Warning: This article describes experiences of sexual violence.
When Mia’s* date secretly removed his condom while they were having sex, she was confused.
“We had changed positions to him behind me and I realised I couldn’t feel the condom,” the 36-year-old recalls.
“I asked where it had gone and he shrugged. I remember being shocked.
“We both went into it knowing full well we would not see each other again, and you’re risking me getting pregnant?”
That was more than a decade ago, and until recently, Mia couldn’t explain why she felt so violated.
But learning what had happened had a label — stealthing — helped her process the deception.
Stealthing is the non-consensual removal of a condom during sex.
Michaela Coel explores stealthing and consent in her acclaimed series I May Destroy You. In one episode, Arabella (Coel) finds out Zain (Karan Gill) secretly took off his condom during sex.
“I thought you could feel it,” he tells her after the fact — a line she realises later is a common script for men who stealth.
In Australia, one in three women and one in five men who took part in research with Monash University in 2018 said they had been stealthed.
It exposes victims to physical risks of pregnancy and STIs, and is a violation of dignity and autonomy.
“It makes me feel pissed and sad that certain men think this is OK,” Mia says.
“The situation back then was blurry for me, but now I see it for what it is. It’s made me more aware of what is right and what isn’t when it comes to consent.”
While no criminal law in Australia explicitly identifies stealthing as a sexual offence, a case that is yet to go to trial could change that.
Why men stealth
Men who stealth see their victims as possessions, rather than people who have the right to make their own consensual decisions about sex, explains Ali Howarth, a program specialist at 1800RESPECT.
There are online communities dedicated to teaching men how to secretly remove a condom during sex, as well as praising those who do.
Reasons for stealthing cited in these forums include sex “feels better without a condom”, for the “thrill of degradation”, and a right to “spread their seed”, 2019 research from gynaecologist and academic Dr Sumayya Ebrahim found.
“[These statements] are reflective of the dismissive attitude that stealthers have toward their partners’ rights and wishes,” she writes.
“It is also reflective of them prioritising their own sexual gratification at the expense of their own health and their partner’s health and wishes.”
A caller to ABC radio program Triple J Hack in 2017 who claimed to stealth said while he knew about the risks, “there’s a risk crossing the road and we all do that”.
Dr Brianna Chesser is a senior lecturer in criminology and justice at RMIT University and registered psychologist. She says stealthing is about dominance and power, and it can happen to anyone.
The impact of stealthing on victims
James, 33, from regional Victoria experienced stealthing in his 20s during a casual hook-up.
“We were having sex, it was all going fine. Then it finished, and he went home and I just kind of had this weird feeling.”
James says when he found the condom his partner had used, it was empty.
“I was like, this is weird, because he did finish inside me.”
James quizzed his date via text, and received an admission he had taken it off.
James went to his local sexual health clinic and went on PEP (post-exposure prophylaxis) that helps someone potentially exposed to HIV from becoming infected.
“I was on that for a month, but it really screwed me up mentally. The trust I had in people had disappeared.”
Ms Howarth says stealthing is a traumatic event that takes away the victim’s sense of agency and self-determination.
There is the physical risk of STIs and for women, pregnancy — but there is also depression, anxiety, a lack of trust in future relationships and post-traumatic stress disorder, she says.
Because stealthing isn’t wildly known about or understood, survivors end up minimising the experience.
“Knowing what stealthing is can help people give it context and understand why they feel like crap,” Ms Howarth says.
Stealthing and the law
Stealthing is considered sexual assault or rape by many legal and sexual violence experts because it turns a consensual act into a non-consensual one.
“Consent in any sexual relationship is often conditional; for example, someone may have consented to protected sex — they are not, then, consenting to unprotected sex,” Ms Howarth says.
“I’ve seen the term rape-adjacent be used.”
Only 1 per cent of respondents in the Monash University study who had been stealthed went to the police.
Dr Chesser points out that only one case of non-consensual condom removal has ever made it to court.
In 2018 a Melbourne man was charged with rape and sexual assault for allegedly removing a condom without consent. The case is yet to go to trial, having been delayed by the pandemic.
Dr Chesser says the case will provide an important foundation for further development of the law around stealthing.
“That case will be really groundbreaking. There have been cases in New Zealand, Switzerland and Sweden where stealthing has been alluded to or identified as a crime.
“Hopefully the judgement in this [Australian] case will make some comment on stealthing, and ideally this will add to community awareness, and see it added to legislation.”
Raise awareness around stealthing and where to seek help
Growing awareness around stealthing will help victims recognise and process the trauma associated with it, explains Ms Howarth.
“Giving it a name gives it boundaries. It’s something people can reflect upon and relate back to their own circumstances,” she says.
“When more people can have a discussion about that, it helps removes the stigma, because so many women feel ashamed [when sexual violence happens to them].”
Dr Chesser agrees, saying the more we talk about it the more it will help people who have experienced it.
If you have been victim to stealthing or any act of sexual violence, tell someone you trust and reach out to your local sexual support services.
If they wish, victims can also contact their local police station to report the incident, says Dr Chesser.
*Names have been changed for privacy.
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