A one-sided burden. A betrayal. A violation. “Rape-adjacent.”
These are some of the ways women have described “stealthing,” a term used to describe the act of removing a condom during intercourse without the other partner’s consent. While victims of stealthing tend to be clear about its harms, what has been less clear is how to define it. Is it assault? And could — or rather, would — the law do anything about it?
Federal legislation introduced this month could offer not just clarity, but also a legal remedy for survivors of stealthing. One bill introduced last month would explicitly name stealthing as a form of sexual violence and create a legal pathway for victims to sue perpetrators for damages and relief. A separate bill, called the Consent Is Key Act, would encourage states to pass their own laws authorizing civil damages for survivors by increasing funding for federal domestic violence programs in states that pass those laws.
The federal legislation, brought forward by Reps. Carolyn B. Maloney (D-N.Y.), Norma J. Torres (D-Calif.) and Ro Khanna (D-Calif.), mirrors a first-of-its-kind California law passed in October. That law expanded the definition of sexual battery in the state’s civil code to include removing a condom without verbal consent. (The U.S. House bill defines stealthing as removing any “sexual protection barrier” without the consent of each person involved in the sexual act.)
“Stealthing is a grave violation of autonomy, dignity, and trust that is considered emotional and sexual abuse,” reads the House bill, titled the Stealthing Act of 2022.
It’s a significant step forward for an important but overlooked issue concerning bodily autonomy and reproductive rights, said Alexandra Brodsky, an attorney and author of “Sexual Justice.”
Brodsky fears that, because of “deeply entrenched” myths about rape and sexual assault within the legal system, lawyers, judges and juries aren’t “primed to recognize non-consensual condom removal as [sexual assault] unless legislators explicitly define the offense.”
Brodsky’s 2017 Yale study on the topic, “‘Rape-Adjacent’: Imagining Legal Responses to Nonconsensual Condom Removal,” has been credited with bringing widespread attention to the practice and its impact, as well as how the law might address it. California Democratic Assemblywoman Cristina Garcia, who authored California’s stealthing law, said she had been working on developing this kind of legislation since reading Brodsky’s paper.
The Washington Post caught up with Brodsky to talk about the federal legislation and how our understanding of stealthing has evolved over the past five years.