‘Stealthing’ is a Problem – and a Crime
Learning With Lucy
‘Learning with Lucy’ is a monthly column from writer Lucy Wilson. Each month, she will share her thoughts on a particular topic she has been learning about, or something she has been thinking about, in her attempt to become a better informed intersectional feminist. The column will (hopefully!) be a fun and informative journey into a wide variety of topics – from real-life issues to abstract concepts, current and historical, close to home and further afield. Lucy is excited to learn with you and she hopes you are excited about Learning with Lucy.
Content warning: sexual assault; non-consensual condom removal
Hello! Welcome to the first of my monthly ‘Learning with Lucy’ columns, I’m very pleased to see you. To ease into the swing of the columns, I was going to use the first month to discuss a topic I was already passionate and knowledgeable about. Then I started researching the sexual offence known as ‘stealthing’, and thought to really get into the spirit of the column, I’d start by sharing some things I’ve been learning myself this month. So – fair warning – this won’t be a particularly upbeat piece, but I hope it’ll be informative and worth a read regardless.
‘Stealthing’ refers to the removal of a condom during sex without the knowledge and consent of the non-condom-wearing partner. As I understand it, the practice came into public knowledge a number of years ago as men were posting about their stealthing experiences online, including tips for others who wanted to ‘stealth’. I first heard of it in 2016 when a friend told me it had happened to her. Although I was aware in theory that it was a continuing problem, I hadn’t heard much about it in the intervening years. I’ve seen stealthing come back into mainstream public conversation over the last few weeks, largely due to the incredible BBC series I May Destroy You (if you haven’t watched it already, I can’t recommend it highly enough – although I’ll give another content warning for a variety of sexual offences). There has also recently been online discussion of a student at the University of Edinburgh alleging she had been ‘stealthed’ by a university staff member.
Non-consensual condom removal is a sexual offence and is completely unacceptable. Someone who has been a victim of stealthing may feel there has been a violation of their bodily autonomy, dignity and/or trust. If someone is under the impression that they are having sex using a condom, but that is not the case, they are exposed to increased risk that they were not aware of (STIs, pregnancy). Additionally, consent to sex is not unconditional – consenting to sex with a condom is different to consenting to sex without a condom. If you want to remove a condom during sex, you must ensure you have your partner’s consent before removing it.
As with all laws, different jurisdictions have different laws covering stealthing. It appears that at least the majority of jurisdictions had to react to the ‘trend’ of stealth condom removal rather than having a specific law already in place to cover this kind of conditional consent sexual offence. In the UK, the law around sexual consent is covered by statute. There is no direct reference to non-consensual condom removal or deception as to contraception, but that doesn’t mean stealthing is legal.
There was a conviction of rape by non-consensual condom removal in England in 2019. In this case, a man raped a sex worker by removing a condom without her consent. It’s important to note that, in this instance, the victim had explicitly stated conditions for sex (including the wearing of a condom) on her website in advance. I’m not sure a different circumstance where conditional consent was not so easy to prove would necessarily be as easy to prosecute. There have been no such convictions in Scotland, but that does not mean the practice is legal. In their discussion of the problem, Rape Crisis Scotland have said, ‘There is no analysis in which stealthing is acceptable or legal.’
So how do we tackle this problem? Particularly in Scotland where the matter has yet to be handled by the courts, would it be helpful for legislation to set out clearly that stealthing is a sexual offence? This might make people more aware that it is actually illegal and not just immoral. An Australian study reported that both male and female participants who had been stealthed were three times less likely to consider it sexual assault than participants who had not – but it seems anecdotally that there is a similar lack of certainty amongst the public over the law in the UK. Alternatively, maybe we should start with an awareness campaign or some kind of policy to increase public awareness. I obviously don’t have the answers right now (or, likely, ever), but I do believe something needs to be done about this.
As a final point, I’ve referred to this sexual offence throughout as ‘stealthing’ for an easy shorthand and because that’s what people have come to know it as. It has been discussed elsewhere that referring to it in this way is trivialising, making it sound a lot less serious than it actually is. While I do think it’s handy to have a quick word by which to refer to it – instead of writing ‘non-consensual condom removal’ or ‘contraception-related conditional consent sexual offences’ every time – I want to be clear that I’m trying to do the opposite of trivialising the practice. I think it’s okay to call it ‘stealthing’ as long as we remember while we do so that it is immoral and illegal.
If you take anything away from this month’s column, I would like it to be that removing a condom without a partner’s consent is a sexual offence and should be treated as such. If you have been ‘stealthed’, any feelings you have in reaction are completely valid. I hope that it being more widely spoken of will make people more aware of the problem and that increased awareness can hopefully lead to the problem being tackled.
Lucy Wilson, Columnist
Column Graphic Image: By our wonderful Graphic Designer, Georgina Robertson. Header Image: A promotional image of ‘I May Destroy You’.