“I’m not sure this is rape, but …”
When Alexandra Brodsky researched the practice of “stealthing,” the popular term for a man removing a condom during sex, without his partner’s consent, this was often how women described the experience. Victims didn’t quite have a word for the experience, but they felt violated, and they didn’t know that it was a common practice.
Brodsky, a law student at Yale University at the time, wanted to know: How do people feel when they have this experience, and how can the law serve them? She spoke to women who’d experienced nonconsensual condom removal, Brodsky’s preferred term, and perused online forums where women and men described how it had happened — or not knowing it had happened until later. She found that the practice was “widespread” among young, sexually active people, though her data is purely anecdotal. “Some realized their partner had removed the condom at the moment of re-penetration; others did not realize until their partner ejaculated, or in one case, notified them the next morning,” Brodskey wrote in an April article for the Columbia Journal of Gender and Law.
Victims were worried about the practical risks — potential exposure to sexually transmitted infections and the risk of an unwanted pregnancy. And the practice can be emotionally damaging as well: “Survivors spoke not only of betrayal but of their partners’ wholesale dismissal of their preferences and desires,” Brodsky wrote. One of the things that struck Brodsky, she said in a phone interview, was that this happens not just in casual encounters but in relationships as well.
“None of it worried him,” one victim told Brodsky of her partner’s lack of concern for the riskiness of stealthing. “It didn’t perturb him. My potential pregnancy, my potential STI. … That was my burden.”
In her article, Brodsky says current laws need to change to “respond to and affirm the harm victims report by making clear that ‘stealthing’ doesn’t just ‘feel violent’ — it is.”
“It is entirely possible that victims have the tools they need in the law,” said Brodsky, who’s now a fellow at the National Women’s Law Center. “But a new tort that names ‘nonconsensual condom removal’ might cut through some of the obstacles that victims might face in court, including rape myths and biases.”
Whether or not any legal changes come as a result of Brodsky’s study, she has brought more attention to a dangerous sexual practice that, until now, wasn’t so well known. For example, Jenelle Marie Pierce, founder of the STD Project, which works to increase awareness of sexually transmitted infections, said that, before Brodsky’s study and the media coverage of it, she hadn’t heard about stealthing. While Pierce agrees that the law should directly address nonconsensual condom removal, she’s not convinced that new laws will affect people’s behavior.
“Of course it’s a form of sexual violence,” Pierce said, “and it’s a very selfish act, solely with concern for one person’s pleasure.” But she also thinks the practice of removing a condom during sex “speaks volumes to how little people know about sexually transmitted infections.” Because a man who’s removing his condom is not just potentially exposing his partner to an STI, he’s also exposing himself.
And perhaps that’s the way to reach perpetrators of what is a selfish act, Pierce said, and get them to change their behavior. “There are things you can’t be tested for,” Pierce said, adding that there are more than 30 STIs identified by the World Health Organization but that a full STI panel “only tests for five infections.”
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that there are 20 million new cases of STIs every year in the United States. But some infections, such as human papilloma virus (HPV), don’t always show symptoms or show up on tests. Those who remove condoms during sex “don’t realize not only are they risking someone’s health,” Pierce said, “they’re not considering their own health.”