A version of this article originally appeared on VICE Austria.
Sometimes, giving something a name helps us shine a spotlight on it. The term "stealthing" – where someone secretly removes the condom they're wearing during sex – isn't widely used, but you probably know someone who's experienced it: an Australian study found that 18 percent of women and 4 percent of men had been victims, with only 1 percent of that sample reporting it to the police.
While not technically illegal in the vast majority of the world, it is a form of sexual assault – the perpetrator is forcing something on the victim that they didn't consent to – and courts have convicted "stealthers" in Switzerland, Germany and the UK, while Wikileaks founder Julian Assange was famously accused of committing the crime in Sweden (the case was dropped in late 2019).
The consequences of stealthing can be physical – like STDs or unwanted pregnancy – but also psychological, with many reporting feelings of shame and guilt. I spoke to six people affected by stealthing – with some saying it took giving the act a name for them to properly recognise what had happened.
Trigger warning: this text contains explicit descriptions of sexual assault.
Avaar*, 26, works in media, Amsterdam
When I was 20, I had sex with a guy I knew from my hometown. We weren't friends, but we moved in the same circles. I invited him over and we started making out. After a little bit, the question of who was going to go on top came up. I only had one condom left, so I offered it to him. He suggested we could go without it, but I said no. When we started having sex, he would stop every minute or so "to fix the condom". I asked a couple of times if he had taken it off and he said no. We went on for a while and, eventually, when I was lying down, I felt something weird on my back. It was the condom.
He laughed, saying: "Oops! Must have come off." I was disgusted. I asked him how long we had been going without it, and he said he didn't know. I asked him if he had any STDs and he got aggressive, screaming: "Do you think I'm dirty? I would have stopped if I knew I had something. I'm offended you would doubt me." I honestly didn't know what to say, and I just asked him to leave. He told me to forget it and promised he'd keep the condom on next time. I ignored him. On his way out he told me I was a "drama queen". I felt sickened. I got in the shower and obsessively cleaned myself for hours. After that, I made an appointment for an STD test.
The next day I told a friend of mine over lunch. She wasn't as shocked as I thought she would be, and told me I was being dramatic. Eventually I convinced myself it wasn't that big of a deal and never told anyone else. I think, in the gay community, there's an expectation that you should be careful, but also a philosophy of, "You're gay, stop complaining and just have reckless sex."
Mona*, 28, director, New York
He was English, courteous, polite. We arrived at his house and he offered me a cup of tea, brewed a pot and served it with biscuits.
He couldn't get hard, which he blamed on the "johnny". I insisted we use a condom. For all his good manners, I knew he'd slept around, and I wasn't interested in a trip to the doctor. We were under the sheets and he rolled onto me – his problems magically subsided – so, after a minute, I grew wary and asked if he was still wearing the condom.
He smiled innocently and said, "Isn't it better like this?" And the answer was yeah, I don't like condoms either. But the answer was also, "Have you heard of the clap? Genital herpes? HPV? Crabs? Have you heard of the AIDS crisis? Do you know where babies come from? Did nobody teach you respect? I know you've got manners, but where were they when you stuck your unwrapped dick between my legs? Did you leave them in the teapot?"
This is the first time I've heard the term "stealthing", and I don't like it. I don't think it captures the act. It sounds like some slick, debonair sleight of hand rather than the sleazy, opportunistic violation that it is. May I suggest some other terms: "sleazing", "scuzzing" – or maybe it's better to just call it what it is: sexual assault.
Elisabeth, 46, freelancer, Vienna
I met a guy from Germany during a concert. I made it very clear that I wasn't taking hormonal contraception and that I was only using condoms. He said that wasn't a problem for him, that protection was important. We ended up in bed during our first date and he brought the exact same condoms as I did, even down to the brand. I rolled one on him and we slept together. After, I went to the toilet and told him to give me the used condom. He pointed to the end of the bed and said he "took it off because it didn't feel good". I jumped out of the bed and felt it trickle down my legs.
I knew I was in the ovulatory phase of my cycle. Shifting between blind rage and horror, I yelled at him. He turned away from me and refused to speak.
Of course, I was pregnant. At that time, I was a single mum of two kids and couldn't manage a third. He didn't want to believe me – he said he'd never impregnated a woman before and how should he know what I get up to. I didn't have enough money to pay for the abortion, which cost €450. I made up an excuse, borrowed money from my dad and went through the procedure.
I sent a copy of the bill to the guy's work address, a screenshot of the message he sent me saying how much using condoms mattered to him, plus my bank account number. I also warned him that next time I might forget to write "personal correspondence" on the envelope. He transferred me half of the price of the abortion. Obviously, I'd have preferred he sent me the whole amount, but at least I got back some control over my life.
Nina*, 32, works in advertising, London
After my work Christmas party, my boss and I ended up at my place. He's married, but told me he was in an "open" relationship. Whether that's accurate, I don't know.
I gave him a condom and told him I wasn't on the pill. It finished pretty quickly and we lay there for a while. When I got up to go to the bathroom I saw the condom on the floor. Confused, I asked if he had come. He replied, "Oh, the condom came off. I came inside you, but don't worry, I'm clean."
I started to freak out, screaming at him, trying to explain why it was so fucked up. I checked Clue, my cycle-tracking app, and things escalated when I realised I was ovulating. I quite rightly went into meltdown mode.
Nonchalantly, he told me to just take the morning after pill – something I haven't done in ten years because it's not my preferred contraception. He didn’t seem to give a fuck about the repercussions his actions could have on both our lives. He went home, I went to bed. When I woke up, I was flooded with resentment and regret.
It's not ideal to hook up with your married boss in the first place. But what's made it even more complicated and anxiety-inducing is having to walk past him at work, knowing that how the night ended was not consensual.
Mirko, 27, social worker, Vienna
I had a date with this guy in his late thirties I'd met on Grindr. We got pretty drunk and I didn't notice when he took off the condom during sex – but I felt it when he came inside of me. I was mad with rage, he tried to calm me down. I kicked him out in his underwear and threw his stuff out to him.
The next day, I fully came to terms with what had happened and sent him a message. He blocked me, which was pretty mean. Back then, I didn’t know about PrEP, a drug for HIV-prophylaxis [that can be taken preemptively]. The six weeks I had to wait before I could get tested were the worst, but in the end I was negative.
Lisa, 30, medical student, Melbourne
I slept with a friend of a friend. He seemed nice. Afterwards, I noticed the absence of the condom that was previously on. You'd think our social proximity would have protected me against such transgressions. I was young, and remember laughing nervously after he admitted what he'd done, saying something like, "Whoops. Naughty boy."
I was on the pill. But he didn't know that. It took years – and maturity – for the real message of stealthing to settle in: "I don’t give a shit if I get you pregnant or sick. My momentary pleasure is more important to me than your welfare." That sense of inconsequence is what cuts.
* Name has been changed to protect identity