Lately I have been seeing “stealthing” on my social media timelines. Intrigued, and likely against my better judgment, I searched for clearer meaning. In short, stealthing is when a man intentionally removes or damages his condom without his partner’s knowledge and/or consent. While stealthing may not be a new phenomenon, we should make no mistake about what to call it: sexual assault.
There is unspeakable vulnerability in sex and bodily pleasure, particularly deciding when and if to engage in condomless sex. Allowing oneself to be penetrated, granting another human being intimate access to one’s body, leaves a person vulnerable. This is true no matter how many times it has been performed. Although, in previous articles, I’ve focused on sexual intercourse without condoms, there has always been one critical theme: consent. That’s because the decision to have sex—and, more importantly, how we choose to have sex—should never rest within just one person.
Stealthing intentionally denies the receiving person his or her right to consent and the ability to decide what sexual health and harm-reduction practices are best for his or her body.
This bears repeating: If a sexual partner didn’t have knowledge of and/or explicitly consent to condom removal and, thus, condomless sex, it is sexual assault. Period. Consent is freely given up only until the moment it is not; this especially applies when people are having sex. Put differently, the first “yes” isn’t proof-positive of all other yeses, and it does not apply continuously merely because it was given once.
We know that black women experience gender-based violence. But we also know that many of them aren’t believed when sharing their stories of sexual assault and rape. Women have shared their experiences with regard to reproductive coercion, which can happen as a result of stealthing, but in other ways as well. For example, as reported by Elle, the National Domestic Violence Hotline surveyed 3,169 women and found that a quarter of them had been ordered not to use birth control. In another survey, 16 percent of women reported that their partners “poked holes in condoms, hid birth control pills, or threatened them if the women didn’t get pregnant.”
This is all interconnected.
To be sure, stealthing isn’t just a heterosexual experience; it’s common in gay communities, too. There is no clear data that evidences how often stealthing occurs, but our common sense allows us to understand that it’s more common than many of us may want to believe. Ask any black gay man; he can tell you a time when a man removed a condom in the middle of sexual intercourse without his knowledge or consent. Many of us laugh now, but it isn’t so funny when we consider the increasing trends of acquiring HIV and other sexually transmitted infections in the black and Latinx communities.
Sure, many of us can admit that having condomless sex feels better, and PrEP (pre-exposure prophylaxis) allows a level of freedom in that regard, but if two people already decided that using a condom was how they were going to have sex, how does one person get to determine that they will control that outcome? The answer is clear: They should not.
Make no mistake: Black gay men are raped, too, and stealthing is part of that rape. Zeke Thomas, for example, shared his tragic story of rape. And this year, I penned a piece for The Root about being raped by my stepfather. Black gay men experience sexual assault, and we must continue to discuss it. This is especially true for stealthing, perceived by many as a new trend, which won’t be taken too seriously because it doesn’t appear as graphic as an episode of Law & Order: SVU.
So the question becomes: What are the legal recourses available to those who are survivors of stealthing/sexual assault? We know that someone is sexually assaulted every 98 seconds in the U.S., according to the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network. But we also know that out of every 1,000 perpetrators, only six wind up in jail (if that’s even the solution, considering our prison system).
There is still no record that a U.S. court has ever been asked to review a case of nonconsensual condom removal, so that’s why stealthing may seem like a new phenomenon, but we know rape and sexual assault are not. Creating laws and policies that target nonconsensual condom removal could give many people a legal remedy in a way that would otherwise go unnoticed.
Stealthing is dishonest, in the shadows, sneaky. Removing a condom without knowledge doesn’t allow a partner to decide whether he or she would have acquiesced to said removal. Any sex is risky, even sex with condoms, but it’s clear that stealthing has the potential to increase a person’s risk of acquiring HIV and other STIs. It’s clear that a person who practices stealthing is comfortable with sexual assault and does not care about a partner’s bodily integrity.
We cannot afford to traffic in euphemisms. Stealthing is a clear violation of autonomy and choice. And there can be no hierarchies when it comes to rape.
Preston Mitchum is a Washington, D.C.-based writer, activist and policy nerd. He is a regular contributor to The Root and The Grio and has written for The Atlantic, Think Progress, Out Magazine, Ebony.com and the Huffington Post. Follow him on Twitter to see just how much he appreciates intersectionality.