SO far, 2017 hasn’t been stingy in giving us a steady series of vignettes on human darkness. Knowing unequivocally that we’re not living in an episode of Black Mirror, at least once a week I find myself seriously considering a premature exodus from contemporary society for a cabin up a hill, far away from other people.
As regular readers will know, I spend a lot of time scraping around in the darkest corners of the internet looking at how digital norms shape our offline realities. Sometimes it feels like being a deep-sea trawlerman, pulling things out of the depths that people can't quite believe are real and would rather you just left where they were. A few weeks ago it was sex for rent, this week it’s “stealthing” – the practice of non-consensual condom removal or sabotage. To compound the horror, this isn’t happening in isolation. There are whole online communities of men sharing tips and encouraging one another to do it. It’s already considered criminal in Ireland, Canada and Sweden.
Alexandra Brodsky, a fellow at the National Women’s Law Centre, recently published a study on stealthing in the Columbia Journal of Gender and Law after spending time in the online spaces where men encourage each other to do this. I asked her how she managed to stay calm during her research, and she hinted at the toll it had taken. Having spent a few days doing my own research, I can only imagine how difficult that was.
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This behaviour isn’t new as many headlines on the study suggest. It’s been going on in the gay community for a long time, often in the guise of “pozzing”, where some men will deliberately try to pass on or catch HIV, often through deliberate condom damage or removal. The practice has now made its way into the heterosexual community via the “manosphere”, where Men’s Rights Activists and Men Going Their Own Way followers see sexual entitlement to women as their right, and stealthing as a means of gratification and punishment. Brodsky notes in her study that those who stealth, regardless of sexual orientation, “support an ideology of male supremacy in which violence is a man’s natural right”. Notably, this is not happening in the lesbian community – the constant is socialised masculine dominance, be it over women or over other men.
Brodsky notes that stealthing is chronically under-reported. It’s been troubling to watch how many men have dismissed work on this little-known form of gendered violence as fantasy or blamed women for bringing it on themselves. One man even told me this was “women’s punishment for being whores”. It’s been less shocking, though just as troubling, to see how many women have come forward with a “me too” story. In fact, I was tagged into a post from a woman who was assaulted just last night. The overall response to this story breaking so far has mirrored how we as a society still treat sexual assault – blaming victims’ dress or behaviour while making excuses for abusers.
YOU only have to look at the fancy new name it’s been given to see how we obfuscate the reality of behaviour with fluffy terminology. I’m not on board with calling this “stealthing”.To call it a “sex trend” is disingenuous, and potentially dangerous as it doesn’t convey the reality of the practice. If consent is established on the basis of condom use, then the terms of that consent are invalidated by removal or sabotage, that’s non-consensual sex. We have a word for that already – it’s rape. To understand what’s happening, and the consequences of doing it, we need to call it what it is. You can’t help prevent this from happening if you linguistically de-fang it. In fact, you normalise it and make it more likely to happen, because rapists don’t think they’re raping.
When I posted about this, many were uncomfortable with this idea of using that word but couldn’t offer up any answers to what a “real” rape looks like. Calling it stealthing is a distancing technique that allows us to imbue rapists with a special quality, and ignore that the only quality needed is the choice to abuse a position of power. This is no trend. Trends come and go, and this will not go because it’s a manifestation of male dominance. Same old shit, fancy new name.
So what can we do? It’s a sad reality that women already have to dress modestly, not walk alone after dark, and watch their drinks among other things to keep themselves sexually safe. This is just another horror we now have to navigate in a world where our behaviour is questioned, policed and often used against us in court. We all know to carry our own condoms anyway – but maybe it’s time for the much maligned femidoms to make a comeback?
To address the problem fully, we need to go to the root of the issue: too many people interpret consent differently, and that has to change. We need thorough consent education as part of the curriculum. We cannot assume this is common knowledge. Young people need to be taught that there are no grey areas, that sex without consent has serious consequences, and that no sexual encounter should take place without it.