What is stealthing? The law on sexual assault

blank packaging foil wet wipes pouch medicine or condom
What is stealthing and is it legal? HUIZENG HU - Getty Images

The allegations against Russell Brand are horrific and disturbing. A lengthy investigation conducted by the Times, the Sunday Times and Channel 4’s Dispatches saw five women accuse the controversial comedian of rape, sexual assault, emotional abuse and manipulation. Brand himself has denied all the allegations, saying all his relationships have been consensual.

A woman known as Alice*, who spoke under a pseudonym, gave a detailed account of her experience. Aged just 16 when she started dating Brand, she talks about the oral sex he forced on her, as well as the time he removed a condom during sex without her knowledge.

russell brand speaks on stage
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The latter is known as stealthing, and while in England and Wales it carries the same criminal penalty as rape, it is not always treated with the same seriousness. It is also disturbingly commonplace; a study conducted in Melbourne in 2019 found 30% of women had been victim of a non-consensual condom removal.

Cosmopolitan UK spoke to Chantal Gautier, a sexologist and psychologist at the University of Westminster, and registered with the College of Sexual Relationships and Therapy, about this worrying phenomenon.

What is stealthing?

Stealthing is when the condom "is removed or tampered with" before or during sexual intercourse without the knowledge of your partner.

Taking it off during sex, or using condoms that you have deliberately poked holes in to make less effective, counts as stealthing.

"People stealth as a form of control and power, though it can happen to anyone," Gautier explains. "It is often also a form of control in violent relationships, and people have also reported that men do it to partners who do not want children.

"None of these reasons are okay, and should all be treated as assault and rape."

Is stealthing illegal?

In England and Wales, stealthing comes under the same remit as rape, and carries a maximum sentence of life in prison.

It is covered under the 2003 Sexual Offences Act, which specifies if someone has been ‘tricked’ into the nature of the sex, they’re only giving ‘conditional consent’ – ie: only consenting to sex under the condition a condom is worn.

To impress the seriousness of this act, Rape Crisis urgently reminds people that 'stealthing' is a slang term.

"The legal term for this act is 'rape,'" they explain. "We prefer to use the word 'rape' when talking about stealthing. That's because we think it's important to be very clear about what stealthing really is.

"However, if you contact us to talk about your experience and want to use the word 'stealthing' then that's completely okay. We believe that victims and survivors should use whatever language they feel most comfortable with when describing what has happened to them."

How can you be sure stealthing has happened?

As stealthing is something done surreptitiously, it can be difficult to ascertain whether it has happened after sex.

"In many cases, stealthing isn’t apparent particularly in certain sexual positions," Gautier explains. "However, it can sometimes be difficult to determine whether it was removed intentionally or not. If you’re unsure, communicate your concerns with your partner and always ask to see the condom before it is discarded, or make sure you discard it yourself.

female hands holding condom on pink background top view the concept of sexual preservation
Vladimir Sukhachev - Getty Images

"If your partner refuses to communicate honestly, gets defensive or doesn’t want to show you the condom, it is likely that you have been a victim of stealthing."

How can you protect against stealthing?

Firstly, it’s key to note that stealthing is never the fault of the victim and is always down to the perpetrator.

It is vital, however, that before you have sex with a new partner that you have a frank discussion about limits and what’s acceptable.

"There isn’t a fool-proof way to avoid stealthing when it comes to casual encounters as you have no way of knowing how genuine a person is, but to reduce your risk, it is important to set your boundaries before any sexual encounters and ensure that they are being respected, and follow your intuition and recognise any red flags, and avoid and remove yourself from any sexual situation if you don’t feel safe or certain," says Gautier.

"Also, always provide your own condoms to ensure that they aren’t tampered with or compromised in any way. This won’t stop someone from removing them but it will reduce any uncertainty around the quality of them so you can recognise more significantly if you have been stealthed, removing any reasonable doubt."

Gautier also warns about having intercourse when under the influence, where you can be more vulnerable.

"Respectful individuals won’t allow anything to happen in this instance, but there are people who will and do take advantage – both men and women," she explains.

What should you do if you think you have been stealthed?

In this situation, your health is entirely paramount – so seek medical advice and treatment straightaway. Not only are condoms effective at preventing pregnancy, but also sexually transmitted diseases – if you’ve been stealthed, you may be at risk.

"People who have been stealthed should remove themselves from the situation as quickly as possible and seek help and support," Gautier explains. "Always take an STI test after casual encounters, but it is more important than ever if you have been stealthed. And take a pregnancy test as soon as possible."

condoms againsts a pink background
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Your mental health may also need some looking after; stealthing can be a traumatic breach of trust.

"Being stealthed can cause mental health issues such as anxiety and may also damage your trust in others," Gautier continues. "If necessary, talk through your experience with a professional and look after yourself mentally and physically afterwards."

Whether you choose to report the perpetrator to the police is entirely your own choice – but as previously stated, stealthing is a criminal act and victims have the right to be listened to and treated with respect if they feel they need to take further legal action.

"Reporting is never easy, and can often be as traumatising as the act itself, but if you have the details of the person who stealthed, and feel that you have the necessary support to be able to do it, then report them to the police," Gautier says.

"They may already be on file for doing it before, and it may prevent them from doing it to someone else."

For more information and support on sexual assault, visit the Rape Crisis website or call 0808 802 9999.

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