If you take one lesson away from sexual health TikToks, podcasts, or even Her Campus’ plethora of sex and relationship articles, it’s that consent is sexy. And while practicing active consent is crucial, it’s equally important to identify acts that violate consent. Recently, one of the most frequently-searched questions online is “What is stealthing?” — which I’ll bet you didn’t learn about in health class. Stealthing is when a person removes their condom and continues sexual intercourse without the consent of their sexual partner. Chances are, you probably never heard about stealthing in your less-than-effective high school sex ed classes — but it should be discussed frequently and earnestly, as stealthing can be harmful, blindsiding, and a form of sexual abuse.
According to Planned Parenthood, consent means “actively agreeing to be sexual with someone.” It’s important to practice active consent, which involves an affirmative, honest, voluntary, conscious, sober, and ongoing agreement to participate in sexual activity. Whether you’re hooking up with someone for the first time or trying something new in bed, consent is crucial for communicating your needs and desires and establishing trust with your partner. Stealthing can be a direct violation of that trust. In order to create a culture of safe sex for college students, let’s examine exactly what stealthing is and what to do if you suspect it happens to you.
What exactly is stealthing?
According to sexuality researcher Wendasha Jenkins Hall, Ph.D., stealthing refers to “the act of an individual removing a condom mid-penetration without the other partner consenting.” During stealthing, perpetrators may try to remove a condom when you initially agreed to sex with a condom, and Love Is Respect adds that stealthing can be a form of sexual abuse. Perpetrators may act like the condom removal was not a big deal, with phrases like “I didn’t think it was a big deal,” or “I thought you’d like it,” emerging to put the blame on the victim for their reaction.
While there are shockingly few research studies on the phenomenon of stealthing, those that exist show a very grim reality. According to a 2018 study on non-consensual condom removal, approximately one in three women and one in five queer men have experienced stealthing.
According to Hall, many “stealthers” use this act primarily for power, control and autonomy over a body that is not theirs. And while stealthing can occur to individuals of all identities, a 2017 study published in the Columbia Journal of Gender and Law examined men who had violated their partners via stealthing, and found that many participants had “radically misogynistic ideals” that even echoed in the chambers of online chatrooms. In the study, researchers believed that underlying stealthing was “a natural male instinct—and natural male right.”
Stealthing has even been depicted in recent forms of pop culture. One well-known example comes from the hit 2020 series I May Destroy You. Lead actress, writer, producer, and director of the show Michaela Coel stars as Arabella, a woman who is navigating life after sexual assault. In one scene, Arabella sleeps with a character named Zain who does, in fact, remove the condom mid-sexual encounter without Arabella knowing. Zain insists, “I thought you knew.” Some fans were thrown off by Arabella’s laid-back, almost joking retort to realizing what had happened. However, stealthing can be a harmful and traumatic act that’s difficult to process.
Stealthing can impact your mental and physical health.
According to sex educator Kenzi Burchett, experiencing stealthing can be a form of trauma. “Physically, there is the risk of sexually transmitted infections, unintended pregnancy, and physical trauma responses in the body that might show up later for folks,” Burchett tells Her Campus. “Emotionally, we see a lot more variance in what the long-term impacts are. Survivors of stealthing might need what a lot of survivors of sexual trauma need: to feel safe, to be believed, and to truly be listened to.”
She also mentions that everyone responds to trauma differently, and it’s crucial to take this into account when handling instances of stealthing.
According to a 2021 article published by Harley Therapy and Loyola respectively, victims of stealthing — and all forms of sexual assault — are prone to depression, anxiety, lack of focus, feelings of guilt, and more as direct responses to trauma. According to Loyola’s Counseling Center, low self-esteem and thoughts of self-harm and suicide are also common after assaults and other traumatic experiences. If you or a loved one has experienced stealthing, take Burchett’s advice and listen to those who are ready to share and reach out when you are ready; healing has no set timeline. If you need a counselor to chat with, the Crisis Text Line is a great 24/7 resource for mental health and can be used by texting “HOME” to 741741.
here’s what to do if stealthing happens to you.
Being “stealthed” may appear in different ways. You may not know that a condom has been removed until you’ve ended your sexual experience — or, you could see that they’ve removed the condom, but continue the act even if you don’t want to. The best thing to do is trust your gut. If something feels off or you know the act that just happened was wrong, you are correct and valid. As Laurie J. Watson, PhD, LMFT, LPC shares in Psychology Today, the violation of consent and trust can feel even more severe since one’s physical and psychological boundaries have also been violated.
If stealthing happens to you, it’s important to recognize that you are not at fault and do not deserve to be treated this way. Following this sexual assault, it’s also vital to care for both your physical and emotional health, but checking in with your body should be a priority.
Burchett tells Her Campus, “There are a few things folks might want to consider in this situation; two of the main ones being unintended pregnancy if they have a vagina, and the risk of sexually transmitted infections for anyone, regardless of what body they have.”
there are many options available.
There are myriad ways to take charge of your sexual health as well. “If a person is able to get pregnant and not on a form of birth control, an emergency contraceptive like Plan B, ella, or a copper IUD can be used within three to five days, depending on the method to reduce the risk of pregnancy,” Burchett says. “After an assault, there are prophylactic treatments available for STIs, including PeP for HIV. Those treatments can be taken as a preventative method to reduce the risk of STI transmission.”
Additionally, you can seek medical care from your general care physician or a Planned Parenthood office. After you have the ability to protect yourself physically, you can confide in trusted friends, family members, and therapists. There are several trauma groups as well that can provide support and empathy in your time of need. Remember, healing is not linear and there’s no one-size-fits-all option.
What legal protections are in place for stealthing?
According to RAINN, 310 out of every 1,000 sexual assaults are reported, and of those reports, only 25 perpetrators will face legal consequences. One might assume that stealthing, which is non-consensual, unprotected sex would qualify as rape, and be viewed as such by the legal system. However, the justice system has a long history of dismissing rape and sexual assault cases, invalidating survivors and victims. It is for this reason that so few reports of sexual assault are even made.
With these statistics in mind, it shouldn’t come as much of a surprise that there are next to no laws about stealthing. “The only state that has a law about stealthing is California, and that is a recent development as of October this year,” Burchett shares. “It’s important to remember that laws don’t always reflect morality, and they aren’t always in our best interest. Just because the U.S doesn’t have laws against it, doesn’t mean it’s not serious or it’s not a form of sexual assault.”
Burchett feels that a way to keep sexually active people healthy and safe is not necessarily through legal systems, but through discussion. “Stealthing is sexual assault, even if some laws don’t see it that way,” she says. “It’s something we need to have a lot more conversations and education about.”
Resources and hotlines to know
If you or anyone you know has been involved in a stealthing situation, there are several resources to help. There are several hotlines including RAINN’s 24/7 crisis line 800-656-4673. If talking on the phone is out of your comfort zone, RAINN also offers a chat feature that operates just like a DM. Additionally, you can use the chat feature on Loveisrespect.org or text with an advocate by texting “loveis” to 22522 to gain more education and resources to help navigate a sexual assault. Communicating with your local Planned Parenthood is always a great option, too. If you feel safe and comfortable with a trusted friend, family member, or physical/mental health provider, you can confide in them as well. Remember, you are not alone and you have myriad avenues of support.
Brodsky, A. (2016). Rape-adjacent: Imagining legal responses to nonconsensual condom removal. Colum. J. Gender & L., 32, 183.
Latimer, R. L., Vodstrcil, L. A., Fairley, C. K., Cornelisse, V. J., Chow, E. P., Read, T. R., & Bradshaw, C. S. (2018). Non-consensual condom removal, reported by patients at a sexual health clinic in Melbourne, Australia. PloS one, 13(12), e0209779.