Nonconsensual Condom Removal: How Common is “Stealthing?”

In 2017, we added a new word to our sexual vocabulary: stealthing. A paper published in the Columbia Journal of Gender and Law defined it as “nonconsensual condom removal during sexual intercourse” [1] and set off a flurry of media articles announcing it as a new “trend” in sexual behavior. However, we didn’t really have a good sense of the scope of the problem at that time because the original paper that called our attention to stealthing was based on interviews with a small number of victims. 

So just how many people have experienced stealthing anyway? A new study offers some insight [2].  It’s based on interviews with 1,189 women and 1,063 men who have sex with men who had visited the Melbourne Sexual Health Centre in Australia. 

Participants were asked whether they’d ever had a condom removed during sex with or without their permission and the point at which they noticed. According to the authors, “participants were deemed to have experienced stealthing if they reported: condom removal without permission and sex continued unwillingly, condom removal without permission and sex was discontinued, condom removal during sex but they did not realize until afterwards, or the condom was never put on despite being requested.”

The researchers estimated in advance that approximately 2% of the sample would report having been stealthed; however, that’s not what they found. In fact, 32% of the women and 19% of the men surveyed reported having experienced stealthing. 

A majority of both groups reported discussing the event with their partner afterwards, and most also reported feeling emotionally stressed about it. A majority also considered stealthing to be a form of sexual assault. 

These results suggest that stealthing is not a rare occurrence and we would do well to study it further. However, it’s important to keep in mind the limitations of these data. One is that they don’t come from a nationally representative sample—we’re only looking at people who have visited a sexual health center. Also, well over half of the people approached to take the survey chose not to (59% of women and 69% of men declined), and participants appear to have been informed in advance that they would be asked about their experiences with stealthing. This raises questions about selection bias and whether those with stealthing experiences were more likely to participate, which would inflate the base rate. 

This study also did not include heterosexual men, and we know that they can be stealthed in a way, too. For example, consider a woman who surreptitiously uses a pin to pokes holes in a condom before it’s used. I would predict that behaviors like this are less common, but they’re nonetheless still worth exploring in future research in an attempt to understand nonconsensual condom-avoidance behaviors more broadly. 

Limitations aside, these findings suggest that—at least in a clinic population—stealthing is a relatively common experience among both women and men who have sex with men. More research is needed to get a sense of the full scope of the problem and how best to combat it. 

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[1] Brodsky, A. (2016). Rape-Adjacent: Imagining Legal Responses to Nonconsensual Condom Removal. Colum. J. Gender & L.32, 183

[2] Latimer, R. L., Vodstrcil, L. A., Fairley, C. K., Cornelisse, V. J., Chow, E. P., Read, T. R., & Bradshaw, C. S. (2018). Non-consensual condom removal, reported by patients at a sexual health clinic in Melbourne, Australia. PloS one13(12), e0209779.

Image Credit: 123RF/Peerawat Aupala 

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