Yes, 'Stealthing' Is Sexual Assault - Here Are The States Taking Action Against It

In 2021, California became the first U.S. state to pass legislation against so-called "stealthing," which refers to the act of removing or destroying a condom without a partner's consent during sex. The landmark piece of legislation classifies the act as a form of civil sexual battery and empowers victims to sue their assailant in court for damages, providing a new legal pathway if a criminal court fails to recognize the violation for what it is.  

While the term "stealthing" might be unfamiliar to the general public, the act itself has been an issue for LGBTQ+ and sex workers' advocates for years without options for legal redress. This is in part due to difficulties in proving criminal intent in stealthing cases. Nevertheless, advocates have argued it's a violation of consent that rises to the level of assault. Underlining the urgency in these cases, many have pointed to alarming numbers of online forums in which men give other men pointers on how to discretely remove condoms. "When the consent isn't there, that's rape," said Former California Assemblywoman Cristina Garcia during a 2017 rally. "It's another sign that these men think that they can own our bodies. I hope all those men out there blogging and egging each other on are paying attention, because in California we're going to make sure that we lead the way for the rest of the nation."

Yet, years later, California remains the only state to have a law against stealthing on the books, despite the act leaving victims vulnerable to sexually transmitted diseases, unwanted pregnancy, and psychological trauma. With Roe v. Wade overturned and Republican-led states rolling back reproductive rights, advocates are once again pushing for anti-stealth laws with renewed vigor. Here's what we know about where "stealthing" stands in the U.S.

Stuck in a sluggish system

Many western countries have already passed legislation or have courtroom precedents that allow survivors to hold perpetrators accountable. As of May 2023, laws or precedents exist in Australia, Canada, Germany, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Switzerland, and the United Kingdom. Stateside, however, progress has been slow. 

This year, at least three states — Vermont, Texas, and Utah— are reportedly considering passing anti-stealthing legislation inspired by the California law, though none have made it to its respective governor's desk. Several more states have considered versions of the issue since 2017, though those previous bills have so far failed to gain the traction necessary to push through legislatures in Wisconsin, New York, New Jersey and Idaho, in part because there has been disagreement over whether "stealthing" rises to the level of rape and whether it's a civil or criminal offense. (It should be noted that the bill only passed in California after Garcia re-introduced it as a civil — not criminal — offense.) 

As bills gradually work their way through state houses, many advocates are turning their eye to the federal level—and they have reason to be hopeful, as national lawmakers have also taken up the issue amid growing calls from victims. 

Could an anti-stealthing bill become law of the land?

U.S. Representatives Norma Torres (CA-35), Carolyn Maloney (NY-12), and Ro Khanna (CA-17) introduced The Stealthing Act of 2022 last June. A mirror of the California law but on the federal level, it would grant a civil right of action to survivors and empower them to sue assailants for damages. The bill was referred to the House Judiciary Subcommittee on Constitution, Civil Rights, and Civil Liberties in November 2022, where it remains today.

Meanwhile, advocates continue to speak out and point to alarming statistics about stealthing. In 2019, for example, researchers found that men who removed condoms without consent were "significantly more likely to have had a sexually transmitted infection diagnosis or have had a partner who experienced an unplanned pregnancy." Another study found that 32% of women and 19% of men polled had been the victim of stealthing. 

The congresswomen, along with a network of survivors and advocates, continue to push forward. "Congress has an obligation to address stealthing at the federal level and allow survivors to hold those that have stealthed them accountable," Rep. Maloney previously said in a statement. "Stealthing is a horrific act of sexual violence and must be put to an end."