By Rebecca Goldfarb Terry, Breakthrough Intern
Gender norms often cause unhealthy sexual practices. In some cases, they can create warped ideas about male sexual entitlement and unrealistic expectations that women will be submissive and docile during sex. These misconceptions can lead to violations of boundaries and non-consensual sexual activity. One example of how this plays out is “stealthing,” a recently identified sexual practice that is based on deception and violation.
What is “stealthing”?
“Stealthing” is when someone deliberately removes a condom during penetrative sex without their partner’s consent or knowledge. Stealthing is also known as “non-consensual condom removal.” One example of a stealthing scenario might be an instance in which a victim tells their partner that they do not want to have unprotected sex and only consent to sex with an external condom. Their partner then secretly removes the condom during sex, oftentimes without informing the victim until a while after the incident (or not at all). While not all acts of stealthing look exactly like this particular scenario, it is important to remember that they all share a common thread: lack of consent.
In the United States, stealthing is only just beginning to enter the national conversation–prompting debates about whether or not it is an issue and, if it is, how the issue should be addressed. This discussion has even reached the legal system. In both California and Wisconsin lawmakers are currently attempting to pass bills that would change state laws to classify the nonconsensual removal of a condom during sex as sexual assault.
How is it normalized?
Unhealthy sexual practices become normalized when we see them appear in pop culture or in places like our favorite online platforms without acknowledgement that they are harmful or wrong. Stealthing, for example, has a name that makes it sound more like a cool video game mode rather than what it actually is: sexual assault. This type of misleading name makes nonconsensual condom removal seem like a normal or even fun behavior. The normalization of stealthing does not just stop with its name, but also continues on social media in the form of memes. People on Instagram and Twitter have taken to posting “funny” memes about removing a condom without their partner’s awareness. In doing so, they are helping to further portray stealthing as an acceptable sexual act.
The men (or male characters) shown in these memes are not ashamed of their actions but rather seem happy with what they have accomplished. While memes can sometimes be a good way to talk about relatable sexual/personal experiences, stealthing memes brag about something that is hurtful and nonconsensual. This celebration of sexual deception not only teaches people that stealthing is okay, but also that it is something to take pride in. Normalizing stealthing, through memes or otherwise, only helps the practice to continue without criticism.
How is it harmful?
Stealthing has physical and emotional repercussions for those who experience it. Physical health risks during penetrative sex increase without the use of a condom because the chances of STI transmission and unplanned pregnancy rise. Therefore, victims of stealthing usually have to seek out additional reproductive services and STI testing after the incident. Because of the deception involved in stealthing, the act can also cause harmful emotional and psychological effects.
Since victims of stealthing do not agree to put themselves at this physical risk or engage in sex without protection, their consent and trust are violated. Those who have experienced stealthing describe the act as something similar to sexual assault or sexual violence. Some experience Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and are left with feelings such as shame and confusion. Many times victims do not have the proper vocabulary to express what has happened to them because stealthing is not commonly talked about as a form of sexual assault.
The practice of stealthing is rooted in problematic gender expectations about sex. If men are taught to be sexually aggressive, put their desires first, and view their partners as passive objects meant to service their needs, then consent and respect are seen as a non-essential part of sex. This belief leads to acts like stealthing, acts that violate an individual’s dignity and right to healthy and consensual sex.
What can you do about stealthing?
Alexandra Brodsky, “‘Rape-Adjacent’: Imagining Legal Responses to Nonconsensual Condom Removal,” Columbia Journal of Gender and Law 32, no. 2 (April 20, 2017)
Sofia Lotto Persio, “What is Stealthing and Why Do Lawmakers in California and Wisconsin Want It Classified As Rape?” Newsweek, May 17, 2017, Accessed June 27, 2017. http://www.newsweek.com/what-stealthing-lawmakers-california-and-wisconsin-want-answer-be-rape-610986
Maddie Holden, “Why You Should Call ‘Stealthing’ What it Really is: Rape” High Snobiety, April 26, 2017, Accessed June 27, 2017. http://www.highsnobiety.com/2017/04/26/stealthing-sexual-assault/