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The harmful realities of stealthing in university and beyond

Updated: Jun 26

Photo Credit: Kate Astbury

By Rhea Willson

TW: Discussion of sexual assault

In recent years, stealthing has emerged as a violent form of sexual abuse, leaving victim-survivors with significant long-term trauma. Now made illegal in many countries, stealthing is now largely being understood as a form of sexual assault. Yet, misinformation surrounding the term has led to an understanding of stealthing as a ‘sex trend,’ having damaging consequences not only for the victims of the crime but also to legislation surrounding consent. 

Stealthing can be described as the deliberate act of removing a condom during or before sex without the consent of a partner. The long-term effects of stealthing go far beyond the emotional effects that victim-survivors must bear. The physical implications extend to unwanted pregnancy and exposure to STIs and STDs that can go untreated if the victim-survivor is unaware that they have been stealthed. As a result of this, stealthing perpetuates further trauma, such as abortions and mental health issues. Yet, unlike other forms of sexual violence, stealthing is construed as a passive form of rape, whereby a lack of violence involved in the sexual encounter reduces the accountability of the perpetrator. As opposed to explicit forms of consent, stealthing blurs the lines between consensual and non-consensual encounters, perpetuating harmful narratives that undermine the importance of the broadness of consent boundaries. Embedded within this ambiguity is the idea that stealthing is overlooked as a form of sexual exploitation. In reality, stealthing is an act that violates autonomy and trust that warrants severe legal consequences. 

Through discussions with other young women, it became apparent that feelings of misplaced accountability were pervasive, with women believing they could have prevented the assault from occurring. Many women expressed that they felt a sense of responsibility in being stealthed, having initially consented to a sexual encounter, and therefore should have made an active effort to double check that the condom was on. However, this couldn’t be further from the truth. Everyone involved should be confidently, explicitly and enthusiastically consenting to and informed of all aspects of a sexual encounter. The societal expectations for women to bear the burden of contraceptive and sexual health fails to adequately recognise the deliberate coercion involved in the act of stealthing. This feeling of responsibility amongst victim-survivors reflects a much larger social issue at hand, that is perpetuated by a lack of comprehensive sexual education. Lack of consent is wrongly understood as rooted in violence, as opposed to the more nuanced ways in which it appears through gaslighting or a lack of trust. The normalisation of victim-blaming is deeply entrenched into misogynistic thinking which prioritises male pleasure in sexual encounters and overlooks the female experience. It is this misogynistic thinking which greatly affect the ways that claims of sexual violence are dealt with leaving survivors of stealthing without legal recourse.

Of the women I held conversations with, many entered university life with little to no knowledge of stealthing. Marked by entering a new phase in their lives, university lifestyle is a chance to free oneself from the shackles of parental limits for the first time and discover new things. In turn, university life has been evidenced to greatly affect health, such as excessive drinking and experimenting with new drugs making these young people more vulnerable. With limited knowledge of the parameters of consent, stealthing often proliferates in university culture. The lack of discourse around this particular form of sexual assault means that many victim-survivors do not realise that they have been violated. After university life, victim-survivors enter the world without knowing that stealthing is a form of sexual assault, greatly affecting their perspectives and boundaries of sex. Contrarily, many men enter adult life unaware or in denial of the violations that they have committed. Some women stated that stealthing had left them feeling alone and isolated, as they felt as if there was no one to turn to, feeling as if their claims of sexual abuse would be belittled. The pervasive ignorance in university culture perpetuates a cycle of harm, underscoring the urgent need for a comprehensive education of consent and stealthing to be implemented both in and beyond university settings. Ultimately, it becomes apparent that there is a disparate gap between legislation and lived experiences of stealthing, which leave victim-survivors unable to come forward about traumatic sexual encounters. 

Most laws surrounding stealthing currently state that if you have agreed to sex with a condom and it is removed, the person being penetrated has not given adequate consent to the sexual encounter. This surmounts to rape, which can be valid grounds for conviction if it can be proven. However, Scotland is yet to follow countries such as England, Wales and Germany in making stealthing explicitly illegal. Stealthing should fall under the definition of rape under Scottish law and can in theory be prosecuted as such. The first successful conviction in Scotland was in Glasgow last year making stealthing illegal in case law. However, a lack of explicit legislation means many victims don’t fully understand what has happened to them and there can be potential barriers and prejudices when reporting. With a lack of police data, stealthing continues to go unnoticed in Scotland as an illegal act, maintaining harmful narratives that surround this particular form of sexual assault. By making stealthing explicitly illegal through legislation, it becomes a significant marker in the educational curriculum and the public psyche. A lack of knowledge surrounding the issue, paired with its conception as a cultural ‘trend’, has led to stealthing becoming trivialised and gradually losing its cultural traction over time. By recognising stealthing under the law, victims will be more inclined to speak out, and therefore bring more individuals closer to justice. 

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