‘Stealthing’ Is Not a Sex Trend

“Stealthing,” the practice of removing a condom during sexual activity without the consent of a partner, is making headlines this week after researcher Alexandra Brodsky published a paper about the practice in the “Columbia Journal of Gender and Law.” You may have heard about stealthing from headlines that were quick to declare it a “sex trend” — like this one from USA Today, or this in the New York Post

But let’s be clear about one thing: This isn’t a “trend.” It’s sexual assault.

The media’s refusal to label stealthing as such serves as a telling testimony to the pervasive nature of rape culture – akin to the decision to craft headlines about sexual assault cases in which rape is described as “having sex with” the victim.

A sexual encounter should always be rooted in consent, and that includes not just consenting to sexual activity, but negotiating specific aspects of the encounter. For a variety of reasons — including the desire to prevent pregnancy and reduce the risk of sexually transmitted infections — many people opt to use condoms. Removing a condom midway through, with the goal of deceiving a partner, is disrespectful and dangerous.

It’s also, arguably, sexual assault.

In fact, in Switzerland, a man was prosecuted for doing just that. But the legal grounds for doing so in the United States are much shakier. That was the whole point of Brodsky’s paper, which focused on exploring the legal issues involved in non-consensual condom removal and made a case for “possible legal remedies” for victims of this kind of violation.

But this isn’t just sexual assault. It’s important to talk about another piece of the puzzle here: reproductive coercion.

While reproductive coercion doesn’t occupy the limelight very often, it’s a form of violence against primarily cis women — and a more limited number of trans men — with very serious consequences. Reproductive coercion occurs when a fertile cis man attempts to force a partner to get pregnant — and remain so — via deception, intimidation, threats and other means.

This practice is especially common in relationships characterized by intimate partner violence, it’s sometimes used by abusers in an attempt to force a stronger social — and potentially legal — connection to a victim. A pregnant partner may feel unable to leave a relationship, and children can make it more challenging to safely get out of an abusive home.

In the context of the law, only one form of reproductive coercion is widely discussed — forced abortion. Anti-choice proponents have successfully pushed to make it illegal to force or deceive pregnant people into medical abortions, and abortion clinics are always extremely careful to screen patients to confirm that they’re consenting to the procedure.

While forcing someone to have an unwanted abortion is definitely an unacceptable violation, the law is more uncertain on the subject of forcing people to get pregnant, or using abusive tactics to compel them to carry a pregnancy to term.

25 percent of people in abusive relationships report some form of reproductive coercion, including tampering with condoms and birth control, threatening or pressuring. It’s much more common for patients in abusive relationships to have unplanned pregnancies, and they’re also more likely to contract sexually transmitted infections. Clinical practitioners have been advised to start screening patients for signs of reproductive coercion for the purpose of early intervention, just as they do with domestic violence.

Hopefully the conversation about “stealthing” will also encourage more awareness about reproductive coercion. When things remain in the shadows, they can stay shrouded in shame and stigma — including uncertainty about whether something that feels wrong really is — since no one’s talking about it.

For people in abusive relationships, sometimes it’s hard to see what’s happening, because it’s so normalized. This self-screener may help you identify signs that you or a friend are experiencing reproductive coercion.

If you need to talk to someone about sexual assault, you can call the National Sexual Assault Hotline at 800.656.HOPE.

If you need to talk to someone about an abusive relationship, you can call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 800.799.7233 or the Love is Respect Hotline, focused on dating violence, at 866.331.9474.

Photo Credit: Victor/Flickr

71 comments

Marija K
Marija K4 months ago

Karen H, true, our society's primary concern is a man's reputation, not women's safety from male violence.

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Karen H
Karen H4 months ago

Celine, rapists won't get publicly shamed because our law enforcement, legal system, and legislature think rape is the victim's fault. Philippa P, you're right that the sperm donor will "stealth" himself away and deny paternity. Or he'll deny that he gave his unsuspecting partner a sexually-transmitted disease.

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Celine Russo
Celine R4 months ago

When will rapists get publicly ashamed?

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Ciaron D
Ciaron D4 months ago

This is what has had Julian Assange hiding in the Equadorian embassy since 2012.

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Carl R
Carl R4 months ago

thank you!!!

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Philippa P
Philippa P4 months ago

Stealthing is a euphemism for sexual assault. If discovered, the perpetrator should be tried for rape.

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JD She
JD S4 months ago

Noted

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Freya H
Freya H4 months ago

And what if a pregnancy results? Will the little boy then "stealth" himself away? Sneaking out of using contraception is unethical and infantile.

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Aria Spenser
Cruel Justice4 months ago

I had never heard of this disgusting trend, and now that I have, I am horrified that women are, ONCE AGAIN, being taken advantage of, with DISASTROUS results.

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Clare O
Clare O4 months ago

'Not a trend' well stop discussing it as one then.

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