What Is ‘Stealthing’?

Last Thursday, the Tasmanian government passed legislation explicitly criminalising ‘stealthing’. The move makes Tasmania the second Australian jurisdiction to do so, and one of the only jurisdictions in the world with such laws.

Stealthing laws are one of the latest developments in a wave of legal and social reforms around sexual consent.

What is ‘stealthing’?

Put simply, ‘stealthing’ is the act of removing or purposefully damaging a condom during sexual activity without consent. Rape is defined as sex without consent, but stealthing is a form of sexual abuse that can be more difficult to identify.

Still, when consent is dependent on the use of a condom, removing the condom is a violation of consent. For this reason, attorney Alexandra Brodsky – responsible for coining the term ‘stealthing’ – has labelled the practice “rape-adjacent”.

Stealthing is a form of reproductive abuse; in some cases it forms part of a pattern of coercion that may be linked to other forms of sexual abuse or intimate partner violence.

There is abundant evidence that stealthing is an alarmingly widespread practice. A study carried out by Monash University in 2018 found one in three women, and one in five men who have sex with men, have experienced stealthing. 12% of women aged 21 to 30 had been victims of stealthing in a 2019 paper published by the National Library of Medicine in the US.

And a separate US study of men in the same age group reported 10% had committed acts of stealthing. Those men admitted to having removed a condom non-consensually three to four times in their lives, on average.

The majority of men who commit stealthing use the excuse that “it feels better without a condom.” Although this is a comment most sexually active adults would be familiar with, it shouldn’t be brushed off. This rhetoric is subtly sexist – prioritising the (slightly) increased pleasure of a man over the pregnancy and infection risk of the woman.

Other stated reasons for stealthing are even more misogynistic. Brodsky’s study found justifications for stealthing ranging from it being “a man’s right” and “male natural instinct”, through to “women deserve to be impregnated” and “men are supposed to spread their seed.”

What are stealthing laws like elsewhere?

The ACT was the first Australian jurisdiction to explicitly outlaw stealthing, in October of last year. Victoria is set to amend its criminal code at some point this year to the same effect.

Stealthing is explicitly criminalised in California, although victims can only sue for damages, and the act doesn’t carry a jail sentence. Elsewhere, the practice has been deemed a form of sexual assault in New Zealand, Germany, Switzerland, and the UK. However, these countries haven’t specifically criminalised stealthing, only convicted perpetrators under existing sexual assault laws.

Hopefully, other states will follow the example of Tasmania and the ACT. As Hayley Foster of Rape and Domestic Violence Services Australia commented, “if we don’t have strong laws that are really clear, then it is really hard to do that public education that is necessary to change behaviour and start preventing it.”

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