On Thursday, Oct 7, California Governor Gavin Newsom signed a bipartisan bill that outlawed the removal of a condom without consent. This makes California the very first U.S. state to do so. The act is known as stealthing and more and more, it is being recognized as a form as sexual assault. Stealthing is a relatively new term referring to the act of removing a condom during intercourse — vaginal or anal — without your partner’s knowledge or consent. Because stealthing results in unprotected sex, it can lead to the transmission STIs or unintended pregnancy. With California officially signing it into law, it is hopeful other states will follow suit and there will be more education on what stealthing is, and why it’s a serious breach of consent and boundaries.
Why stealthing is considered sexual assault
Generally, sexual assault is defined as any kind of nonconsensual sexual touch or behavior. Stealthing is considered sexual assault because “a partner has agreed to be penetrated if a condom is used, [and] removing the condom takes the sex into a realm the partner didn't agree to,” staff sexologist at Good Vibrations, Carol Queen, PhD, tells O.school.
“Presumably, [people stealth] because they don't want to wear a condom,” says Queen. Some people say intercourse feels better without a condom or that they enjoy cumming inside their partner. This reason, however, does not justify stealthing as it is a violation of a person’s body, trust, and boundaries. Stealthing may also be considered emotional abuse in instances where it is used to control, create power over, or manipulate a person. Some people may even stealth to try to get their partner pregnant because they are fearful of the relationship ending and believe having a child will make their partner dependent on them.
Why it matters that California deemed stealthing to be an illegal act
The new legislation that bans stealthing in California was introduced by California Assemblywoman Cristina Garcia, and signed into law by Governor Gavin Newsom. BBC News reports that this new legislation “adds [stealthing] to the state's civil definition of sexual battery,” giving victims a clear legal remedy” for this type of sexual assault.
"We wanted to make sure that it's not only immoral, but illegal," BBC News reports Assemblywoman Cristina Garcia saying.
There are many reasons this law is significant. It recognizes the violence people experience under the patriarchy and holds perpetrators accountable in ways they historically haven’t been.
The law gives victims the ability to receive financial compensation for “damages” caused by the perpetrator. This could be compensation for such things as sexual health services, medical treatment, and/or mental health services.
The governor of California added in a tweet that “By passing this bill, we are underlining the importance of consent.”
Making stealthing illegal also helps name a form of violence that is often swept under the rug. Unfortunately, many people have their boundaries crossed, their consent violated, or experience sexual assault, and may wonder if it’s even a big deal. This may be, in part, because certain sexual violations are so normalized in our society.
Making stealthing illegal helps give people the language, awareness, and education to recognize that violations of consent, like stealthing, are serious enough to be punishable by law.
Stealthing happens all too often
Part of the reason stealthing has unfortunately been normalized to an extent is because of how often it happens. According to a study published in 2018 by PLoS ONE that sampled 1,189 women in Australia, 32 percent of the women sampled had experienced stealthing at some point in their life. The study also surveyed 1,063 men who have sex with men and found that 19 percent had experienced stealthing.
Another study published in 2019 by Health Psychology sampled 626 men, ages 21 to 30 years old, and found that almost 10 percent of participants had engaged in stealthing. The study found that the men had been stealthed on average 3.6 times, but among the men who participated, it ranged from 1 to 21 times.
Stealthing is never the victim’s fault, but we can try to protect ourselves from it
If you are the victim of stealthing, it is never your fault. It is always the perpetrator’s fault. Still, you might want to know if there’s anything you can do to try to protect yourself from this form of sexual violence. The best we, as a society, can do to prevent stealthing is educate people on consent, boundaries, the importance of open, honest communication, and safe sex practices. Efforts to prevent stealthing should be focused on teaching individuals, especially boys, bodily autonomy, how to practice consent, and critical thinking about power dynamics. Such education and awareness are paramount to preventing people from nonconsensually removing a condom in the first place.
States like California making the behavior illegal is an important first step to preventing stealthing from happening as it highlights the severity of the crime and let’s would-be stealthers know there are legal consequences to their actions.
On a personal level, you can try to protect yourself from stealthing — though it can still happen to you and it’s not your fault. If you're planning on having intercourse and worried about stealthing, there are a few things you can try.
1. Use clear communication
Queen recommends using clear communication and negotiation skills to “state you expect a condom to be used.” You may say something like “I want to use a condom and this is something that’s non-negotiable for me.”
2. Try to establish trust
Queen adds that “Another layer of this is being able to trust your partner.” It can be helpful to find sexual partners you trust to respect your boundaries. However, even if you trust a partner, and they stealth you, it doesn’t mean that it’s your fault — or that you “should have seen it coming.” Queen says trusting your partner “can be complicated, and is especially hard to determine if you're having casual sex with someone.”
To get a sense of if a potential sexual partner is trustworthy and will respect your boundaries, you can ask them their feelings on condom use. Listen to their answer, let them know how you feel about condoms, and see how their safe sex practices align with yours. If they do things like blow off the question, make you feel like your safe sex practices are “too much,” or seem unwilling to engage in the conversation, these might be signs you should avoid sexual activity with them. You may also consider how the person respects other boundaries you’ve set. For example, if you’ve told them you don’t like something, like being called a certain name or doing an activity, see if they have respected this boundary. If they haven’t, it may be a sign you cannot trust them to respect other boundaries.
3. Reach down and feel for the condom
To try to prevent stealthing, during intercourse, you can try to ”reach down between your legs…[and] feel the condom,” says Queen. If you don’t feel a condom or you aren’t sure if you feel a condom, you can say “can we stop for a second, I don’t feel the condom and I want to make sure it’s still on.”
What to do if you’ve been stealthed
Being stealthed can be a traumatic experience and elicit difficult feelings, all of which are valid. There are a few things you might consider doing if you’ve been stealthed:
- Don’t blame yourself and seek support. No matter the circumstances, this is not your fault. While it can be easy to blame yourself and think about “what you could have done differently,” being stealthed is not your fault and you should not blame yourself for it. If you find that you are blaming yourself, reach out to someone you trust, like a friend, therapist, or medical professional that affirms that this is not your fault and can help you through this.
- Take emergency contraception. If you have a uterus and you’ve been stealthed, you may consider taking emergency contraception, also known as the Morning-After Pill, like Plan B, to avoid unintended pregnancy. In many places, emergency contraception can be purchased over the counter at drug stores, health clinics, or ordered online. Having a copper IUD inserted by a medical professional within five days of the event can also be effective at preventing pregnancy.
- Consider PreP. Queen says to “consider doing emergency PreP.” PreP is short for pre-exposure prophylaxis and is a highly effective medication taken to prevent getting HIV. Because the condom was removed during intercourse, it is possible to transmit STIs. You may consider taking PreP to reduce the chances of getting HIV, in the case that your partner has HIV.
- Get tested for STIs. Since it’s possible to transmit STIs during intercourse without a condom, you may consider getting tested for STIs. You can get tested at local health clinics and there are some at home tests you can order online as well.
- Consider if you want to report it. Queen says “You might also want to call a sexual assault hotline and get a clear sense of your options.” They can talk through what happened with you and connect you to resources like medical professionals, mental health professionals, and options for reporting it if you wish to. The phone number for the National Sexual Assault Hotline is 1-800-656-4673 and is available 24/7.
The bottom line
Stealthing is the nonconsensual removal of a condom during intercourse and is considered sexual assault. The fact that California outlawed this behavior is a positive step toward society officially recognizing stealthing as sexual violence. The more states that follow suit, the better. It’s important that more people become aware about the dangers of stealthing and why it’s a violation of consent. For this reason, education around the matter is so important.