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Trigger warning: sexual assault, rape.
"He did what??" I asked my friend, horrified. She was right in the middle of telling me how much her latest date sucked. While she listed the many ways in which the man she had been seeing was a jerk to her, I listened. But when she told me he secretly took off the condom while they were having sex, I had to say something. Because this wasn’t just a bad date: this was sexual assault. I felt dizzy and nauseous, because I could relate. Like me and countless, nameless others, she was a victim of stealthing.
Stealthing is defined as the non-consensual removal of a condom during sexual intercourse. There are cases where a person would also damage a condom prior to having sexual intercourse without consulting their partner - a partner who had consented to protected sex.
The act is sadly well spread (it was even called a ‘trend’ in the last few years) but poorly documented, as there are not enough police reports on how many victims of stealthing are out there - but if you were to ask anyone who has ever had sex that involves penetration by a penis, chances are they will be familiar with it.
The absence of consent makes it sexual assault. It increases the victim’s chances of contracting sexually transmitted infections, unwanted pregnancy, and brutal psychological repercussions. When I explained to my friend that she had been stealthed, she had no idea what I was talking about, and I'm not sure she even believed it was sexual assault at the time. But when I begged her to consult a therapist, she agreed. After her first therapy session, she was in a state of shock, denial and rage. To cope with the trauma of stealthing, she is now seeing a therapist weekly.
The psychological impact of stealthing varies from one person to the next. I have noticed that if a person is unaware that stealthing is a form of sexual violence, they tend to be less affected than someone who is more educated about consent. But someone with more basic knowledge of consent can still feel guilt and blame themselves, and develop trust issues with their next partners. Depression, anxiety, and trauma are common in victims, whether they know stealthing is sexual assault or not. Because it doesn’t feel right. Most of us have an instinct about what is right and wrong, what feels comfortable and what doesn’t - and there’s nothing right about sex without consent. In response, a victim may act out, often in ways that are harmful to them.
In my experience, therapy is one of the most effective ways to process sexual violence. When it happened to me, I didn’t want to be in denial and develop unhealthy coping mechanisms. With so many emotions and intrusive thoughts bubbling up, I hope other survivors can find a way to talk to a mental health professional or an anonymous helpline, or even a friend if professional help is not an option. When you are experiencing flashbacks of the incident and are struggling to function, it becomes even more crucial to seek help.
Stealthing is rape. In 2019, a British man was convicted of rape and sentenced to 12 years after removing a condom without his partner’s consent during sex. So when I talked to psychologists about stealthing, they advised me to work on my sexual self-perception - a common practice for rape victims. It may seem like the hardest thing to do to tell yourself you are worthy and deserve to be treated with respect, that this is not your fault, that you were not “asking for it”, and that you ‘“are not a slut”, but it does start the healing process. Only the rapist is responsible for their predatory behaviour.
Another difficult and painful step in building back up is cutting off all contact with the person who stealthed you. “Regardless of the motivations, when one partner is not consulted about a decision such as having unprotected sex, which has very serious repercussions, then that is a serious red flag,” said clinical psychologist Elizabeth Jeglic. “Discontinuing the relationship is appropriate in this case, and in some jurisdictions, so is pressing charges.”
Anger after stealthing is valid. When we spoke, licensed professional counselor Jayne Green shared it was best to acknowledge emotions rather than ignoring them. “When experiencing any negative emotions, such as fear, anger or helplessness, reflect on what could be causing the emotions and immediately use grounding strategies,” she said. “But refrain from spending too much time on those negative emotions. Grounding strategies will allow you to release these emotions from your body so you can think clearly rather than harbor them.”
I’ve found that holistic self-care helped in my recovery. Contrary to popular opinion, self-care isn’t only about pampering yourself, it’s also mind-nurturing. Like Elizabeth Jeglic told me, it’s important to keep a healthy lifestyle, and no matter what, to not abuse substances. “Be gentle and nonjudgmental of your feelings and reactions, because you have experienced an extremely traumatic event,” she added.
Stealthing has made me more alert, more attentive to red flags, from the first date to intercourse with a partner. I now know my rights and I’m establishing clear boundaries. And I am claiming back my power.