In April, Yale Law School graduate Alexandra Brodsky published an article on “stealthing” in the Columbia Journal of Gender and Law, called “Rape-Adjacent: Imagining Legal Responses to Nonconsensual Condom Removal.”
“I started law school in my early twenties,” she says. “And … my friends and I spent a lot of time talking about experiences we had dating men that didn’t fit the usual vocabulary of violence, but that felt violative.
“One of those was nonconsensual condom removal. I ended up researching and writing about whether there were any legal tools that already exist that could respond to nonconsensual condom removal, and if not, what tools did we need?”
Nonconsensual condom removal, i.e. “stealthing” or reproductive coercion, is a new term for a form of assault that has likely occurred since condoms were first created (which was in 1839, if you’re curious). When Brodsky’s article first came out, news outlets reported the story as a hot take on millennial sexual activity.
“I’ll be honest,” says Brodsky. “I don’t love the term. I think it trivializes the violence, I think it confounds (the violence with) a weird new trend that ‘the kids are doing these days. I call it nonconsensual condom removal because…it’s not people being sneaky, it’s about them doing something that is against their partner’s consent.”
As Brodsky details in her article, the term “stealthing” is what perpetrators of nonconsensual condom removal coined in online message boards, through which “stealthers” swapped tips and tricks for successfully pulling one off without being detected.
Thanks to the attention that Brodsky’s article has brought to stealthing, states are trying to bring their legislation regarding sexual assault up to speed—no small task considering each state has their own definition for what constitutes as sexual assault.
“The difficulty with the idea of stealthing is that if somebody wants to pursue criminal action, they would potentially be limited by the way that the law is set up in each state,” says Megan Blomquist, director of education and training at Chicago’s Rape Victims Advocates organization.
“In Illinois right now, you can revoke your consent, and if someone did not listen to you, that would be a form of sexual assault,” she says. “If someone did remove the condom during sex, someone might want to revoke their consent, if they knew that the condom had been removed.”
The only downside, as is the case with many forms of sexual assault, is that lack of consent is hard to prove. “Even if we had the laws, even if we had the proof, it would come down to one person saying, ‘we decided to remove the condom’ and one person saying they didn’t.”
Still, some states are taking steps to get the law more on the side of victims in these cases. In California, Assemblywoman Cristina Garcia (D-Bell Gardens) proposed a bill that would “make it a form of rape to remove or tamper with a condom during sex without consent,” according to the Los Angeles Times.
In Wisconsin, Democratic Rep. Melissa Sargent is also aiming to update the definition of sexual assault with a new bill, mandating that “sex cannot be categorized as consensual … if during intercourse one partner removes a ‘sexually protective device’ without notifying the other partner.”
In her article, Brodsky proposes a torte remedy—a civil law, not a criminal law—that would allow victims to directly sue their perpetrators. “I think that would make it easier, but even then a lawsuit is never going to be a light lift,” she says.
While state laws attempt to catch up, what can victims of this type of assault do to protect themselves and protect their health and rights in the meantime?
Kelsey Saragnese, sexual violence prevention educator at the Metropolitan Organization to Counter Sexual Assault, has some suggestions:
“For someone who has experienced stealthing or other forms of reproductive coercion, I recommend the same steps that I would for someone who was sexually assaulted in any other way,” she says.
1. “Talk to someone you trust, make sure you’re in a safe place, and seek healing care for your body and your heart.
2. “Anyone who has been sexually assaulted can go to an emergency room at their local hospital and seek medical care—which could include a pregnancy prophylactic (Plan B), preventative treatment for sexually transmitted infections, a medical exam, and a forensic exam in case they decide to report the assault to the authorities.
3. “I also highly recommend seeking support and resources from your local rape crisis center. Most rape crisis centers have a 24/7 hotline for people seeking support and can provide therapeutic services. If you’re not sure what your local agency is, you can visit RAINN online and search your zip code to find the agency closest to you, or call RAINN’s 24/7 support line on 800-656-4673.
If you have experienced sexual abuse, call the free, confidential National Sexual Assault hotline at 1-800-656-HOPE (4673), or access the 24-7 help online by visitingonline.rainn.org.