Pink condoms laid out in their wrappers

“Stealthing” is sexual violence. Let’s talk about it that way.

Content warning: This piece discusses sexual assault, including the author’s experience of a non-consensual sexual experience.

The mainstream media is doing an excellent job of burying the lede about what it means to non-consensually remove a condom during sex—and it all started with an article by Feministing alum Alexandra Brodsky.

“Stealthing,” as it has been dubbed, describes the practice of nonconsensual condom removal during sex. It’s often discussed in online forums by perpetrators of the act, but Brodsky’s study offers up a set of perspectives from women who have been the victims of this activity. Through interviews with survivors and discussion of possible legal responses to this practice, Brodsky leaves readers with a clear picture of how stealthing is a violation of consent – and some potential opportunities we have for seeking justice when it takes place.

Unfortunately,the mainstream media is missing that same understanding, as evidenced by its coverage of the issue. Vice refers to stealthing as a “movement of men” in its headline. The Huffington Post headline refers to those who engage in stealthing as an “online community of men.” USA Today calls it a “sex trend.” Of course, stealthing is none of those things—it’s actually rape. But disturbingly, it does seem to be a relatively common practice; anecdotally, as these articles got shared on my Facebook feed, friends began to comment about how this had happened to them, too.

While these articles ultimately do conclude that “stealthing” is a violent act, the prevalence of this disturbing phenomenon demands that they do better. It takes them far too long to do so, and the language they do use remains problematic. Stealthing is sexual violence, yet it’s not being talked about that way in headlines.

This, despite the fact that there are real consequences to stealthing. As Brodsky points out in her article, “stealthing” risks pregnancy and exposure to STIs, and contact with a penis instead of just a condom constitutes a breach of the initially-agreed-upon sexual act. This breach is a violation of bodily autonomy and trust. When we fail to acknowledge up-front that stealthing is sexual violence, we allow those who engage in it to be let off the hook, existing in some unhelpful gray area of non-accountability for their violation of boundaries and trust. 

Of course, in an ideal feminist world, sex is an ongoing negotiation, a continuous conversation about power dynamics and the ability to say “yes” or “no” to a number of different potentialities in the moment. One of those potentialities lies in both partners’ knowledge and use of protective methods. As another Feministing alum Ann Friedman has written, “It’s impossible to declare consent up front by checking a box, because hooking up or having sex usually involves a series of acts, not just one. A person who consents to one thing may not consent to another.” But stealthing shuts down that conversation, swapping out negotiation for deceit. 

The media’s unwillingness to name stealthing for what it is comes from deep-seeded and misogynistic stereotypes about the behavior of heterosexual women and men when it comes to sex. These narratives are so powerful, we often internalize them without thinking. I remember coming of age and hearing a family friend tell me wild stories about her college roommate, referring to her as a “manipulative, crazy girl,” telling me that this roommate had once tried to get pregnant by a boyfriend when she was afraid that he’d leave her. She punctured the condom without his knowledge.

In my mind, I began to create an image of the mythic manipulative women of the world, the condom-breakers who were willing to bring children into the world for the sake of tethering men to them. What the statistics show, however, is a much different picture: according to a 2010 survey of adolescent and young adult women, men often tried to initiate pregnancy without their partners’ knowledge or consent.

Headlines referring to stealthing as simply a sexual trend perpetuate these harmful stereotypes that are already pervasive in society about consent and sex more broadly. The name for this particular abusive dynamic is reproductive coercion, a dynamic which often results in or accompanies particularly troubling sexual experiences of violence.  These stereotypes are based in the idea that men have complete control over sexual encounters, without recognizing how men are using “stealthing” to manipulate women in these encounters. By neglecting to communicate about what protection they are or are not using, men who engage in “stealthing” are creating a deceitful dynamic, one that puts us all at a greater risk of harm.

My first sexual partner acted in a way that was reminiscent of this very dynamic. As a precocious adolescent feminist, I had done my research about pregnancy risks with condomless sex, even researching the risks during foreplay and afterplay. I knew that I didn’t want to have sex with this guy unless he was wearing a condom the entire time. He didn’t seem to understand this, even though I had clearly stated my boundaries up-front.

When I reminded him and asked him to get a condom, he tried to assuage my very-obvious anxieties, stating that he wouldn’t actually have sex without a condom. A few whispered “I’m just teasing you,” and “Don’t worry about it”s later, I realized that he had no intention of stopping to put on a condom. I wasn’t on any other form of birth control at the time. I felt trapped. He had broken my trust, knowing full well that he had more control over the scenario than I did.

I left feeling violated, but I didn’t know how to name what had happened. As the word “stealthing” began to emerge in headlines, I realized that this was the term that men were using to describe what I now label as violence. I was not physically forced into sex that I didn’t want to have. Rather, I was expected to go along with my partner’s sexual preferences for condomless intercourse without putting up a fight.

I believe in the power of language, inspired by Audre Lorde’s “The Transformation of Silence into Language and Action.” In this paper, Lorde writes: “For those of us who write, it is necessary to scrutinize not only the truth of what we speak, but the truth of that language by which we speak it.” Numerous feminists can speak on the way that language and discourse shape and our shaped by our prevailing attitudes.

To identify “stealthing” as anything other than violence is to obscure the truths of those of us who have been hurt, allowing linguistic inaccuracies to protect perpetrators. Addressing “stealthing” as violence is, of course, complex. Pulling together narratives and frameworks of law and ethics is only part of the equation. The other part involves holding ourselves and our media makers to a higher standard: not one of clickbait, but one of feminist truths and accountability.

Brianna Suslovic is a recent college graduate, a current graduate student, and an angry mixed girl. She's originally from upstate NY but currently splits her time between eastern and western MA. Check out more of her writing at her website, Check out more of her rants and musings on Twitter @bsuslovic.

Just a millennial trying to channel the rage of Audre Lorde every day.

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