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Stealthing: why consent doesn’t end when your clothes come off

Stealthing: why consent doesn’t end when your clothes come off

The first time it happened to me, I didn’t know it had a name. And to be honest, I thought it was an accident. But it wasn’t. The guy I had been dating intentionally slipped off his condom during sex, and he did so unbeknownst to me. I had been stealthed.

Stealthing refers to the the nonconsensual removal of a condom during sex, and it’s prevalent enough that Congress is talking about it. Representatives Carolyn B. Maloney, D-NY, and Ro Khanna, D-CA. have brought this issue to Washington in a joint letter. Earlier this year, Melissa Sargent, D-WI proposed a bill that would define stealthing as sexual assault.

In my case, I only realized I was being stealthed the second time around, when I caught him in the act. But it was too late. He had already finished. While I did eventually break up with him, that wasn’t the last time some shady things went down between us in the bedroom. The final straw was when he engaged in a different kind of forcible penetration without asking and despite my objections. This time, my suffering was physical, and the pain was enough to wake me up to fact that this type of behavior (and our relationship) was unacceptable.

Despite being more than open about sex, both in my personal and professional life, I didn’t talk about the stealthing incident with any of my friends. I didn’t know how. I knew I had been violated, but I had consented to sex with him that time and again afterward. I didn’t feel empowered to discuss it until months after we broke up, when I came across an article on Refinery29 about a report that gave a name to what had happened to me. The report also described the practice as “rape-adjacent,” and opened the subject of legal action. After all, the potential consequences of stealthing are obvious and similar to rape — pregnancy, STI transmission, emotional trauma — and as the report notes, stealthing affects both men and women.

I posted the article to Facebook, and the response was frightening — I was definitely not alone. The more I started asking my peers about their experiences with stealthing, the more I discovered that there are a few unlegislated areas of consent. One friend described an encounter when a new partner offered to perform oral sex on her, as she explicitly communicated that she didn’t want to have penetrative sex with him. In the act, he progressed to full-on intercourse, and like me, she didn’t know how to react.

Rape and instances of sexual assault are notoriously hard to prosecute, so one could imagine stealthing and behaviors similar to it will be that much more tricky to legislate against. However, if we’re going to make any progress, it’s incredibly important that men and women empower each other with the language to discuss these violations. If anything, I’m glad the conversation has started.