Last week, many of us added a new word to our sexual vocabularies: stealthing. This term refers to an act in which a guy takes off his condom during sex without his partner’s knowledge or consent.
That’s not cool. In fact, it sounds a lot like rape.
The fact that this behavior occurs at all—and that it apparently happens often enough that we had to name it—has freaked a lot of people out, and rightly so. In the last week, countless headlines on the subject have emerged, calling attention to this disturbing new sex “trend.”
While a lot of great conversations are underway about stealthing—and, more broadly, about sexual consent—a couple of points have gotten lost in this discussion. One is that, while we know that stealthing occurs, we actually have no idea how common it is, if it’s really a new thing, or whether it’s accurate to call it a “trend” because no one has ever studied it scientifically. Keep in mind that the paper that originally called our attention to this phenomenon was based only on interviews with a small number of victims and visits to a few websites where guys were giving each other advice on stealthing strategies. Odds are that it’s pretty rare—but that doesn’t make it any less worrisome.
The other thing that hasn’t received much attention in these discussions is that stealthing is a symptom of a much bigger problem: a lot of guys are resistant to wearing condoms and they’re using all sorts of tactics to avoid them, with stealthing being just one of the most egregious examples.
Consider A 2014 study published in the Journal of Sex Research that involved a survey of more than 300 young men (aged 21-30) who’d had unprotected sex in the past year. These guys were given a list of 10 “condom resistance tactics,” such as insisting that you’re clean or purposefully breaking the condom so that it can’t be used. For each tactic, the men indicated whether they had ever successfully employed it in the past to avoid using condoms with a female partner.
What they found was scary. Most of these men (80 percent) admitted to having used at least one these tactics. In fact, on average, guys admitted to having used up to four of them.
The three most common tactics—each admitted by more than half of the participants—involved reassuring her condoms aren’t necessary because he’s clean, trying to make her so horny that she wouldn’t care about using protection and complaining that sex doesn’t feel as good with condoms.
Condom resistance is quite common—and men aren’t the only ones who dislike condoms.
These were followed by direct requests not to use condoms and telling her that condoms aren’t necessary because they should be able to trust each other.
This is where things get really dark. A third of the men resorted to emotional blackmail, telling her how angry he’d be if she insisted on using condoms. A few (seven percent) made another type of threat, saying they’d withhold sex if she wanted to use protection.
One quarter of the guys admitted to having flat-out lied in order to not wear a condom, saying they’d been tested for STDs where that wasn’t the case. About one in 10 said they’d intentionally sabotaged a condom so that they wouldn’t have to wear it, such as breaking it while trying to put it on. Finally, and most disturbing of all, two percent said they went as far as to use physical force in order to avoid using a condom, such as pinning a woman down so that she couldn’t get one.
I should caution that this study doesn’t necessarily tell us how widespread these tactics are in the general population. However, when you look at the broader pattern that emerges across other studies, it suggests that condom resistance is quite common. Indeed, many college women reporting that they have been persuaded and pressured by men to not to use condoms when they actually wanted to. Research also suggests that young men seem to think it’s normal for guys to resist using protection. That’s a very troubling finding, though I suppose one bit of positive news from this same research is that at least guys don’t seem to think it’s normal to resist with physical force.
Of course, men aren’t the only ones who dislike condoms and resist using them. A lot of women report that condoms interfere with their sexual pleasure, which may be part of the reason so many women report having unprotected sex every time. Concerns about lack of sensation and/or intimacy may therefore lead both men and women to pressure their partners into forgoing condoms, though this appears to be something men are more likely to do. There are also some women who take condom resistance to the extreme through contraceptive sabotage, such as poking holes in a condom without their partner’s knowledge (one of the many disturbing things you’ll discover if you google “how to get pregnant without him knowing”).
What all of this tells us is that, sadly, stealthing is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to condom avoidance among both genders. The truth is that we’ve got a much bigger problem on our hands here, because a lot of people are being deceived and pressured into having unprotected sex.
Remember: if you want to have sex without condoms, but you need to trick or coerce your partner into doing it, that’s not consent—in fact, it’s far from it. Consensual sex is all about respecting your partner’s body and boundaries.
Justin Lehmiller, PhD is a sex educator and researcher at Ball State University, a Faculty Affiliate of The Kinsey Institute, and author of the blog Sex and Psychology. Follow him on Twitter @JustinLehmiller.