Stealthing, by any other name

Back in April, I found myself filing a new term in my feminist vocabulary; that special set of words I draw on when trying to discuss a society where power dynamics still skew heavily on the side of men.

‘Stealthing,’ my knowledgeable friend informed, in a voice that attracted the eyes of the surrounding café patrons, ‘is when a guy takes off the condom during sex without permission.’

‘So that’s what it’s called!’ another friend exclaimed as if she had just heard the name of a song that had been gnawing at her.

‘That’s happened to you?’ I asked.

She nodded solemnly and said that she had experienced this particular form of assault a decade ago, but without a name for it, she had never spoken about it.

In that instant, the act went from an amorphous blur on the periphery of her late night recollections, to a hot topic of conversation.

That same week, the word ‘stealthing’ was plastered over the news when a man in Switzerland was convicted of rape for committing the offence. Now, we not only knew what to call the act, but also that, at least in some places, it was considered a crime. Discussion continued as we teased out our feelings about what exactly constitutes consent.

‘He went into the bathroom to put it on … I clearly remember,’ a third friend said, ‘but then in the morning he told me had forgotten … We had an argument about it … In the end, he apologised and drove me into the nearby town to get the morning after pill … so not a complete arsehole I guess.’

Our opinions on the spectrum of arsehole-ery might have been extremely varied, but labelling the recurrent behaviour allowed us to have an open conversation about it. One that could be overheard and repeated, raising awareness of an issue that had gone unspoken until then.

The feminist lexicon is always evolving to include new terms that allow women to more clearly articulate their experiences. At a time when Triple J’s Hack Live seriously questioned if ‘male privilege is bullshit’ and an ugly act like stealthing is being touted as a trend, we must remember to keep calm and embrace the discussion that coining these terms allows us to have in the first place.

In 2008 when Rebecca Solnit first published her article ‘Men Explain Things to Me’ in the Los Angeles Times, she had no way of knowing that the neologism of ‘mansplaining’ would soon become a go-to in the feminist artillery. At first, she was concerned that the term might be typecasting, but ultimately decided its usage was positive when a PhD student said to her: ‘you need to look at how much we needed this word, how this word let us describe an experience every woman has but we didn’t have language for.’ Solnit had the same realisation that I had in the café: words are power. Naming the beast is like flicking on a light switch, illuminating the ugly corners of our culture, shrinking issues down to their true size like the hand shadows appearing as monsters on the wall at school camp.

That isn’t to say, of course, that some acts aren’t still monstrous. While ‘mansplaining’ labelled an irksome habit that many of us could do without, naming is also an important part of discourse when it comes to more serious acts of violence towards women. While stealthing is also committed against men, the majority of cases in question are acts of gendered violence that stem from an inherent belief in male supremacy over women, and the right to procreate. One online proponent summarises this sentiment stating: ‘It’s a man’s instinct to shoot his load into a woman’s *****. He should never be denied that right.’

Alexandra Brodsky wrote the paper that sparked much discussion about the criminality of stealthing, however she prefers the terms ‘rape-adjacent’ and ‘non-consensual condom removal.’ In her paper she outlines that unlike other feminist monikers that have been coined within the movement, the label originated with the online sub-community of men who openly celebrate the behaviour. In an interview she stated: ‘I think that term really trivialises the harm; it obscures the violence and makes it sound sneaky and maybe regrettable but ultimately an inevitable part of sex, and that’s not true. We deserve better than that.’ However, she also states that her motivation for undertaking the study stemmed from conversations with many women who had been victims of this type of assault but didn’t ‘have the vocabulary to process it.’

On the one hand, the term stealthing allows men to discuss their conquests, while on the other, it allows women to recognise the violence, and for legal systems to determine appropriate punishment. A stealthing case is yet to be prosecuted in the Australian courts, but NSW Law Society President Pauline Wright believes the act would be considered a violation of existing consent laws. She goes as far as to explain the steps to take if you become a victim in order to increase the chances of prosecution. Such articles were certainly not being published before the term was adopted. Now, for every man bragging about the violation of his sexual partners, there are many more articles, discussion boards and social media posts denigrating the behaviour as abhorrent, criminal and just plain gross. We don’t need another word, because this way, there can be no mistake we are all talking about the same thing.

A visit to the notorious 4chan message boards will show that, whether we like it or not, the internet will always be a place where the dregs of masculinity assert their perceived right to subjugate and violate women (though not exclusively: gay men, non-binary individuals and animals get a look in too). Ugly individuals will continue to dub violent acts with a variety of vulgar phrases. Bringing such terminology into the mainstream robs these words of their ability to be used solely against victims. When these men subsequently crawl out of their dark bedrooms and switch on the news, read a paper, or have a serious conversation with a real-life female, they will be reminded that the behaviour they fantasise about or partake in is nowhere near the realm of okay.

While the term stealthing may not be preferential, it isn’t the first time that movements have had to reclaim terminology in order to initiate their own conversations. From the feminist pop culture magazine titled Bitch, to The Vagina Monologues acrostic classic ‘Reclaiming Cunt’, to the now common usage of the term queer in the LGBTQI community – as Paul Baker, a professor of English Language at Lancaster University in the UK says, ‘control language and you control the society.’ While that may not yet be the case for stealthing victims, it is certainly a way to begin to turn the weapons back on the perpetrators. Many countries are now checking their legislation to ensure the act is covered, developing new legislation to be prepared for future cases, or being hounded by feminist groups to take action.

By some kind of inverted Shakespearian logic whereby a rose by any other name would smell as sweet, it doesn’t matter what we call the putrid things that emanate from within our culture, provided that we call them something, and talk about them. Naming the beast may not be equivalent to taming the beast, but it is a step towards taking away its ability to silence and induce fear.


Image: clutter – eflon / flickr

Samantha Trayhurn

Samantha Trayhurn is a writer based on Awabakal Country.

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