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The Silent Sexual Assault

Updated on August 15, 2017

IT’S NOT GOING TO BE PLEASANT, BUT PICTURE THIS:

You’re hooking up with a guy and the sex feels good… almost too good. You look down to discover that he’s pumping away unprotected, after having secretly pulled off his condom.

What you’re envisioning is called stealthing, an abhorrent practice that’s been getting increased attention after an article in the Columbia Journal of Gender and Law described it as a form of sexual assault.


Stealthing transforms consensual sex into nonconsensual sex by disregarding the terms— condom use—both partners agreed to, explains article author Alexandra Brodsky, a civil-rights attorney. It happens most often in hookup or casual sex situations and can leave victims feeling duped, disrespected, angry, and ashamed—and fearing STIs and unintended pregnancies. “It’s an invisible form of violence that’s been going on for a while,” says Brodsky. Now, it finally has a name.

SHOCKING DISCOVERIES

While there are no concrete stats on stealthing’s prevalence, a 2014 survey of 313 single, straight men between the ages of 21 and 30 found that nearly 10 percent admitted to engaging in “condom sabotage,” surreptitiously removing or breaking one middeed. Of those, some had done it at least 63 times total, the max number they could choose in the survey, says lead author Kelly Cue Davis, PhD.

When it happened to Marie, 25, of Boston, she was with a guy who’d pursued her for months. “There was lots of in and out [penetration] during a long night of sex,” she says. “While he was behind me, he paused so he could last longer, and that’s when he ripped off the condom.” When she realized he had ejaculated inside her, she was furious.

So was Audrey, 39, from Santa Fe, New Mexico, who had sex with a guy she met on a dating app last year. “I was very clear that it was important to me to have protected sex,” she recalls. They did it once using a condom, with a repeat performance in the morning. In the a.m. session, though, “there was a moment when it felt a little different and I realized he had taken the condom off,” she says. “I was really upset. He couldn’t believe that I thought it was a big deal.”

WHY MEN DO IT

Unsurprisingly, stealthing may be more likely to occur when there’s alcohol involved and a guy makes a bad drunken decision (think: Seth Rogen’s character’s actions in Knocked Up).

But booze isn’t always a factor. The practice is more common among men who already have hostile attitudes toward women, says Davis. The proof is in online communities in which— brace yourself—guys encourage others to stealth. Some justify their actions as a man’s right to “spread his seed.”As one stealther wrote,“You can’t have one and not the other. If she wants the guy’s penis,then she also has to take the guy’s load.” Others use stealthing as a power play to reclaim control in a world where women are increasingly saying, “no condom, no sex,” explains psychologist Perry Halkitis, PhD, dean and professor at the School of Public Health at Rutgers University. “But it’s a violation, pure and simple.”

HOW TO PROTECT YOURSELF

Before you get into bed with any new partner, come prepared with your own condoms, male or female (see “Reconsidering the Female Condom,” at left), and have a candid convo about expectations. If a guy whines about wrapping it up and you don’t know (or trust) him well, think about avoiding intercourse. “If it’s an orgasm you’re after, there are plenty of other ways to get it,” says Pepper Schwartz, PhD, a professor of sociology at the University of Washington at Seattle and coauthor of 50 Great Myths of Human Sexuality.

If you do opt for penetration, keep in mind that it’s easier to see if a condom is in place when you’re facing each other (i.e., in missionary or girl-on-top). Whenever you switch it up, use your hand to guide him back inside you and feel for the condom, suggests ob-gyn Lauren Naliboff, a fellow of the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists. If you think you’ve been stealthed, go to a pharmacy for Plan B and to your doctor or a clinic to get tested for STIs.

Finally, make your voice heard. In May, lawmakers in California and Wisconsin introduced bills seeking to legally define stealthing as rape or sexual assault, both criminal offenses. To help get similar legislation in your state, call or write your representatives.

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