What Does Stealthing Mean?

Many behaviors pertaining to sexual activity are illegal, from revenge porn to sexual violence. Added to the ranks of lawfully forbidden acts is stealthing. In October 2021, California became the first state to pass legislation banning the act of stealthing during sex when Governor Gavin Newsom signed Assembly Bill No. 453. You may be wondering what exactly stealthing means and why it's considered an illegal behavior. In short, it boils down to consent and safety, but the larger context is much more nuanced.

When it comes to having sex, choosing to utilize condoms can prevent pregnancy and reduce the risk of spreading sexually transmitted diseases (STDs), but when one partner secretly removes a condom during sexual activity without the knowledge of the other person, stealthing occurs. But just because stealthing has only become illegal in recent years doesn't mean it's a new thing. It's actually believed that stealthing may have begun as far back as the year 300 A.D. when condoms were first documented by experts. But just because something isn't new doesn't mean that it's okay. In fact, stealthing is extremely dangerous and when something is done without consent during sexual intercourse, sexual assault or rape can occur. Remember, routinely checking in with your partner during sex is the best way to create an open dialogue about consent. Now, here's what you should know about the unethical and illegal act of stealthing.

If you or anyone you know has been a victim of sexual assault, help is available. Visit the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network website or contact RAINN's National Helpline at 1-800-656-HOPE (4673).

Benefits of condoms

The benefits condoms provide are numerous, and properly wearing a condom during sexual intercourse can serve as birth control and protect both you and your partner from contracting unwanted sexually transmitted diseases (STDs). Generally, when you hear the term condom, it's a reference to external condoms, otherwise known as male condoms that are used to cover a penis during sexual activities. In addition to external condoms, there are also internal condoms, which are sometimes termed female condoms and inserted inside the vagina during sex. Removing either type of condom during sexual activity and not getting your partner's consent is the foundation of stealthing. When your partner is under the impression that a condom is being used, removing the condom against your partner's knowledge can unwittingly put them in danger of disease transmission and unwanted pregnancy.

Sex without the use of a condom may be more hazardous than you think. In the United States, millions of cases of sexually transmitted conditions occur each year, including gonorrhea, syphilis, chlamydia, genital herpes, genital warts, and forms of hepatitis, in addition to HIV that could potentially lead to AIDS (via Healthline). Moreover, taking a birth control pill or using another form of contraception like an intrauterine device (IUD) can prevent pregnancy, but only condoms can reduce the risk of both pregnancy and STD transmission.

Labeling non-consensual condom removal

Putting a name to the behavior of stealthing can help people identify that non-consensual condom removal is a form of rape. Katie Russell, a spokesperson for the U.K.-based organization Rape Crisis, tells BBC News, "It's a relatively new phrase, and in some ways it's useful to have a term so people know what it is, but in other ways it can be a bit misleading. It sort of sanitizes and minimizes it, because ultimately what we're talking about is rape. We have to be crystal clear this is non-consensual condom removal, and it's not something that's a bit cheeky or naughty to try and get away with – this is something serious that can have really damaging impacts for the other person's whole life and health." Removing a condom simultaneously removes the benefits condoms provide and the barriers they create in preventing STDs and pregnancy.

Without a condom, the chances of becoming afflicted with one or more STDs drastically increase, and while there are treatment methods for many common STDs, the lack of knowledge that you've been exposed to condom-less sex can lead to a gap in awareness that you should be on the lookout for symptoms of STDs (via Flo). And while it's always sound advice to do self-examinations and be regularly tested for STDs, believing that you've had sex with a condom barrier when that isn't actually the case can be misleading and have detrimental effects.

Why stealthing occurs

Stealthing is an act of sexual abuse that has been allowed to occur since the creation of condoms due to deeply ingrained societal misogyny, states Healthline. Stealthing is not a form of healthy sexual activity, as it denigrates the respect and agency of the affected person, who is often blamed or held accountable even though they didn't initiate the stealthing. Victim blaming, the act of placing blame on the person whose consent was violated, is believed to be one of many reasons why stealthing has been allowed to continue. To combat these harmful dynamics, better education around consent is strongly recommended.

It's likely that stealthing is a behavior that's utilized to intentionally violate the trust of the other partner and assert power over them. Stealthing can even be more subtle than blatantly taking a condom off mid-intercourse. Stealthing can occur by manipulation or insistence that sex will feel better or is only enjoyable for a person without the use of a condom. Should the other person feel pressured into forgoing a condom, stealthing might be at play. Legally, each jurisdiction varies when it comes to reporting stealthing as a crime, but regardless of what the law says no person should ever feel pressured into having any type of sex they don't want to have. It's important to note that stealthing can affect anyone regardless of gender or sexual identity.

Ultimately, consent is paramount in any sexual situation, and if you believe you've been stealthed, you should speak to the proper authorities and report your case.