Whether they’re in a monogamous relationship or they have multiple sexual partners, many people feel that practicing safe sex is nonnegotiable: No condom, no sex – it’s that simple. This reality makes a new sexual trend particularly disturbing. Called stealthing, it’s a practice in which a straight or gay man intentionally and secretly removes a condom during intercourse without a partner’s consent. It’s happening around the country, and there’s even an online community where men swap stories about the practice, according to a paper published in the April 2017 Columbia Journal of Gender and Law, though just how common it is remains unknown.
Not surprisingly, the practice carries potentially serious physical and emotional repercussions for the victim. For starters, there’s concern about the risk of sexually transmitted infections and unintended pregnancy. “If your partner is agreeing to use a condom, you have an expectation that you’re being protected from an STI and unintended pregnancy,” says Dr. Barbara Levy, vice president for health policy at the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists. “Also, if the partner is removing that condom without your knowledge or consent, that is domestic abuse if you use the broadest sense of the word. This is taking control of a situation where it should be equal partners making decisions together and making it one partner making decisions for the other. Clearly, this is an activity that is victimizing one member of the sexual encounter.”
Naturally, this turn of events can produce psychological fallout for the victim, too, particularly a deep sense of violation. “It’s a betrayal, and the victim may have trouble trusting future partners,” says psychologist Linda Louden, assistant director for the Texas Woman’s University Counseling and Psychology Services in Dallas and Houston. “It can also change how victims view themselves – they may come to see themselves as damaged or vulnerable. All of these effects can increase the risk of depression and anxiety, especially if the person has a history of sexual trauma.”
Plus, when you don’t know if you’ll catch an STI or become pregnant, the fear of what might happen can increase anxiety, notes Perry Halkitis, a public health psychologist and incoming dean at the Rutgers School of Public Health in Piscataway, New Jersey. “This can lead to unhealthy behaviors, such as drinking or eating too much, to manage those emotions. There’s a ripple effect.” Part of that ripple effect may include the financial stress associated with the cost of STI testing or emergency contraception.
Given the potential harms, why do men do it? It’s not about men wanting to reap more pleasure from having sex without a condom, experts say; if it were, that could be negotiated ahead of time. It’s more about exercising control or changing the rules in a single-handed way.
“The condom is a physical and an emotional barrier: While I believe people should be having safer sex, for some people, the condom reduces the intimacy between partners,” Halkitis explains. “There’s also a power differential in relationships, and it’s difficult for some people to negotiate this. Increasingly, women are feeling empowered to say, ‘You have to wear a condom.’ For some men, [stealthing] may be a way to reclaim that power in the relationship’s dynamic.”
But that doesn’t mean it’s OK, Halkitis is quick to add. “It’s a violation, plain and simple,” he says. “It’s emotionally hurtful to the person it’s happening to.” And it can lead to feelings of shame and reduced feelings of self-worth, as the victim wonders what this says about how the partner views her or him, experts say.
How to Protect Yourself
Given that this is happening, it’s wise to take steps to guard against it. For starters, it helps to know and thoroughly trust the person you’re having sex with. It’s also wise to “insist that your partner has STI testing before you have sex,” Levy says.
But stealthing can happen even in committed relationships, so it’s important to take extra precautions. “To prevent pregnancy, use a more reliable form of contraception – such as long-acting reversible IUDs or implants, injectable contraceptives or oral contraceptives – in addition to condoms,” Levy advises. “If you’re in an abusive situation where he’s trying to force you to become pregnant, you can have an IUD placed without your partner knowing.”
If you become a victim of stealthing despite your efforts to guard against it, you can protect yourself from pregnancy afterward – by buying emergency contraception (such as Plan B) over the counter within 72 hours, getting a prescription for ella or having a copper IUD inserted within five days after unprotected sex, Levy says.
Besides tending to your physical health, “talk to someone you trust about it – a best friend, a parent or a counselor – to get the social support you need to help you process this,” Louden advises. Especially if this has happened to you multiple times, it can take a particularly steep toll on you psychologically. “Victimization has long-lasting negative effects on a person’s well-being,” Halkitis notes. “This may be traumatizing for someone.” In which case, it’s certainly in your best interest to seek professional counseling.
Meanwhile, there’s a push to define stealthing as a form of sexual assault under the law. In the Columbia Journal of Gender and Law article, Alexandra Brodsky, a fellow at the National Women’s Law Center, calls stealthing “rape-adjacent.” And she suggests that a new tort should be created to “provide victims with a more viable cause of action and to reflect better the harms wrought by nonconsensual condom removal.” The hope is that framing this as a form of sexual violence and a clear-cut crime would serve as a further deterrent to its happening in the future.