Stealthing is assault, a betrayal with potentially long-lasting consequences
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As a psychologist who specializes in trauma, I've been giving some thought to the implications of the new “sex trend” called stealthing, where men remove their condoms mid-sexual intercourse without the consent of their partner.

Some may call this behavior — disturbing, scuzzy or just plain wrong. And I agree. But whether stealthing should be included in the definition of rape is a more complicated issue.  

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Rape has been called the most underreported crime in America. Typically, in research studies on the prevalence and effects of rape, we use the definition from the U.S. Bureau of Justice. Rape involves forced vaginal, anal or oral penetration by the offender(s). Force may be physical or psychological, and can involve drugs, alcohol, or other intoxicants deliberately given to the victim to incapacitate their decision-making or self-induced intoxication by the victim.

 

But the sexual intercourse in stealthing is not forced per se. Rather it is the nonuse of a condom that is not consensual.

I certainly don’t want to join a chorus of people who say that stealthing is not a sexual assault. Those people might engage in victim blaming — saying, “Well these people (both women and men victims) got what they deserved” or “They signed up for it.” Because I don’t believe that — not in my over 20 years of clinical experience in working with trauma survivors and conducting research on its effects.

On one hand, stealthing is nonconsensual, simply put. As I know from practice in psychology, informed consent is never set in stone. It’s constantly evolving, like a living, breathing entity. And as Florida clinical psychologist Amy Ellis explained, “When a woman or man consents to intercourse, with the knowledge that it will be with a condom, there is an obligation to uphold that understanding. Taking the condom off means that a different sex act is occurring, and informed consent needs to again take place.”

Peter Janci, an Oregon attorney who has represented hundreds of victims of sexual abuse — including those whose abuse took place in the context of a beloved institution like the Boys Scouts or the church or private boarding schools — seemed an ideal legal scholar to weigh in on this issue. “It makes sense to me to treat stealthing as sexual assault. Essentially, stealthing involves nonconsensual sexual contact. And, stealthing also involves a choice to expose another person to risk without his or her knowledge. The victims suffer a bait and switch that eliminates their ability to take protective action for themselves.”

Similar to rape, the damage to the person who experiences stealthing could be severe — sexually transmitted infections (STI), unwanted pregnancy, and psychological distress. In addition, there may also be the worry and the “what if” that the victim suffers until those negative consequences are definitively ruled out (assuming they don’t happen).  

But there may be something qualitatively different in regards to the fear/violence aspect of rape from what occurs in “stealthing.” Marianne Silva, a clinical social worker in Connecticut who specializes in the treatment of sexual trauma, thinks “stealthing” could be viewed in a similar way to someone having consensual sex and not disclosing they are HIV+ or a female who doesn’t take her birth control but her partner thinks she has and then she ends up pregnant. Both of these experiences violate the other person’s sense of trust and safety as opposed to their life threat.

Stealthing thus might be more accurately conceptualized as a “betrayal trauma.” where someone significantly violates a person’s trust or well-being. In other words, there was supposed to be an implied or explicit contract between two people concerning protection, but rather the victim experiences deception and fraudulent assurances of the perpetrator. This type of betrayal can have all kinds of negative effects on trust, which may echo throughout the victim’s future sexual experiences such as avoiding or excessive concerns about sexual experiences and other forms of intimacy.   

I also wonder about the effects of stealthing on those who are already trauma survivors. Many of the women and men with sexual abuse/assault histories whom I’ve treated over the years get revictimized. Trauma survivors have already had their agency removed. And stealthing could increase their emotional distress from previous trauma and leave them self-doubting yet again.

The courts and legal system clearly have a lot to decide, and it would be helpful to hear from a broad range of mental health and medical providers, as well as victim service agencies. It may be determined that stealthing is conceptually and legally distinct category from rape. Whatever and however stealthing eventually gets categorized, there certainly needs to be a deterrent for such abhorrent behavior. Thus even if stealthing isn’t deemed rape, it may warrant penalties similar to rape.

Until then, efforts to increase the reporting of incidents of stealthing to law enforcement agencies should be encouraged. Public education about stealthing is imperative as is the assurance that victims have access to needed advocacy, legal and health care services including confidential, free testing for HIV and STIs.

Most clearly to me stealthing is an assault on one’s personhood, a violation, an offense, and a betrayal of trust. There likely will be negative physical, psychological and relational consequences. What exactly are the effects and how severe or long-lasting they will be will require systematic and longitudinal scientific study.

Joan Cook is a psychologist and Associate Professor at Yale University who researches traumatic stress and clinically treats combat veterans, interpersonal violence survivors and people who escaped the former World Trade Center towers on 9/11.


The views expressed by contributors are their own and are not the views of The Hill.