Non-Consensually Removing a Condom During Sex is Sexual Assault

Differentiating between consensual sex and sexual assault doesn’t seem like it should be rocket science, but the growth of awareness of “stealthing,” or the nonconsensual removal of a condom during sex, has launched another discussion on the subject.  A new study explores the phenomenon of “stealthing”  — giving a name to an act many people have experienced as extremely violating, but may not have had the words to articulate or explain. Although some have called it a “trend,” that’s got to stop. Stealthing is sexual assault, and sexual assault is not a trend.

In order for stealthing to happen, the men doing it either don’t understand that removing  a condom and thereby potentially exposing their partners to STIs and pregnancy is a violation, or they do comprehend it and don’t care. Would any of those men object to, for example, a woman agreeing to cook him dinner and then lacing it with a poison that might or might not make him sick? It’s her kitchen, after all. And what’s more, poisoning someone counts as aggravated assault. However, as Brodsky found in her study, the laws that victims of stealthing could have recourse to are much more murky.

For survivors of stealthing, they may experience many of the same traumatic effects that other survivors of sexual violence do. But because stealthing is not clearly defined as sexual assault, they may feel confused as to why they’re feeling this way. Not having the language to explain what happened can also make it harder to seek support for the trauma.
It is important to be clear that non-consensual condom removal is sexual assault: it forces people into a sexual situation that they were not expecting and did not agree to. In fact, a man in Switzerland was recently convicted of rape for this very act. Wikileaks’ Julian Assange was also accused by multiple women of tampering with or non-consensually removing a condom during sex, and UK officials determined there was probable cause for him to be extradited to Sweden to face rape charges.
On top of the shame, confusion, and trauma that survivors of stealthing must deal with, they also face all of the potential consequences of unprotected sex, like pregnancy and STIs. One survivor in the study called the act of stealthing “rape-adjacent.” Adding to the feelings of shame and confusion can be the fact that the offense was perpetrated by someone the person had begun having consensual sex with, so the violation occurs in a situation where some level of trust has been established. This is consistent with the statistics regarding rape in general; the majority of rapes (7 in 10, according to RAINN) are perpetrated by someone known to the survivor.
The challenge with this kind of sexual violence, however, is how difficult it can be to prosecute, should a survivor choose to use the criminal justice system to seek retribution. This is for many of the same reasons that the majority of rapes are not prosecuted — the element of he said, she said makes the burden of proof impossibly high in many cases — but also because there is no clear legal statute that addresses the act of stealth condom removal. This is why, in the study, Brodsky concludes that a new statute could be the best course of action. This would not only help survivors pursue criminal charges if they choose to, but the clear language can help people understand what happened to them and hopefully receive support in the aftermath of the violation. “One of my goals with the article, and in proposing a new statute, is to provide a vocabulary and create ways for people to talk about what is a really common experience that just is too often dismissed as just ‘bad sex’ instead of ‘violence,'” Brodsky says.
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