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This article was updated in 2022. The original was published in 2017.
Stealthing and grey rape are two terms defining forms of sexual violence. Stealthing is an alarming form of sexual assault. Grey rape is an excuse that many argue rapists use to justify their actions.
What is Stealthing?
“Stealthing” describes the act of a male partner removing the condom before or during sex without getting consent from his partner. It’s also called “non-consensual condom removal.” Sometimes instead of just removing the condom, the abuser will purposefully damage the condom by poking holes in it—possibly while it’s still in the original packaging. Removing or damaging a condom exposes the female victim to sexually transmitted infections and unwanted pregnancies. Stealthing can be considered a form of reproductive coercion.
“I’ve had victims tell me about this happening. But they haven’t had proper terminology for it,” says domestic violence advocate Christina Voors, who notes it is “definitely a form of sexual assault.”
A 2014 study reported that nine percent of the young male participants engaged in some form of condom sabotage, which included stealthing. A study performed from 2013 to 2017 showed that twelve percent of women between the ages of 21 and 30 who participated experienced stealthing. It’s also important to note that men who have sex with other men can be victims of stealthing. In fact, the term “stealthing” may have originated in the gay community, where stealthing is often used to describe the criminal transmission of HIV/AIDS.
The unfortunate popularity of stealthing is shown in an Ahrefs.com search which estimates that “stealthing porn” was searched online an average of 1,800 times a month from March 2021 to March 2022 in the United States. Other related online searches made include “stealthing how to guide” and “stealthing is a man’s right.”
While stealthing is sometimes also attributed to women abusing male partners to become pregnant, the study showed that none of the participants engaged in non-consensual condom removal or damage.
Is Stealthing a Crime?
Stealthing isn’t considered a crime In the United States. Only California has codified stealthing an offense—however, it’s only a civil offense. That means the victim can sue the perpetrator, but it’s not considered a crime.
Otherwise, there’s of yet no legal statute defining stealthing. Alexandra Brodsky of Yale Law School published a paper in the Columbia Journal of Gender and Law on stealthing, calling it “rape-adjacent” condom removal. In it, she argues a law is needed against stealthing “both to provide victims with a more viable cause of action and to reflect better the harms wrought by nonconsensual condom removal.”
In other countries, stealthing has either been defined as a crime or perpetrators have been convicted of rape due to the non-consensual nature of stealthing. The Australian Capital Territory criminalized stealthing in October 2021 by amending consent provisions to state that consent is negated if it’s caused by the intentional misrepresentation of a partner about the use of a condom. Canada, Germany, the United Kingdom and New Zealand have all convicted men of rape or sexual assault for stealthing.
Why Does Stealthing Happen?
There are several reasons why a rapist might commit stealthing: it could be a form of reproductive coercion, or forcing someone to get pregnant as a means of control. Voors says stealthing can also be done purely for male intent, that is, for pleasure or in order to climax. It can be a way men feel like they’re exerting power and control over their partner.
Whatever the reason, victims of stealthing experience the same after-effects as they would from rape.
“You’ve been entered in a way you did not consent to. Being betrayed in that way, violated, taken advantage of—that’s definitely not something you can just shake off,” says Voors. Stealthing can have serious consequences, such as STIs, the fear of pregnancy and adverse mental effects as a result of the trauma.
What is Grey Rape?
Grey rape is another tool in a rapists’ arsenal of tools to justify sexual assault. “Grey rape” refers to a grey area where perpetrators claim victims have created a grey area where the consent is vague. However, Voors says, “The term is bullsh*t.” This is because this dangerous term is also called “the new date rape” as it uses vagueness to excuse non-consensual sexual activity…also known as rape. In fact, Lisa Jervis, founder of Bitch Magazine, argues that “grey rape” and “date rape” are the same thing. ConsentEd, a Canadian nonprofit sexual education foundation, says that the term grey rape “...promotes the miscommunication myth that sexual assault can sometimes be an ‘accident,’ when in reality, it is always a deliberate act of violence.”
Cosmopolitan talked about grey rape back in 2007, referring to it as “sex that falls somewhere between consent and denial because often both parties are unsure of who wanted what.” This might include sex when one or both parties were drunk or blaming a sexual assault on a woman because of what she was wearing or how she was acting. In fact, victim shaming seems to play a large part in its definition.
“Many experts feel that grey rape is in fact often a consequence of today's hookup culture: lots of partying and flirting, plenty of alcohol, and ironically, the idea that women can be just as bold and adventurous about sex as men are,” reads the article.
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But Voors, an advocate since 2010 who’s helped survivors of domestic abuse, sexual assault and human trafficking, says grey rape is a dangerous mistruth victims need to delete from their vocabulary. “I hear myths like this all the time. A victim who was raped by her husband and doesn’t think it’s actually rape. A woman who consented to foreplay, but not sex. To them, that feels ‘grey.’ But it’s not. Clearly, you have drawn the lines of what is OK and what is not.”
It should go without saying, but marrying someone is not agreeing to have sex with them whenever they want to. Being too drunk to consent means no consent has been given. Affirmative consent should be asked for at every step of intimacy—not just the beginning. Affirmative consent means asking for a “yes” instead of forging ahead until there’s a “no.”
Voors worries that if the term grey rape gains popularity, victims will find it much harder to speak out and get support for sexual assault. “This term can result in so many more layers of unnecessary questioning and blame and can add more difficulty in getting a rape kit tested.”
California passed a law in 2014 requiring college campuses to implement more comprehensive sexual assault policies, including a “yes means yes” provision, demanding initiators of sexual activity get a clear “yes” before proceeding.
If you’ve been a victim of stealthing or other sexual assault, don’t hesitate to reach out and talk to someone about it. You can find a trained domestic violence advocate by entering your ZIP code here, or call the National Sexual Assault Hotline 24/7 at 800-656-HOPE.
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