California Has Become the First State to Make 'Stealthing' Illegal

"By passing this bill, we are underlining the importance of consent," tweeted the office of California Governor Gavin Newsom.

"Stealthing," or the act of covertly removing a condom after protection was agreed upon, has been a troublesome trend for years. But now, California is making the act illegal.

In October 2021, California became the first state to outlaw "stealthing," with Governor Gavin Newson signing the bill into law. The bill expands the state's definition of sexual battery so it includes this practice, according to The Sacramento Bee, and will allow victims to pursue a civil lawsuit for damages. "By passing this bill, we are underlining the importance of consent," tweeted Gov. Newsom's office in Oct. 2021.

Assemblywoman Cristina Garcia, who helped to write the bill, also addressed it in an Oct. 2021 statement. "I have been working on the issue of 'stealthing' since 2017 and I am elated that there is now some accountability for those who perpetrate the act. Sexual assaults, especially those on women of color, are perpetually swept under the rug," said Garcia, according to The Sacramento Bee.

Stealthing had become part of the national rape conversation after Yale Law School graduate Alexandra Brodsky published a study in April 2017 detailing how men in certain online groups would trade tips about how to trick their partner into not using protection. This entailed things like faking a broken condom or using certain sex positions so that the woman can't see the man remove the condom, all banking on the idea that she wouldn't realize what had happened until it was too late. Basically, these men feel like their desire to go bareback trumps a woman's right not to get pregnant or avoid contracting a sexually transmitted infection. (PSA: The risk of STDs is way higher than you think.)

This isn't just happening in a few obscure fetish chat groups, either. Brodsky discovered that many of her female friends and acquaintances had similar stories. Since then, research has been published that confirms her anecdotal findings. One 2019 study of 626 men (aged 21 to 30 years old) in the Pacific Northwest found that 10 percent of them had engaged in stealthing since they were 14 years old, at an average of 3.62 times. Another 2019 study of 503 women (aged 21 to 30 years) found that 12 percent of them had a sexual partner engage in stealthing. That same study also found that nearly half of women reported a partner resisting condom use in a coercive (forcefully or threatening) way; a whopping 87 percent reported a partner resisting condom use in a non-coercive way.

While the women Brodsky talked to reported feeling uncomfortable and upset, most weren't sure if stealthing "counted" as rape.

Well, it does count. If a woman agrees to have sex with a condom, removing said condom without her approval means that sex is no longer consensual. She agreed to sex under the terms of the condom. Change those terms, and you change her willingness to proceed with the act. (See: What Is Consent, Really?)

We can't emphasize this enough: Saying "yes" to having sex doesn't mean you've automatically consented to every sex act imaginable. Nor does it mean the other person can change the terms, like removing a condom, without your okay.

And the fact that the men are doing it "stealthily" shows that they know it's wrong. Otherwise, why not just be up-front about it? Hint: Because having power over the woman is part of what makes "stealthing" appealing to some men. (Related: What Is Toxic Masculinity, and Why Is It So Harmful?)

Fortunately, in 2017, lawmakers began to take action. In May 2017, Wisconsin, New York, and California all introduced bills that would prohibit stealthing— but it took until October 2021 for that California bill to be made law, and the New York and Wisconsin bills have yet to be passed.

"Nonconsensual condom removal should be recognized as a violation of trust and dignity," Representative Carolyn Maloney (New York) said in a statement at the time. "I am horrified that we even need to be having this conversation, that a sexual partner would violate their partner's trust and consent like this. Stealthing is sexual assault."

While it appears the U.S. has some way to go before stealthing can be outlawed nationwide, countries such as Germany, New Zealand, and the U.K. have already deemed stealing as a form of sexual assault, according to BBC. Here's hoping California's ruling sets a precedent for the rest of the U.S. states.

For more information on stealthing or sexual assault of any kind, or to get help if you've been victimized, go to RAINN.org, chat online with a counselor, or call the 24-hour national hotline at 1-800-656-HOPE

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