Stealthing is no sex trend
Stealthing might sound suggestive of some kind of sexy espionage-themed role-play, and certainly, its emergence as a theme in online discussion and elsewhere has been down in part to its promotion among misogynists as a new ‘sex trend’.
[Image by Keirsten Marie on Flickr reproduced under Creative Commons license]
You can call covert removal of a condom or lying about wearing one whatever you like however - the fact remains that it’s simply a vile rebranding of a well-established means chosen by some men to exert power over partners, and to violate their boundaries and trust. The source of power in this instance is the knowledge that a condom is not being worn, or has been damaged or removed, when a partner believes they are protected.
The idea of protection is key here: it is not only the preference for the physical sensation of sex without a condom that is attractive; a partner’s ignorance of their vulnerability offers many perpetrators of stealthing their central thrill in the sexual act. The crossing of this boundary offers these men their own warped version of dramatic irony as they alone (at least in the course of its commission) appreciate the true nature of the act. In this gulf between the consensual intimacy perceived by one and the violation the other knows it to be lies the heart of rape culture. This wasteland of misogyny and associated abusive acts has always existed, but public exchanges on social media now allow us to see – and abusive men to inhabit and exploit - its toxic landscape widely and visibly. For although this is a crime committed in private, the real bonding, the true intimacy that stealthing offers that some men seek out and prize, is the one they share with one another, as they offer advice, celebrate and congratulate fellow abusers on new variations on a crime that is as frightening and dangerous as it is tediously familiar.
For sexual partners who have fallen prey to this deception, the consequences can be serious. Pregnancies, and STIs including HIV can be the price someone pays for a condom damaged or removed and information withheld. Far from being located in some kind of sexual subculture, this behaviour features in many different kinds of sexual encounters, including those in the context of domestic abuse, where men can often seek to control a partner’s fertility and dictate the terms of their sexual activity. In contexts like this, the act is a bleak and hidden part of a range of ongoing violations intended to subjugate women and reinforce an abuser’s dominance, and can be even more dangerous and difficult to challenge. Anecdotal accounts also indicate that stealthing is experienced widely across the gay community.
A recent study on the subject describes ‘stealthing’ as ‘rape-adjacent’, a term which both identifies the act as a violation and sexual offence, and is suggestive of the current lack of clarity in many jurisdictions as to the nature of the offence or the laws which have been breached. The ways different people describe the impact stealthing had on them vary greatly, with descriptions ranging from ‘betrayal’ to ‘violated and humiliated’ and ‘sexual assault or rape’. There are differing views also across the criminal justice systems on where this behaviour sits as a crime, both in terms of seriousness and nomenclature.
Most important of all however, are the perspectives, feelings and needs of individuals who have fallen victim to stealthing, and from the point of view of rape crisis centres and workers it is these individuals whose perspective on the nature and impact of this particular transgression – and what they want to be done about that - really matters. It is not for us to define the experiences of the people we support, and we will always take our lead from them in naming what has happened, and what will help in terms of next steps and support.
In the meantime, as a wider community we must call out and stamp out the community of men who revel in the contempt they hold towards women and their right to bodily integrity, men who will go to great lengths to gain sexual access on their terms regardless of any other consideration, and whatever the risks to, or consent of their partners. There is no analysis in which stealthing is acceptable or legal or can be framed as some kind of deviant subculture. This is an act which needs to be fully acknowledged as the sexual violation it is, and those on whom it has been perpetrated listened to and properly supported.