What Is Stealthing? A Form of Sexual Assault You Might not Know About

Most people of a certain age can say they’ve experienced a range of condom mishaps—from slip-offs to full-on breaks—but there’s a grey area that exists for some in that they might not know if their partner purposefully took it off during the act.

This phenomenon of “nonconsensual condom removal during sexual intercourse” is explored in a new study by Alexandra Brodsky, a graduate of Yale Law School and a Skadden Fellow, published in the Columbia Journal of Gender and Law. For the paper, Brodsky interviewed a range of women who had experienced this intentional condom snafu. Most of them didn’t consider it a form of sexual assault.

One interviewee was quoted in the footnotes as follows:

“During our second time, he took the condom off towards the end, without bothering to ask, or even tell me (his penis is very small—sadly—so, I honestly couldn’t feel the difference). I believe that it was towards the end because I watched him place the condom on in the beginning, and he removed his penis from me, only once, and briefly, towards the end when we were switching around. I didn’t know until the end, when he pulled out that the condom had been off for that last 45 seconds or so. Very distraught, I asked him, ‘What happened to the condom?’ He lied and said, ‘oh wow, it must’ve broken. But don’t worry, I pulled out anyways so you won’t get pregnant.’”

Because she was so concerned about having gotten an STI (her partner had admitted earlier to experimenting with drugs, such as heroin), she visited an online forum for people who have HIV. Oh, and he told her she had issues.

For people who’ve been “stealthed,” the psychological implications can be great; concerns about STIs and unwanted pregnancies are top of mind. But to date there are no documented cases of this in the U.S. Court. The author ponders how this could be approached from a legal perspective: Would it be a case of tort, civil rights, contract or criminal? Each branch of law has its own challenges, which range from further stigmatizing and criminalizing STIs to putting women in harm’s way by altering laws in such a way that they could become vulnerable to legal action themselves in certain situations.

Perhaps most disturbing about the paper are the comments from stealthing advocates, pulled from online sites like Reddit. One comment cited was: “Oh I completely agree with this. 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!!!”

Despite the vulgarity, Brodsky writes, “many victims are unsure whether their experiences are merely boys behaving badly or a true moral wrong.”

As it is right now, the law may or may not protect people who have experience stealthing. “The current legal landscape has failed to send a clear message that nonconsensual condom removal is unethical,” the study concluded. “Yet an advocate might still prefer to try to push courts to hold wrongdoers responsible for violating existing laws before creating a new cause of action.”

While it’s clear that this act is a long ways away from becoming recognized as assault, and it’s still being debated as to what it actually is, being aware of the phenomenon and discussing it is a step toward standing up for all measures of consent, and that means if you say condom, it stays on.