t equivalent.The fact that someone lies about their fertility in order to get pregnant is abuse, don’t get me wrong. But whether it happens or not doesn’t mitigate or change the situation when a partner removes the condom.
(Also: it’s not a woman-only issue. Male abusers will sabotage their partner’s birth control to get them pregnant and use that pregnancy as greater leverage.)
The issue isn’t pregnancy – after all, stealthing happens to gay men as well as women. Removing condoms during sex also exposes the non-consenting partner to potential sexually transmitted infections that could lead to blindness, infertility or death. Considering how many people are unaware of their STI status or who don’t care, this is has significantly higher consequences than just pregnancy to the non-consenting partner.
But the arguments about equivalency is a derailment, not a legitimate rejoinder. The problem is that focusing on the condom – or about issues like fertility fraud – miss the forest for the trees. The issue isn’t that the condom came off, it’s that the condom was removed. This is the critical difference.
People who’re having sex accept that there are certain risks and that, frankly, shit happens. Condoms break, especially when they’re not applied properly. Condoms fall off on occasion. Best practices during sex mitigate the likelihood, but it doesn’t reduce it to zero. It’s understood that sometimes shit happens that’s nobody’s fault and that’s one of the risks of sex.
However, a condom being removed isn’t an accident; it’s a deliberate choice by the person doing the removing – and that changes the equation dramatically.
It’s Not About The Sex, Either
Another reason why the practice of “stealthing” needs to be talked about is that it is often a distraction. Part of what makes the conversation around it troublesome is the idea that we focus on the act and not the motivations behind it. When we talk about things like removing the condom during sex, it’s often seen as being about sexual pleasure. Discussions abound about how condoms don’t feel the same as fucking raw or why it’s so much better without protection. Even movies treat faking putting a condom on as a lark, a puckish prank instead of a violation.
But that violation is the whole point. The reason for stealthing isn’t because of “how much better” it feels, it’s overriding the other person’s boundaries. It’s about what the penetrator feels is his rightful due. Brodsky quotes several commenters in her study that make it clear that the point of removing the condom is because ejaculating into her is his right.
“To me you can’t have one and not the other, if she wants the guy’s **** then she also has to take the guy’s load!!!”.”
Similarly, Bentson treats bareback sex as something he gets to do, regardless of the expectations of his partners.
This implicit trust is by one party. I have not verbally acknowledged that I will use the condom.
Over and over again, the rhetoric and meaning is clear: “I get what I want because your choice doesn’t matter. I have the right to override your choices. Your bodily autonomy means nothing to me.”
This is, unquestionably, a violation… but one that often leaves its victims feeling lost and confused, unsure whether they even have a right to feel violated. Meanwhile the perpetrators will refuse to acknowledge that they had done anything wrong. This is why it’s important to call stealthing – and other, similar violations – rape.
Consent is granular. A person who’s consented to sex with a condom has not consented to all forms of sex, regardless of circumstances. They had not – and likely would not – have consented to sex without it. By removing the condom, the offending partner has changed the situation without their permission or knowledge. If they knew that the condom had somehow come off, they would want penetration to stop. Consent would have been withdrawn.
John Oliver famously compared sex to boxing, which is relevant here:
Keeping with the metaphor, the entire match depends on both parties agreeing to continue. If one boxer decides they’ve had enough and wants to leave and the other continues to hit him, it becomes assault. Continuing to have sex without consent would be rape. And it’s important to acknowledge this.
Not surprisingly, some folks take issue with that.
“Rape-Adjacent” Culture or: Playing Rape Blackjack
Part of what makes discussing consent a thorny prospect is the sheer number of people who want to debate “what is rape, really?” When we bring up the topic of, say, someone being too drunk to consent, people will counter with “what if they’re both drunk? Who raped who?” Others will want to argue about whether something is really “rape-rape” or just, y’know, a “gray area” or what PUAs call “buyer’s remorse”. It all becomes part of the game of “rape blackjack”, where the goal is to get as close as one can get to something being rape without technically going over the line.
When we talk about stealthing being a form of rape, people will crawl out of the woodwork to insist that it isn’t. They will concern-troll that calling it rape will trivialize “real” rape victims. They will point to people they know who had similar incidents happen and use their apparent lack of trauma as “proof” that this isn’t rape. Still others will insist that if someone didn’t report a rape to the authorities, it doesn’t “count”. Often, they will argue technicalities of law. They will attempt to derail the discussion by relying on strict readings of the law. If it didn’t happen exactly as the law says, then it couldn’t possibly be rape. Never mind that date rape and marital rape were once considered to not be rape under the law, either.
And – of course – the spectre of false rape claims will be raised. How, they will insist, are we to protect the men from vengeful women who want to deflect responsibility from “bad sex”?
This is part and parcel of the conversation surrounding rape and consent. The conversation gets bogged down in people looking for technicalities that let us get away with calling it something other than rape. It becomes part of the idea that “real” rape is violent rather than someone ignoring a “no”. Threats (implied or otherwise), coercion, social pressure to say “yes” even after having said “no” are “part of the game”. Even just not asking gets seen as just being “part of how you get laid”.
But the fact is: words matter. When we talk about “gray areas” around consent, we enable rapists. People will cheerfully admit to being rapists as long as you don’t call it rape. Calling rape out gives people less wiggle room to play “but what if” or to diminish it with implausible scenarios. It drags the behavior and the myths into the light for all to see.
And as we do so, men have to be the ones to lead the way.
Something that’s significant – and why men need to be the ones to speak up on this – is that stealthing and other consent violations are framed as being part and parcel of male sexuality. This has less to do with misogyny – again: stealthing and assault happens to men as well – and everything to do with the equating of male sexuality with violence.
Despite what trolls will tell you online, it’s not feminists saying that all men are rapists… men are. Men like Bentson. Just as Trump’s casual bragging about sexual assault was defended as “locker room talk” and that “all men do this”, insisting that this being part of being a man makes men accomplices in the crimes of others. It’s the knowing nod, the silent “you’d do it too, if you could get away with it.” It’s the club of understanding that all men are predators.
It’s not just Bentson or the anonymous stealthing advocates Brodsky quotes. Red Pill founder Robert Fisher was known for claiming that he was “overdue for a false rape accusation” because “you can’t have sex with this many women without having one.” Notorious PUA RooshV advocates rape (sorry, “what might technically be considered rape,” in his words) as a pick-up technique because that’s what “real” men do. Or other PUAs who go perpetuating ideas that ignoring “no” is ok because “women want you to overpower them”.
We live in a culture where people don’t recognize rape or understand how to get consent. We live in a world where people think it’s ok to grab women because hey, white guys can get away with it in foreign countries. This is why it’s vital for men to be the ones to speak up. The fact that others try to make us complicit in their own crime, that they want to normalize sex as “just how men are” means that men have to be the ones to speak up.
It’s easy to diminish the voices of women when it comes to issues surrounding rape and consent. It’s far harder for them to ignore or refute men. As sexist as it may be, men are more likely to listen to men talking about rape and consent. This is why men have to be the ones to check their bros, to be the ones to shout down the guys who insist #yesallmen are like that. It’s why men have to be at the forefront for modeling enthusiastic consent.
And it’s why we have to be the ones to say the words “rape” and “sexual assault”. Calling it “stealthing” instead of rape is another way of diminishing the effects, making it a silly prank. Like various YouTube “social experiment” videos, it turns sexual assault into something to be laughed about.
Yes, there will be cries of “cuck” or “white knight” and concern-trolling about diminishing rape. It’s important to advocates of behavior like stealthing to shout down protests; tropes of toxic masculinity only work if everyone buys into them. By taking the lead and being the ones to push back against a culture that condones assault, we can help create one where everybody can be safe and secure.
- Yes, that was intentional [↩]