If you have not yet heard of “stealthing” you have not been living under a rock. But as the covert act incurred a rape conviction against a man in Switzerland this year, it’s a practice you need to know about, particularly if you’re engaged in casual sexual encounters.
From the word “stealth”, stealthing is the practice of a man removing a condom during sexual intercourse without his partner knowing, similar to what some know as “barebacking” – but in this second activity, both partners know a condom is not in use. While the sexual activity with the condom may be consensual, removal of the condom without the sexual partner’s agreement or knowledge renders the act non-consensual.
Alexandra Brodsky, Skadden Fellow at Yale Law Schools’ National Women’s Law Centre, wrote a paper for the ‘Columbia Journal of Gender and Law entitled: Rape-Adjacent: Imagining Legal Responses to Nonconsensual Condom Removal’, argues that stealthing “exposes victims to physical risks of pregnancy and disease” and translates for many as a “grave violation of dignity and autonomy”. This, says Brodsky, “can be understood to transform consensual sex into non-consensual sex”.
Bodsky told the Huffington Post that the practice requires new statutes in order to change the language and vocabulary around the act in order to both prevent stealthing and help people recover from an experience of it.
We talk with Beth St Claire, registered psychotherapist, about stealthing, the need to raise widespread awareness, and how to remain vigilant in sexual encounters.
When did you first hear about stealthing?
I’ve only come across this term in the past few months, but it’s an issue I have been aware of for years, working with clients in the sex industry and victims of sexual abuse, as well as a stint counselling for the New Zealand AIDS Foundation.
The New Zealand Prostitutes’ Collective used to put out ‘ugly mugs’ images so sex workers could identify clients who were risky, including people who were known to do covert condom removal.
How do you think stealthing impacts discussions around sexual consent?
I think it has helped to raise awareness of how complex and subtle the consent process can be. Victims of stealthing can be confused about their consent status if they know they freely consented to the sexual activity, but discover later that the sex was unprotected, and they’d not have agreed to unprotected sex if they’d been given the choice.
When an assault is forced or violent or involves threat, victims know clearly that it was ‘against their will’. It’s much easier to say “You hurt me. I was scared. You did a bad thing. You were wrong” than “I fancied you. I went into it willingly, I had a great time. I was very happy… but now it’s over and I know the truth, I am upset.”
With stealthing, the entire sexual encounter can take place with the ‘victim’ being happy and enjoying themselves – in various ways ‘opening themselves up’ to the experience or the person physically, and possibly emotionally, believing they are entering a mutually, shared power-sharing experience – a ‘win-win’ type thing. To discover you were assaulted or abused while you were enjoying it is extremely confusing.
To discover it is possible for you to be betrayed in such a way is very disturbing, and can lead to people becoming not only distrustful of others, but distrustful of their own selves – their own bodies, their own responses.
In some ways, it is like you inviting someone into your home, making them welcome, only to discover they have used this access to go through your private things, to steal from you, or to abuse your child.
What kind of people, in your experience, and from your knowledge, are more vulnerable to stealthing?
I think anyone participating in sexual activity is potentially at risk, though activity with sexual partners that are new, unknown, or outside their usual social group obviously increases the chance of coming across someone who appears genuine but is in fact underhanded or dangerous. So those having a lot of casual sexual encounters increase their risk in this way.
Also, the use of alcohol or drugs increases relaxation and lessens the likelihood of being vigilant in tracking the activity such as checking the condom is safely in place.
What do you think so far about the media’s reporting on stealthing, particularly here in New Zealand?
I think it has been very useful that is has got so much coverage in the media so people can be aware of the risk.
However, I think the published idea that this act is some sort of macho desire to ‘plant their seed’ and prove their fertility is likely, in very few cases. In our modern culture, most sex is very separate from thoughts of fertility and pregnancy, and more about pleasure-seeking and emotional, psychological, and physical fulfilment.
From the quotes I have read, it seems the perpetrators of this sort of act get a kick out of having got away with something, deceiving someone or obtaining something by trickery; or by causing someone to feel disempowered, stupid or ashamed.
Even the choice of the word ‘stealth’ by the perpetrators seems to imply a desire to present it as some sort of sophisticated crime, like ‘covert operations’, ninjas, spies and secret agents.
Although, I think it is essential that word gets out so people can protect themselves. I also worry about the high media profile and risk of glorification of this sort of act, and it potentially appealing to the same kind of nasty subculture as the Roast Busters.
“Some insecure people are trying to prove themselves and use sex to feel more powerful by gaining power over others.”
Do you think this should be part of the general consent discussions now occurring in some (only 22%) of schools?
Absolutely. Adolescence is a very important developmental time in shaping our own identity and testing out how the world works and how we need to approach the social world to find a place. If young people are exposed to disempowering negative messages – such as inaction or ‘blaming the victim’ in cases of bullying and sexual victimisation – this can have lasting effects on how they face life challenges in the future.
These effects can be buffered or counteracted by positive, empowering, pro-social messages being put out in schools, in the public education media and in social media.
The public awareness campaigns that encourage people to ask for help when they need it, and the funding of support services like Youthline and Lifeline are also extremely valuable to make it easier for people to feel able to reach out for assistance.
I have concerns that our very ‘consumerist’ society has spread into the area of sex. So rather than sex being a respectful, real connection between two people, it’s a ‘deal-making’ process: How much can I get? Can I get more than others? Can I look successful or cool by advertising how much I get? Can I manipulate others to get more than they were willing to give?
I believe this is connected to underlying issues around self-esteem, and this contributes to many of these assaults. Some insecure people are trying to prove themselves and use sex to feel more powerful by gaining power over others; others feel reassured of their value by allowing themselves to be accessible as a sexual partner by many people; and others are just using sex as a temporary ‘pain-killer’ or drug to distract them from states of anxiety, unhappiness, frustration or insecurity.
Where can someone go to get help after a stealthing experience?
Ideally, they should inform the police, as this is a form of sexual assault. The Auckland Crime Squad are available 24 /7 and are specially trained to deal with sexual assault. The police can also assist complainants to access abuse counselling and medical support. If the person has information to be able to identify the person that assaulted them, they can give this to the police as ‘intel’ even if they are not wanting to pursue a legal case themselves. This may be followed up later if there were further complaints made about the same person.
However, if they would rather pursue help elsewhere for support with the emotional aspects of having been assaulted in this way, they could seek out a counsellor or psychotherapist. If they would like to find a counsellor with specialist skills relating to sexual assault, ACC’s Sensitive Claims section is the main service.
For medical attention, people can go directly to their GP, or can access specialist services (see some contacts below). If there is a risk they could have been exposed to infection they should act quickly to get this checked out. It’s important that they realise they deserve help. Whatever the circumstances, stealthing is a form of trickery that they are not responsible for.
It is not uncommon for one incident to trigger emotional responses related to other, past, incidents, or bring into the open bigger issues in a person’s life. Having been a victim of stealthing can cause confused emotions including anger, guilt, shame, grief and insecurity. It may bring up other times that the person has felt hurt, abused; disrespected or devalued, ashamed; tricked, misled or manipulated, or disempowered.
Beth St Claire is a registered psychotherapist, based at Auckland Counselling and Support Services (ACSS), at Youthline House, in Ponsonby, Auckland. She is part of the ACSS Senior Clinical Team as part of the team of therapists working with ACC Sensitive Claims that address sexual abuse and assault, and is a clinical supervisor.
Where to go to get help:
Counselling / Psychotherapy:
- ACC, Sensitive Claims: 0800 735 566 or firstname.lastname@example.org provides free counselling for approved cases of sexual assault.
- Auckland Counselling and Support Services, Youthline House, Ponsonby, Auckland: 09) 376 7481, linked to Youthline and has a specialist ACC Team.
- Auckland Sexual Abuse HELP (Auckland Central): 09 623 1700, providing counselling and supports people undertaking forensic testing.
- Counselling Services Centre (Counties Manukau): 09 277 9324, providing counselling and supports people undertaking forensic testing.
- Man Alive (male counsellors and male clients): 09 835 0509 or 0800 826 367.
Post-assault Medical Care:
Pohutukawa Clinic, Greenlane Clinical Centre, Auckland: 09 630 9772 and 021 893 532.
Post-assault STD/HIV testing:
New Zealand AIDS Foundation (NZAF): 0800 802 437. Provides on-site fast-tests for HIV, syphilis and Hep C; as well as gonorrhoea and chlamydia tests that get results in a week.