Stealthing: What is it and why is it sexual assault?


Everyone should know.

Content warning: Sexual assault.

We’re all taught about sexual assault growing up and we all hear about it in the news when it unfortunately occurs. We hear about online and workplace harassment, inappropriate name-calling and touching, and we hear about rape.

But what many of us don’t hear about is the act of stealthing. Stealthing is a form of sexual assault punishable by the law in some parts of Australia, but many Australians have never even heard of it. 

If you have experienced sexual assault or know someone who has, a list of key support services in your state can be found here.

So what is stealthing? Senior lecturer in criminology and justice Dr Brianna Chesser describes stealthing as the “non-consensual condom removal during sex. In this case, the removal of a condom would require ‘fresh consent’, as it has legally changed the conditions of the sexual act”.

According to Dr Chesser, stealthing affects more members of our community than we might think. “A 2018 study by Monash University and the Melbourne Sexual Health Centre surveyed 2,000 people and found one in three women, and almost one in five men who have sex with men, had experienced stealthing.” Only one per cent of the victims who responded to this survey reported the incident to the police.

As Dr Chesser explains, stealthing is a sexual offence and could be punishable by law. “Committing a sexual offence in any jurisdiction in Australia is a very serious crime and could lead to a term of imprisonment.”

But unfortunately, not every state or territory in Australia reflects this. Laws in the ACT recently changed to outlaw stealthing; the amended Crimes Act now makes it illegal to remove a condom during sex or to not use one at all, if a previous agreement was made to use one.

While this is good news, they were the first jurisdiction in Australia to do so, meaning that there are no laws expressly criminalising the act in the rest of Australia. However, this doesn’t mean a person cannot be convicted for stealthing – a conviction is dependent on existing consent laws and can fall under the offences of rape or sexual assault.

A paper by Alexandra Brodsky in the Columbia Journal of Gender and Law describes stealthing as “rape-adjacent” and states it should be understood as a violation of consent. 

Like any violation of consent, stealthing presents a risk to the health of victims. “Stealthing poses a multitude of risks to both physical and psychological health, including the transmission of sexually transmitted infections and HIV, as well as unplanned pregnancies, depression, anxiety, and in some cases post-traumatic stress disorder,” Dr Chesser tells me. 

In the study by Monash University, eight per cent of women and five per cent of men who have sex with men reported that they believed they had acquired an STI following the incident. One per cent of women and two per cent of men who have sex with men believed they had acquired HIV as a consequence of being stealthed.

Brodsky’s paper describes being a victim of stealthing as “a disempowering, demeaning violation of a sexual agreement”. Like any other form of sexual assault, stealthing can result in devastating consequences for a victim’s mental health. Fear following the trauma of sexual assault can evolve into anxiety, depression, PTSD and suicidal ideation. 

Despite all the negativity here, important conversations about stealthing are growing and awareness is spreading. Incidents are being taken seriously, it’s being talked about in the news and it has even featured in pop culture.

In Michaela Coel’s acclaimed TV series I May Destroy You, the protagonist Arabella finds out a man she slept with secretly took off his condom during sex, and names and shames him. Here’s hoping with more awareness and harsher laws, stealthing becomes a thing of the past.

If you or someone you know has experienced sexual assault you can call the national sexual assault counselling service on 1800RESPECT, or head to its website for support and advice.

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