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Why We Need to Talk About 'Stealthing' Now

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Brianna Gilmartin / Verywell Health

Key Takeaways

  • Stealthing, or non-consensual condom removal, is a civil offense under California law.
  • In California, it's now illegal to remove condom during sexual intercourse without the partner’s verbal consent.
  • Some other countries have statutes or case laws about stealthing, but no other U.S. states have issued rulings about stealthing yet. Experts say the issue should be taken seriously and encourage more research and conversation about the topic.

California is the first U.S. state to make non-consensual condom removal, known as “stealthing,” illegal under civil law. The law declares it a “sexual battery” for someone to remove a condom during intercourse without their partner’s verbal consent.

There has been a lack of cultural awareness and legal action to address stealthing until recently. Advocates and researchers say they hope California’s decision can set a legal precedent for other states and encourage further intervention on stealthing.

According to a 2019 study of university students in Canada, 18.7% of the participants who had sex with men experienced stealthing.

Konrad Czechowski, lead researcher of the study, tells Verywell that the percentage is high enough for researchers to “put more of a spotlight” on the issue while trying to understand it better.

The Many Meanings of Stealthing

Stealthing can also refer to tampering with the condom to render it ineffective. Some researchers advocate for the use of the acronym NCCR for “non-consensual condom removal” instead of “stealthing” to be more descriptive about what is happening in the act and inclusive of the wide range of experiences.

For instance, stealthing can sometimes mean condom removal without the partner’s knowledge, but not necessarily without consent. Researchers like Czechowski have found that both scenarios are prevalent.

“The problematic component here is the lack of consent,” Czechowski says. “That consent piece is really the important part, and what makes it problematic, and the reason why it's starting to garner so much attention.”

Stealthing is also a term that refers to the practice in which a person who is HIV-positive tries to purposefully infect someone else without their knowledge or consent. Due to this double-meaning, and because stealthing is a less descriptive term, the word leaves room for vagueness or confusion, Czechowski says. 

Why Are We Talking About Stealthing Now?

Stealthing garnered major media attention in 2017 with the publication of a research paper by author and civil rights attorney Alexandra Brodsky, JD, who was at the time a Yale law student.

Brodsky wrote that when one consented to sex with a condom, they were consenting to “touch by a condom, not to touch by the skin of a penis.” She further argued that stealthing can cause physical and emotional harm.

In her piece, Brodsky reported accounts from survivors, some of whom described their partners’ actions as violations of consent and trust, as well as dismissal of their preferences and desires.

"The harm mostly had to do with trust,” one survivor was reported saying. “He saw the risk as zero for himself and took no interest in what it might be for me and from a friend and sexual partner.”

Brodsky’s work has been cited as an influence behind California’s new law.

Anti-Stealthing Law in Other Countries

In October, Australia’s Capital Territory (ACT) became the first state in Australia to make stealthing a criminal offense. In the United Kingdom, stealthing is punishable as rape. Case laws in Canada and Germany recognize stealthing as a crime under certain conditions, while stealthing has been punished as "defilement" in Switzerland.

Kelly Cue Davis, PhD has been looking into stealthing and condom sabotage since 2014, but began to focus on the issues directly in 2017, after the publication of Brodsky’s paper. She credits Brodsky’s paper and the #MeToo movement for pushing the topic to the forefront of the public sphere.

“That particular article being written and published in 2017, when #MeToo was really on everyone's minds, it hit at a very good time, in terms of the cultural zeitgeist that was going on around the conversations that people were having around sexual coercion, sexual violence, the pervasiveness of it,” Davis tells Verywell.

“People were really starting to get more into the nuance of what happens in sexual assault,” she says.

There’s limited data on stealthing due to a “siloed” approach to sexual research, Davis adds, which historically treated sexual risk and sexual aggression as separate topics. 

“Often, they are on different independent streams of research and don't ask questions about the ways in which non-consensual sex might be unprotected, or the ways in which consensual sex might eventually turn non-consensual, around issues of condom negotiation and condom use,” Davis says. “We have a fair amount of research in both of those areas separately, but we haven't really been looking at those together until relatively recently.”

'Condom Use Resistance' Is Part of the Problem

Davis has also studied condom use resistance (CUR), which can sometimes lead to stealthing. CUR can be coercive or non-coercive, and it’s prominent among women who had sex with men.

A man could coercively resist condom use through emotional manipulation, such as threatening to get angry, lying about having or not having a sexually-transmitted infection (STI). He could also tamper with a condom or use physical force. A non-coercive form of resistance could be telling the partner that sex feels better without a condom. 

In Davis’s study, 87% of women who had sex with men reported that they experienced non-coercive CUR from a partner, while 49% experienced coercive resistance. On the other hand, 58% and 19% of women reported using non-coercive or coercive CUR tactics with their male partners, respectively. 

Consent Is More Than Just 'Yes'

In 2014, Canada’s Supreme Court in R v. Hutchinson ruled that it’s a criminal offense to sabotage or remove a condom without knowledge or consent only if it causes “serious bodily harm”—defined as HIV transmission or pregnancy. Had the stealthing in the case involved only deception and not “serious bodily harm,” it would have been treated as a fraud, a civil offense, according to the court ruling.

Some researchers have criticized the court’s limited ruling, saying the decision leaves room for further legal interpretation and it’s not wide enough to help victims who have been stealthed.

Czechowski calls the ruling a “risk-based” view of the harms of sabotaging condoms without consent. “That's an approach that suggests that the greater level of risk that there is associated with, the more problematic that action might be, the more the court might actually consider that as a greater violation,” he says.

This approach doesn't factor in the risks like violations of bodily autonomy or violations of trust that can occur during stealthing, he adds. Legislation that clearly states what is or isn’t appropriate is important in resolving these issues, he says.

California’s new law may be more comprehensive than Canada’s because it specifies that “verbal consent” is necessary for legal condom-less sex. But Czechowski says it’s not perfect.

“Either somebody verbally consented, or they didn't,”  Czechowski says. “But at the same time, we know from consent research that consent is a process that unfolds over time.”

“Someone might consent to an act at one moment, and then they may withdraw their consent, or there may be a number of things that they are consenting to during sexual intercourse—whether it’s a different position, or whether it’s continuing sex versus not continuing sex,” he adds.

Some people express consent or opposition to consent in non-verbal ways, he says, like making a gesture or a noise like “mhm” instead of an affirmative “yes.”

In Czechowski’s study, he asked participants about whether or not consent was present in sexual intercourse without condoms, but did not ask them to specify if consent was verbal.

Health Concerns Associated With Stealthing

Stealthing has the potential to transfer an infection from one partner to the other. 

“The individuals who don't find out that they were stealthed, or they don't find out in time, may not be able to engage in preventive actions, and that's particularly problematic,” Davis says.

It can also lead to an unexpected or unwanted pregnancy because the victim may not seek out a morning-after pill like Plan B. If the victim is unaware of their pregnancy, it might hinder their access to abortion care depending the state they reside in.

Similar to other kinds of sexual assault, stealthing can also cause emotional distress or feelings of betrayal, Davis adds. But survivors may not have been educated on what stealthing is and may not understand why they are feeling distressed.

“The added layer that makes it challenging for a lot of people who experience it is that they're often confused,” Davis says.

Increasing awareness through research and education may help survivors feel more equipped to describe what happened to them as wrong, she adds. The hope is that California’s decision will encourage more action, such as similar legal decisions in other states or more funding in research and outreach.

“The research in this is still really quite new. We’re just starting to get a sense of what people's kind of mental health reactions are to stealthing,” Davis says. “And obviously, it's going to vary by individual and by situation, as well as sexual assault does.”

How Should We Educate People on Stealthing?

Tackling stealthing involves education and discussions that are similar to preventing general sexual assault.

Based on Davis’s study, educating potential perpetrators how not to stealth may be a more effective prevention method than educating others on how to protect themselves. The perpetrators are most likely to be men, according to her research.

It may be useful to target alcohol use, which may influence sexual aggression in some people, and offer education on the importance of condom use and consent, Davis says.

It will also be important to educate people on how to effectively ask their partner to use a condom, she adds. Interventions about condom use can be upbeat, too. In her study, Davis asked men in focus groups to discuss or contemplate the benefits of using a condom during sex. Participants listed benefits of condoms like allowing them to last longer during sex, feeling safe from STIs, and not having to worry about unwanted pregnancies.

Davis says that conversations about the benefits of using condoms would help shift the narrative so that people don’t only see condoms as an “avoidance of risk.”

What This Means For You

Stealthing, or non-consensual condom removal, is considered a type of sexual assault in California. While California was the first state to pass an anti-stealthing law, legislators in New York, New Jersey, Massachusetts, and Wisconsin have proposed bills to make stealthing illegal.

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4 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Czechowski K, Courtice EL, Samosh J, Davies J, Shaughnessy K. “That’s not what was originally agreed to”: Perceptions, outcomes, and legal contextualization of non-consensual condom removal in a Canadian samplePLoS One. 2019;14(7):e0219297. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0219297

  2. Klein H. Generationing, stealthing, and gift giving: the intentional transmission of hiv by hiv-positive men to their hiv-negative sex partnersHealth Psychol Res. 2014;2(3):1582. doi:10.4081/hpr.2014.1582

  3. Brodsky A. “Rape-Adjacent”: Imagining Legal Responses to Nonconsensual Condom Removal. Social Science Research Network; 2017.

  4. Davis KC, Stappenbeck CA, Masters NT, George WH. Young women’s experiences with coercive and noncoercive condom use resistance: examination of an understudied sexual risk behaviorWomens Health Issues. 2019;29(3):231-237. doi:10.1016/j.whi.2019.01.005