First up, let’s be perfectly clear. Your right to safe sex includes:
- Having control over the manner in which you engage with anyone sexually. This includes demanding what you want in terms of safe sex – for example, insisting someone wears a condom.
- Refusing to engage sexually if your partner won’t agree to safe-sex measures you are happy with.
- Reporting sexual assault or rape where your partner refuses to agree to your safe-sex terms, and then proceeds to force you to engage with them sexually.
- Reporting sexual assault if your partner tricks you into thinking they used a form of contraception when, in fact, they didn’t.
- Instituting a civil claim against someone if they infect you with an STI.
It’s not going to be pleasant, but picture this: you’re hooking up with a guy and the sex feels good … almost too good. You look down to discover that he’s pumping away unprotected, after having secretly pulled off his condom. What you’re envisioning is called stealthing, an abhorrent practice that’s been getting increased attention after an article in the Columbia Journal Of Gender And Law described it as a form of sexual assault.
Stealthing transforms consensual sex into non-consensual sex by disregarding the terms – condom use – both partners agreed to, explains article author Alexandra Brodsky, a civil-rights attorney. It happens most often in hook-up or casual-sex situations and can leave victims feeling duped, disrespected, angry and ashamed – and fearing STIs and unintended pregnancies. ‘It’s an invisible form of violence that’s been going on for a while,’ says Brodsky. Now, it finally has a name.
While there are no concrete stats on stealthing’s prevalence, a 2014 survey of 313 single, straight men between the ages of 21 and 30 found that nearly 10% admitted to engaging in ‘condom sabotage’, surreptitiously removing or breaking one misdeed. Of those, some had done it at least 63 times in total, the max number they could choose in the survey, says lead author Kelly Cue Davis, PhD.
When it happened to Marie, 25, she was with a guy who’d pursued her for months. ‘There was lots of in and out [penetration] during a long night of sex,’ she says. ‘While he was behind me, he paused so he could last longer, and that’s when he ripped off the condom.’ When she realised he had ejaculated inside her, she was furious. So was Audrey, 39, who had sex with a guy she met on a dating app last year. ‘I was very clear that it was important to me to have protected sex,’ she recalls. They did it once using a condom, with a repeat performance in the morning. In the am session, though, ‘There was a moment when it felt a little different and I realised he had taken the condom off,’ she says. ‘I was really upset. He couldn’t believe that I thought it was a big deal.’
Why men do it
Unsurprisingly, stealthing may be more likely to occur when there’s alcohol involved and a guy makes a bad drunken decision (think: Seth Rogen’s character’s actions in Knocked Up). But booze isn’t always a factor. The practice is more common among men who already have hostile attitudes toward women, says Davis. The proof is in online communities in which – brace yourself – guys encourage others to stealth. Some justify their actions as a man’s right to ‘spread his seed’. As one stealther wrote, ‘You can’t have one and not the other. If she wants the guy’s penis, then she also has to take the guy’s load.’ Others use stealthing as a power play to reclaim control in a world where women are increasingly saying, ‘No condom, no sex,’ explains psychologist Perry Halkitis, PhD, dean and professor at the School of Public Health at Rutgers University. ‘But it’s a violation, pure and simple.’
How to protect yourself
Before you get into bed with any new partner, come prepared with your own condoms, male or female, and have a candid convo about expectations. If a guy whines about wrapping it up and you don’t know (or trust) him well, think about avoiding intercourse. ‘If it’s an orgasm you’re after, there are plenty of other ways to get it,’ says Pepper Schwartz, PhD, a professor of sociology at the University of Washington at Seattle and coauthor of 50 Great Myths Of Human Sexuality. If you do opt for penetration, keep in mind that it’s easier to see if a condom is in place when you’re facing each other (i.e., in missionary or girl-on-top).
Whenever you switch it up, use your hand to guide him back inside you and feel for the condom, suggests ob-gyn Lauren Naliboff, a fellow of the American College of obstetricians and Gynecologists. If you think you’ve been stealthed, go to a pharmacy for Plan B and to your doctor or a clinic to get tested for STIs. Finally, make your voice heard. Report stealthing to the police and ask them to take it further as a form of sexual assault. Contact POWA, who may be able to assist with litigation and legal advice.
Reconsidering the female condom
Old versions were poorly designed and hard to find – hence, a lack of enthusiasm (and use) among women, says Dr Harry Fisch, a clinical professor of urology and reproductive medicine at the Weill Cornell Medical College and chief corporate officer at the Female Health Company, makers of the FC2 female condom. Newer, improved lady sheaths adhere to the walls of the vagina, are 95% effective at protecting against pregnancy and STIs, and are available at many health clinics or from a doctor.
Bonus: female condoms can be inserted up to two hours before sex, and they don’t need to be removed immediately afterwards.
Legal Aid Advice Line (free)
- Call 0800 110 110 (toll-free) or the Please Call Me service through 079 835 7179
- They will also be able to tell you which Legal Aid office is closest to your location
- Call their HQ: 011 642 4335
- Download the free POWA GBV app for Android or iOS to report abuse and find help centres near to you
- Call 0861 322 322
- Dial *134*7355#
- Call 10111
- Visit their FCS Unit