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Continuing the Conversation: Stealthing Violates Consent

February 15, 2018

Violence against women and girls takes many forms. Reproductive abuse, coercion, and sexual assault are tactics of abuse facing many survivors of domestic violence, even though these tactics are not as commonly known or understood as emotional or physical abuse. People who choose to abuse may use reproductive abuse and coercion to exert power and control over victims. Abusive partners may employ manipulation, intimidation, threats, and/or physical violence to control their partner’s reproductive and sexual choices. (For example, when one partner pressures the other partner to get pregnant by threatening to leave if she does not comply.) An abusive partner may also directly interfere with reproductive choices, which can include confiscating birth control, forcing someone to either end or continue a pregnancy, or sabotaging birth control, such as nonconsensual condom removal— also known as “stealthing” [1].

Consent exists when all parties enthusiastically agree to all acts that are happening throughout the entirety of a sexual experience. The violation of consent and exposure to recognizable harm that stealthing presents clearly identifies this act as a dimension of sexual assault and reproductive abuse. The purposeful, nonconsensual tampering with or removal of condoms is high-risk sexual behavior; it also violates an individual’s choice and autonomy over their own body. In addition to possible physical consequences, stealthing is experienced by many as a violation of dignity, autonomy, and trust [2].

Emotional, Physical, and Financial Consequences of Stealthing

Victims of stealthing can experience serious harm, as consequences can be emotional, physical, and financial. While some survivors have shared their uncertainty about how to classify this experience, health professionals report the immediate and long-term effects of stealthing as similar to rape, including post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and hypervigilance [3].

Access to and proper use of condoms reduces the risk of unplanned or undesired pregnancy and most sexually transmitted infections and diseases (STI/Ds), including HIV/AIDs [4]. When someone purposefully, nonconsensually removes a condom, the probability of transmitting or contracting STI/Ds such as chlamydia, gonorrhea, and syphilis dramatically increases. Treating infection or trauma resulting from stealthing can come at a high financial and emotional cost. This can seriously impact a survivor’s livelihood, especially considering that 99 percent of survivors of domestic violence experience financial abuse [5].

Legal Remedies to Stealthing

Currently, state laws do not clearly and specifically address stealthing. However, in some cases, survivors may be able to make certain legal arguments based on the sexual assault laws in their state and may also be able to access civil legal remedies (such as restraining orders or suing for damages in civil court) depending on their situation. Survivors can find state-specific legal information about sexual assault on our WomensLaw.org website, or you can ask a question on our legal Email Hotline.

Additional Resources to Address Stealthing

Individuals’ autonomy and choice are fundamental human rights and central to gender equity and equality. Ending gender-based violence requires a focus on reproductive justice, which can only be achieved when all individuals have the power to make decisions about their own body, health, and sexuality.

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[1] Contraception Journal. “Pregnancy coercion, intimate partner violence and unintended pregnancy.” Retrieved from: http://www.contraceptionjournal.org/article/S0010-7824%2809%2900522-8/abstract
[2] Brodsky, A. (2017). “Rape-Adjacent”: Imagining Legal Responses to Nonconsensual Condom Removal. Columbia Journal of Gender and Law, 183-210.
[3] Keck, C. (2017). “Is ‘Stealthing’ Rape? How Sexual Assault Victims Describe ‘Nonconsensual Condom Removal.” International Business Times. Retrieved from: http://www.ibtimes.com/stealthing-rape-how-sexual-assault-victims-describe-nonconsensual-condom-removal-2536254
[4] Center for Disease Control. (2017). HIV Basics, Prevention. Retrieved from: https://www.cdc.gov/hiv/basics/prevention.html
[5] Adams, Adrienne E. “Measuring the Effects of Domestic Violence on Women’s Financial Well-being.” CFS Research Brief 2011-5.6.