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Consent Crime: Women Fall Victim To “Stealthing”

The practice of ‘stealthing’ is alarmingly common, as this writer discovered after it happened to her


Mary Madigan

It was late, or early depending on how you define time. My partner and I had half-ended things a few weeks earlier, but I was drunk that night and he was willing to have sex, and it just seemed easy. Then I saw the condom on the floor of my bedroom – not where it should have been. “Aw come on, don’t make this some huge thing,” he said lightly, smiling.

I’d specified three times that I wanted him to keep the condom on. I can even remember the banter we shared before that moment. “I don’t know where you’ve been,” I’d teased, when he’d suggested using no protection. He’d laughed, “Nowhere, I promise.” But he’d relented and rolled on the condom — and then had taken it off without my knowledge or consent.

What happened to me is known colloquially as ‘stealthing’. Except, I didn’t have a word for it then, as this was before shows like I May Destroy You had helped bring stealthing to light. I just knew I felt small and vulnerable, and remember desperately wanting to shower, as if water could wash away these feelings of violation.

Straightaway he’d tried to brush it off almost like it was a joke, as if it was simply cheeky of him to remove the condom, that piece of latex protecting me from unwanted pregnancies and STIs. He acted as if it was just boys being boys. I expected him to show some remorse or regret, but if anything he seemed annoyed by my reaction, as if I had suddenly become ‘unfun’.

I can’t remember if he stayed or left, but afterwards he sent me a text that asked if I was “done being weird?”

 

He had removed the condom without my knowledge or consent

Although I didn’t know it then, stealthing is alarmingly common. One recent Australian study found that one in three women and one in five men had experienced it. In some countries, such as the UK and Germany, it’s recognised as a crime of conditional consent, where consent has been given for one act (sex with a condom) that is then vitiated (the condom is removed). Here, the legal situation is far less clear.

As with so many issues, there is no federal legal consensus on stealthing, and there is no criminal law that explicitly identifies stealthing as a sexual offence. In Australia, there have been no successful prosecutions. A Melbourne man was charged with rape in 2018 after allegedly removing a condom without consent, but the trial has been delayed because of the pandemic.

“The position in NSW at the moment is it’s a little bit up in the air,” says Dr Andrew Dyer, a director at the Sydney Institute of Criminology. “If stealthing is a crime, probably a court would find it is sexual assault but the matter hasn’t really been tested.”

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Mary Madigan CREDIT: Hellene Algie

The trouble is, when an act like stealthing isn’t codified as a form of sexual assault – when it exists in a confusing place of silence and shame – victims don’t know how to react. The cavalier attitude of my perpetrator, and his insistence that I was paranoid and overreacting, made me wonder if I should just get over it? It wasn’t until I had lunch a few days later with my girlfriends, who offered me the anger and certainty I couldn’t find in myself, that I felt I could properly process what had happened.

With this knowledge I realised it wasn’t my fault and it wasn’t OK.

I never saw him again, after what happened. Even before that night, this was never a relationship destined to last. We’d met on a dating app but quickly worked out we were incompatible. (He wore surfer board shorts and referred to weekends as ‘boys’ time’.) But we had fallen into a relationship that consisted of late-night text messages and hook-ups, and the occasional, emotionally charged drunk discussion about why this couldn’t become more.

Over the next few weeks, I talked to my friends and took comfort from their stories of similar experiences, but we all spoke about the issue with a sense of hopelessness. None of us knew how men would ever be held accountable for their actions. I didn’t even think of going to the police.

The cavalier attitude of my perpetrator made me wonder if I should just get over it?

“Stealthing (nationally) is considerably underreported to the police, likely due to a range of factors,” says Dr Rachael Burgin, the Chair of Rape and Sexual Assault Research and Advocacy. “[One of the reasons] may be that people who experience stealthing are unsure whether it is a criminal offence – so they might feel harmed by the experience but be unsure whether it is a matter for the police.”

Similarly, Dr Dyer said: “Because it is a little bit blurry, prosecutors are also less likely to prosecute a case like (stealthing).”

However, some states in Australia are working towards creating clearer legislation. In line with recommendations by the NSW Law Reform Committee, stealthing is likely to be explicitly criminalised as sexual assault in the next 12 months, says Dr Dyer.

Meanwhile, in  the ACT, Liberal leader Elizabeth Lee introduced the Crimes (Stealthing) Amendment Bill in April and says she plans to bring it for debate in the next couple of weeks.

“I am hopeful that [the bill will be passed] and certainly comments made to the media from the Attorney General and Deputy Leader Chief Minister, have indicated that this is something they agree on in principle, so I would hope that it gets support,” she adds.

Stealthing is considerably underreported to police

Even though I didn’t go to police after being stealthed, I still had other, practical issues to deal with. There is a lot of life admin involved when someone doesn’t use protection and you aren’t on the pill. I had to buy the morning-after pill, and answer the incredibly personal questions the chemist asks you in a crowded pharmacy, such as, “When did you last have unprotected sex?” The middle-aged man standing behind me in the line smirked at me as I left.

I then had to visit my doctor to get an STD test, and spend a few days anxiously waiting for the results. I remember I showered a lot during that time as if soap would reduce my chances of having herpes. The whole experience felt drenched in judgement.

Psychotherapist Julie Sweet has worked with both male and female victims of stealthing, and says many struggle with its emotional consequences.

“Clients have presented with emotional distress after an incident of stealthing, disclosing feelings of shame, powerlessness and fear,” she says. “Many become anxious and panicked around STIs, other related diseases and unplanned pregnancy.”

It’s hard to pinpoint how much my experience with stealthing has changed me. I know that I still get anxious that somehow an STI will appear overnight, even though it’s been years. I know that when I casually dated afterwards, I was less likely to have sex, as it suddenly felt like a weapon. I think it has damaged my view of men, particularly because the man who ‘stealthed’ me seemed not to care about how it made me feel.

I also know that proper and clear legislation in Australia would have helped me. It would have made me feel empowered rather than confused. I know that victims of stealthing deserve better than ambiguous laws.

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BY Mary Madigan

Mary Madigan is a Sydney writer

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