By Dervla O'Driscoll
Michaela Coel made history this year in her drama ‘I May Destroy You’ when she explored a variety of different types of sexual assault and misconduct, including one so ubiquitous that it had been branded a sexual trend by various mainstream news outlets.
In this, I am referring to the act of ‘stealthing’.
‘Stealthing’, or non-consensual condom removal, is a form of sexual assault in which one partner removes a condom without the knowledge or consent of the other party. This leaves the victim vulnerable to sexually transmitted infections, as well as unwanted pregnancy. The legal precedent that stealthing was a form of rape in the UK was set in 2019 when Lee Hogben was sentenced to 12 years in prison after removing a condom during sex.
Despite the practice being discussed within the mainstream media since 2017, there still seems to be relatively limited awareness of what stealthing actually is. In fact, a 2018 YouGov survey found that 40% of respondents believed that it is never, or not usually, considered as rape to remove a condom without a partner’s consent.
In the ‘I may destroy you’ drama, however, the recognition of stealthing garnered a lot of attention in the public eye. In the show, Coel makes clear the severity of the crime by having her character, Arabella, publicly accuse Zain, the man who removed a condom without her knowledge, of being ‘a rapist’. ‘Not “rape-adjacent” or “a bit rapey”’ she says, ‘he’s a rapist’. She also brings to light the discrepancies between the laws in different countries, highlighting the fact that ‘if you were in the States he’s “rape adjacent”. In Australia, he’s “a bit rapey”’.
Furthermore, Coel articulated the way many perpetrators trick their victims into believing they have not been violated. After Arabella finds out Zain was not wearing a condom and confronts him, he claims ‘I thought you knew’. ‘He placated my shock,’ Arabella later asserts, ‘he gaslighted me with such intention that I didn’t have a second to understand the heinous crime that had occurred.’
(image taken from Amazon)
Through the portrayal of this all too common instance of violation, the show highlights the tendancy of stealthing perpetrators to evade blame by lying to their partner about what had happened. Sumayya Ebrahim wrote in her 2019 article that ‘men admitted to deception or making woman believe that sex was unintentional, as a way to obtain non-consensual sex without getting caught, such as “Just stick it in and if she objects, pretend like I had done it by mistake”’.
While the topic of stealthing has only come to light as a reality in recent years, many women have come forward with their experiences and, in turn, their mis-understanding that what they had suffered was essentially an instance of rape.
Rebecca*(name changed),a student at the University of Manchester, recounts her experience of being stealthed at the age of 18.
“I met a guy on a night out and we exchanged socials. We texted for a couple of days and then I invited him to my place. He said he’d never worn a condom before, and I told him that was okay and I could do it for him. Doing it myself made me feel safer anyway because I knew it was on properly. At one point I looked down and the condom wasn’t there anymore. At first I panicked, I thought it had gotten lost inside of me and I was going to have to go to the hospital to get it fished out or something. I asked him where it was and he told me that it must have fallen off. I wasn’t very experienced, so I believed him. After he had left, I found the condom inside my pillowcase.”
“I felt violated and like I had no control over my own body. I was terrified that he’d infected me with something and I wouldn’t be able to take a test for two weeks. I felt stupid that I had believed him when he told me it had fallen off. I should have shouted at him and kicked him out of my room or I should have reported it or something but I just blindly believed him.”
“I told some friends after it had happened.” Rebecca continues, “Some of them were sympathetic in a kind of ‘ugh aren’t men awful’ kind of a way. They didn’t see it as anything out of the ordinary. One friend told me that I should have been on birth control and if I had been this wouldn’t be such a big deal.”
It is in light of harrowing recollections, such as this, that the portrayal of stealthing on TV was widely welcomed, particularly across social media. One twitter user wrote ‘Michaela Coel's portrayal of stealthing (aka serious sexual assault that was once branded a 'trend' ffs) in 'i may destroy you' is so real, and sadly something many women and people with vaginas will relate to’.
However, others still shockingly believe that stealthing is not a big deal.
In a 2017 interview with Hack, one man explained why he stealthed his partners saying that ‘it feels better with no condom on’.
‘I don't think I really make an agreement’, he goes on to say, ‘I just put [a condom] on and if nothing is said I take it off. I don't think it's breaking the law.’
The law, however, disagrees.
In fact, there have been a handful of convictions of this type of sexual assault over the past couple of years including a 2017 case in Switzerland and a 2018 case in Germany.
Whether you have knowingly or unknowingly been a perpetrator, or an unwilling victim, the un-consensual removal of a condom during sexual intercourse is a crime.
Although the social conscious is slowly waking to the realities of stealthing as a legitimate form of sexual assault, always make sure you educate yourself on your rights and what is and isn’t okay during instances of sexual intercourse.