I Was a Victim of Condom Stealthing. Laws Need to Change.
I Was "Stealthed" by a Partner. More States Need to Make It Illegal.
Image Source: Getty / Nestea06 and Photo Illustration: Becky Jiras
When I heard in October 2021 that the California State Assembly had outlawed stealthing — the act of removing a condom without a partner's consent — I was full of hope.
The legislation had been four years in the making, championed by Assemblymember Cristina Garcia, who was emboldened to pen the bill after reading an academic article. That piece, written by Alexandra Brodsky in 2017, proposed possible legal repercussions to nonconsensual condom removal. Brodsky argued that laws for stealthing are necessary to set a standard for cause of action.
There's no doubt that stealthing is sexual assault — and now it's more crucial than ever to set a precedent of treating it as a crime, considering it can result in unwanted pregnancies. With last year's overturning of Roe v. Wade, more people will be unable to access safe abortions, and people of color and lower-income people will be disproportionately impacted.
I remember not knowing how to respond and questioning if being upset was an overreaction.
California's legislation, beyond the precedent it could set for the rest of the nation, was important validation after I had been stealthed. Kenny (a pseudonym) was a tall, handsome, dark-haired audio engineer I'd met on Tinder in 2018. He was a Los Angeles native, and as someone who grew up in a quiet New Jersey suburb, that was very cool to me. The first night we met, I went to his house after I'd finished a shift at work. We didn't hook up; we talked, listened to music, and watched TV.
I thought it was a great sign that he didn't try to kiss me. I remember thinking he was respectable and patient — good traits in a potential partner. We dated casually, eventually hooking up on several different occasions. During one of those instances, Kenny stealthed me. I remember not knowing how to respond and questioning if being upset was an overreaction. Adding insult to injury, when I called him out on it, he took on a patronizing tone and pretended he thought I knew he wasn't wearing a condom. It was his way of dodging accountability.
Because I had no reference for how to handle the situation, I brushed it under the rug. I hate to say it, but I continued hooking up with him after that, letting his slimy behavior — his assault — go without consequence.
If condom-removal legislation had been in place when it happened to me — I was living in California at the time — I would have felt much more empowered to take a stand. I'm so glad that other Californians now have grounds for litigation. But it's left me wondering: why have other states not followed suit?
"Sexual assaults, especially those on women of color, are perpetually swept under the rug. So much stigma is attached to this issue, that even after every critic lauded Michaela Coel's 'I May Destroy You' for its compelling depiction of the horrors of sexual abuse including of 'stealthing,' it got zero Golden Globe nominations. That doesn't seem like an accident or coincidence to me," Assemblymember Garcia said in an October 2021 press release when the bill was signed by Gov. Gavin Newsom.
She was referring to the fourth episode of the critically acclaimed HBO show in which Coel's character, Arabella, is assaulted by her partner when he removes his condom behind her back as they switch positions. To make matters worse, afterward, her partner alleges he thought she could "feel" the difference . . . as if that is a form of consent.
Much like Arabella in "I May Destroy You," I was also made to believe by my perpetrator that it wasn't a big deal — that I hadn't been lied to and disrespected.
We're right to feel betrayed, harmed, and violated when anyone does this to us.
Indeed, stealthing isn't only a physical violation, but also an emotional one. In addition to putting their partners at risk of unwanted pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections, violators subject their victims to psychological side effects. It can make it hard for the person who was stealthed to trust future partners and move forward in healthy romantic relationships.
I spoke with Jack Worthy, LMHC, a therapist based in New York City, to break down the psychology of it. "A betrayal will rock your ability to trust. Sh*tty behavior from known sh*tty actors can be painful and aggravating, but such doesn't normally unsettle or disorganize us," he says. In other words, he notes, we understand the world to be "working as it should."
Comparatively, he says, stealthing violates the pro-social bond we establish with our partners, revealing it as a lie. "That experience leaves you asking, who else am I trusting who may betray me?" Worthy explains. "An assault or other violation can wreck your experience of the world as relatively safe and predictable. After an assault, you look everywhere for potential threats. It's a miserable and exhausting way to live."
In my case, the assault ultimately made me feel stripped of my autonomy and created an imbalance of power between us. It took away my sense of safety in the relationship, leaving me with a gross, unsettled feeling. If the stealthing law had been enacted in California at the time of my assault, I don't know if I would've pursued legal action, but at the very least I would've stopped seeing Kenny immediately.
California's AB-453 states that "a person commits a sexual battery who causes contact between a sexual organ, from which a condom has been removed, and the intimate part of another who did not verbally consent to the condom being removed." Furthermore, the bill asserts that the person who committed battery is liable for damages.
A noteworthy detail of the bill is that it's defined as a civil offense versus a criminal one. This is significant because it can give victims more leverage in court. In a civil case, the plaintiff need only prove that the offense more than likely occurred, meaning survivors have a higher chance of seeing justice served. While criminal offenses often result in jail time, a civil offense alternatively can result in a financial reward, which is potentially more useful to a survivor of assault, though preferences among survivors vary.
In November 2021, Brodsky argued the benefits of a financial remedy on the podcast "Unladylike." "For so many people, what they most want is the opportunity to rebuild their life. They want the chance to see a therapist. They want the chance to move away from the person who harmed them," she said.
The process of holding perpetrators accountable could look like going to a hospital immediately after an assault and having doctors collect DNA samples from a person's genitals. From there, a survivor would ideally be represented by an attorney who would file the suit. Even if a survivor opts out of going the route of filing a civil suit, the new law still provides validation — it's reinforcement that we're justified for feeling duped and demeaned.
While California is the first state to explicitly outline stealthing as a civil offense, it's already illegal in some countries. The United Kingdom, Canada, Germany, New Zealand, and Switzerland have all outlawed the act of stealthing, with some of those countries even equating it to rape. Last June, lawmakers introduced a bill in the US House of Representatives that would name stealthing as a form of sexual violence, but it never passed.
Besides California's history-making law, 49 states have yet to take action. New York and Wisconsin have created similar bills, but neither has passed. This needs to change. No matter how uncomfortable or nuanced it may seem, the discourse needs to be made mainstream in order to shift the culture. It's important that people everywhere know that we're right to feel betrayed, harmed, and violated when anyone does this to us.
More than a year after the Golden State sent an important message to both perpetrators and survivors, I want more to be done. I wish I'd known in 2018 that my experience wasn't unique, that there were other people who had been tricked by their partners. I wish I'd known there was something to be done to prevent this from happening in the future. We have to continue the conversation around stealthing so that everyone begins to understand it as a form of harm, just like any other kind of assault.