28 April 2021

Disgusted, scared and angry: why stealthing makes victims feel vulnerable

| Dominic Giannini
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Women on path

Around one-third of women are estimated to have been victims of stealthing. Photo: Michelle Kroll.

It made Holly* feel disgusted, scared and angry.

As has happened to countless other Australian women and men, her partner had taken off his condom during sex without her consent, and she felt she had lost her autonomy.

She wasn’t aware that she had been ‘stealthed’ – the non-consensual removal of a condom during sex – until she met up with the man a second time.

“It’s an abuse of trust,” Holly said. “I went home with a man from work. I had only met him a few times but thought he was a nice guy,” Holly said.

“He took off the condom while we were having sex, and I didn’t realise until the next time we had sex when he said, ‘oh, but I did that last time’.

“It doesn’t matter if you consented to sex; that doesn’t mean you consent to everything else.”

Holly, who now lives in Canberra, said she had explicitly asked the man to wear a condom both times as she was concerned about sexually transmitted diseases and pregnancy.

“He pretended he didn’t have a condom until I took sex off the table,” she said.

“When I asked him to use a condom, he said, ‘I’ve just been tested, I’m fine’, which is ridiculous because he had just lied about having a condom in his wallet, so why would I believe that?”

Around one-third of women and just under 20 per cent of men said they had been stealthed, and more than half of its victims reported emotional distress following the incident, a 2018 study conducted by Monash University and the Melbourne Sexual Health Centre found.

The term stealthing was used by Alexandra Brodsky in 2017, who described the practice as “rape-adjacent” in a paper published in the Columbia Journal of Gender and Law, but it can be traced to at least 2014.

Canberra Rape Crisis Centre CEO Chrystina Stanford said current laws do not adequately capture how consent is navigated, including that a person can withdraw consent at any point during sex and consent to some things but not others.

“Stealthing fits with consent in that if someone does not know the other has removed their condom, they cannot have consented to it,” she said.

“It becomes a betrayal and a crime.”

READ MORE ACT moves to criminalise ‘stealthing’

Justice for victims can be difficult to attain as there is no specific article in the ACT Crimes Act that references the practice of stealthing.

Opposition Leader Elizabeth Lee introduced a private member’s bill into the Legislative Assembly last week to amend the Crimes Act to explicitly state that consent is negated by an intentional misrepresentation about using a condom.

“Stealthing can be a very traumatic thing to experience. It can take away a person’s self-determination, their agency, and leave them feeling completely vulnerable,” she said.

“This Bill is about making our voice loud and clear that no means no.”

Elizabeth Lee

Opposition Leader Elizabeth Lee has introduced a bill to amend the Crimes Act to specifically outlaw stealthing. Photo: Michelle Kroll.

But Holly said changes also need to be made within the justice system to make it easier for victims to come forward. Despite its prevalence of stealthing, only 1 per cent of people reported it to police, the 2018 study found.

Going to the police and potentially going to court was not an option for anything short of rape for Holly because of how she was treated by the justice system when she was a witness to an assault against a former housemate.

“They had the assault on camera and lots of witnesses saying they had seen this guy punch my friend,” she said.

“I was put on the stand, and his lawyers said I kissed this guy, led him on, and that basically I was also having sex with my roommate and he got defensive.

“I was told I was too drunk to remember my version of the events, that my skirt was too short and that I wanted the attention in front of a whole courtroom full of people. I wasn’t even the main witness or the person who was assaulted.”

The event traumatised her to the point that it caused her to lose faith in the justice system concerning assault and sexual assault.

“If they can’t lock up rapists with clear evidence, then why the hell would you go through all that for not wearing a condom?

“At the end of the day, it’s his word against yours.”

READ MORE ‘Rape is not a relationship’: abuse survivors reinvigorate debate over legal wording

Holly has also called for more education and awareness about the practice to empower victims of stealthing, which can be played down by partners and leave victims feeling irrational and confused.

When she was stealthed for the first time, it was by her boyfriend at the time who consistently dismissed her concerns and gaslighted her.

(Gaslighting describes a form of psychological abuse where a person undermines the victim and makes them question what happened and their perception of reality. It can leave victims feeling anxious and unable to trust themselves.)

“I had repeatedly asked him to always use condoms when we had sex because I was concerned the contraception I was taking at the time wasn’t 100 per cent effective,” she said. “That didn’t stop him often pulling off the condom mid-sex anyway.

“At 22, he made me feel like I was overly sensitive and cautious, to the point of being ridiculous, so I never pushed back when he would do this.

“He was my boyfriend after all.”

Attorney-General Shane Rattenbury said it is the government’s view that stealthing is already illegal under the Crimes Act with consent being negated if obtained by fraud, but there may be value in putting the offence beyond doubt.

Mr Rattenbury said he would seek further consultation about whether the Bill would be more effective as a standalone piece of legislation or incorporated into the government’s broader consent law reforms.

*Holly’s name has been changed to protect her identity.

If this story has brought up any issues, you can call the 24-hour national sexual assault, family and domestic violence counselling line, 1800 Respect, on 1800 737 732.

You can contact the Canberra Rape Crisis Centre’s support line on 6247 2525 between 7:00 am and 11:00 pm for all counselling-related inquiries, including all appointments and referrals.

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