Katherine Awit wants us to start calling ‘stealthing’ what it really is: sexual assault.
You will probably know a woman who has asked herself at least once in her life whether she has been a victim of sexual assault. This might strike you as odd – a woman having to question herself about something so significant. Maybe it even sounds impossible – although I suspect if it does, you’re not a woman. Stealthing has forced too many women to ask themselves this question, and sadly too few to openly discuss their experience due to lack of legal precedent. So yes, you will probably know a woman who has been a victim of stealthing, but you will most likely not know it.
Stealthing is defined as the removal of a condom by a man during sex without their partner’s consent. The concept has been gaining increasing media attention thanks to Alexandra Brodsky’s 2017 study for the Columbia Journal of Gender and Law, ‘Rape-Adjacent’: Imagining Legal Responses to Nonconsensual Condom Removal. Her study is ground-breaking in its ability to expose an act of sexual violence that many people will either never have considered, or never knew could be seen as sexual assault.
When it comes down to it, we humans know things are wrong because our law tells us so, because our society says so. But some legal acts ring alarm bells – did you know it’s still legal to take a picture up a woman’s skirt? That certainly seems wrong, but it’s not illegal, giving the idea that there might be some kind of ‘grey area’ where there purely is not. The issue is, stealthing is only just starting to be spoken about now, and the lack of legal precedent and clarity surrounding it is testament to this. So, to be perfectly clear: It is not a grey area, it is wrong.
It is a violation of your body, your rights, and your freedom of choice. It is humiliating and it is traumatic, not to mention dangerous – it leaves you with all the risks that come with unprotected sex. Above all, it is sexual assault. By removing the protection that you agreed to and in a lot of cases probably insisted on, your partner has converted an act of consensual sex into an act of sex that you did not agree to. Regardless of whether condoms are a deal-breaker for you or not, your partner has robbed you of the choice in a senseless, irresponsible and incredibly disrespectful way. And for what? A more pleasurable experience for them? Well, according to Brodsky, men who promote or commit the act of stealthing and then discuss it on online forums often refer to a “natural male right” and she suggests that the act is rooted in a “thrill from degradation.” That sounds a lot like rape to me, or as Brodksy might put it – rape-adjacent.
It is violating, degrading, and worst of all not talked about enough. Giving this form of assault a name and labelling it as a form of gender violence is beginning to give it the attention and relevance that its victims deserve. With no case having ever been brought to court in the UK, it is time that the law recognises its significance and that it affords victims legal justice, and acknowledgment that they have been a victim of a grave and dangerous sexual assault. It can be done – a recent case in Switzerland saw a man convicted of rape for committing the act of stealthing. It puts women at risk even more where contraceptives, the morning after-pill and abortion are not readily available. Maybe that seems distant, but remember that abortion isn’t legal in countries as close as Ireland.
It is high time we as a society start considering stealthing for what is it – a disturbing and unacceptable form of sexual assault tantamount to rape – and not just a thing some dumb boys do. Joking acts like this away is insidious, and silences the voices of women who have had that choice removed; it reduces trauma to a punchline, or a character trait. We need to create an environment in which women feel comfortable enough reporting it as a crime, because it is one. Oh, and #metoo. Let’s get the ball rolling and start talking about it.
If you or anyone you know has been a victim of stealthing, or if you would like more information, please visit: rapecrisis.org.uk
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