By: Kathleen Morrison
If you have experienced sexual violence and are in need of crisis support, please call the RAINN Sexual Assault Hotline at 1-800-656-HOPE (4673).
Last spring the Columbia Journal of Gender and Law published a study on the act of “stealthing,” or the removal of a condom during sexual intercourse without the knowledge of the other partner. In this paper, study author Alexandra Brodsky spoke with victims of this act, explored the seedy online forums of primarily cisgender men who discuss why and how they “stealth,” as well as analyzed the current limited legal options for survivors. Brodsky notes that she was unable to “find a single domestic legal case concerned with the removal of a condom during sex.” Legally, there is no explicit language on the federal or state level that outlaws nonconsensual condom removal or classifies it as rape, despite the fact that the survivors describe feelings of intense violation and that the act places survivors at increased risk of STD’s, HIV, and pregnancy. This lack of nuanced language not only makes it difficult for victims* to identify exactly what they have experienced, but also makes it extremely difficult, if not impossible, to argue a case like this in court.
Brodsky’s study makes clear that not only is there a lack of options for survivors wanting to pursue legal recourse against their assailant, but also that there are no legal deterrents for the men who advocate for this type of sexual violation. Brodsky’s exploration of underground communities where cisgender men talk openly of deceiving their partners and how to best get away with it is alarming for anyone invested in consent and the effects of sexual assault. Commenters in these forums repeatedly reference a man’s “right” to “spread his seed,” – even when reproduction isn’t physically possible, as is the case with men who have sex with men. This language speaks to an ideology of male entitlement in which violence and access to the objects of a man’s desire becomes his natural born right. Even when women provide explicit boundaries, the men who engage in “stealthing” disregard these needs as secondary to their own sexual pleasures and desires. The paper launched a national conversation around consent and the inadequate legal routes for victims seeking justice.
Now, lawmakers are attempting to correct this gap in our legal system. On October 4, 2017, U.S. Representatives Carolyn Maloney (D-NY) and Ro Khanna (D-CA) sent a letter to the House Judiciary Committee calling for a hearing to explore impacts of “stealthing” and promote language that would clarify legal options for the victims of nonconsensual condom removal. This letter comes six months after lawmakers in Wisconsin and California introduced bills to expand the definition of rape to include tampering with a “sexually protective device” without telling the other person.
With these groups attempting to spread their damaging messages about consent and sexual assault, it is more important than ever for educators to foster a culture of affirmative consent in classrooms and with youth. Students need to see what consent looks like and be empowered to take ownership of their bodies. Consent should be a part of sex education as STD and HIV prevention, birth control, and reproductive anatomy. Access to this information helps to create the toolkit that adolescents can use to make educated sexual health decisions and feel in control of their sexual lives. Teaching young people that no one is entitled to another person’s body goes a long way towards preventing sexual assault and acts like nonconsensual condom removal.
*I will follow Brodsky’s lead in using the terms “victim” and “survivor” interchangeably in describing people who have experienced “stealthing” in an attempt to capture the varied experiences of and responses to sexual assault.