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When Isla* was 18, she moved to New York to study at design school. Having attended a small conservative school in the UK her entire life, she was looking forward to a fresh start and meeting new people. Early on in her first semester she began messaging Dean*. They’d met on Tinder.
He was 7ft tall, older, and intriguing; and soon she had her first date. Isla was excited. They arranged to meet at his apartment where things escalated quickly. For Isla, this was more than a first date; it was her first time having sex.
“I had high expectations because I feel like everybody romanticises losing their virginity,” she says. Nervous because she wasn’t on any contraception, she insisted he use a condom and eventually he agreed. It was only when the sex ended that Isla realised he hadn’t.
“He had pretended to put one on,” the 19-year-old tells HuffPost UK over the phone, a year after the incident.
She was horrified. “I was literally lying there crying in the dark — I don’t think he even noticed. That was the worst bit.” She collected her things, left hurriedly, and began googling the side effects of the morning-after pill. She was scared, alone, and didn’t tell any of her friends what happened that night.
Isla had been the victim of stealthing – or “the non-consensual removal of a condom during sex” as a 2017 study in the Columbia Journal of Gender and Law defined the practice, while exploring its “rape-adjacent” legal implications.
Stealthing is an oddly euphemistic term for what is a form of sexual violence, says Katie Russell, a spokesperson for Rape Crisis in the UK.
Legally, people consent to sexual activity or intercourse when they agree by choice, but crucially, people can change their mind at any time – consent is conditional, she explains.
“If someone has given you their informed consent on the basis of you using a particular form of contraception – in this case condoms – and you remove your condom without a person’s knowledge then you are actively breaking their consent and committing a sexual offence.”
“I was lying there crying in the dark — I don’t think he even noticed. That was the worst bit.”
Those glued to BBC3′s unmissable drama I May Destroy You (brief spoilers ahead) will have seen the scene where Arabella, played by Michaela Coel, discovers her writing mentor Zain removed the condom during the sex they have in her flat. When she confronts him, he apologises before saying: “it was really fucking good though, wasn’t it?”
Annoyed, Arabella insists he pay for the morning after pill. Only later, when she hears some women on a podcast echoing the explanation that Zain gave her – “I thought you knew – you mean you didn’t feel it?” – does she realise the incident was a form of sexual assault.
No official statistics on stealthing exist in the UK, but Russell says it’s highly likely to be more common than we think, based on historic underreporting of sexual offences. An Australian study of visitors to a sexual health centre found one in three women and nearly one in five men reported being stealthed.
In 2019, a man in Bournemouth was sentenced to 12 years in prison for rape for removing his condom during sex without the woman’s consent.
For Dearbhla*, it took scrolling Twitter to make her reassess a sexual experience she’d had two and a half years earlier – a memory she has suppressed.
“I had never heard of stealthing before, I just knew that I was not happy with what had happened to me that night,” says the 30-year-old. “I didn’t have the vocabulary for it – I chalked it down to one of those things that a lot of people experience and nobody talks about.”
Dearbhla had been getting on well with Tom* when the pair went back to her house after a Christmas night out in Dublin. Mindful of the risks of unprotected sex, she insisted he use a condom but was shocked to discover he was no longer wearing it when they finished.
She considered a plausible explanation – like the condom breaking – but when she asked Tom what had happened, he shrugged and replied: “It feels better that way.”
The casualness of his response stunned her, leaving her feeling “like dirt”, she says – as if she was only there to serve a purpose. “As long as he was happy, that’s all he cared about and I think that’s a hard thing to reconcile with.”
“I chalked it down to one of those things a lot of people experience and nobody talks about”
When Dearbhla woke up the next morning, she went to the bathroom, leaving Tom asleep in bed. When she came back, he was gone. Moments later, there was a knock on the door, and Tom standing there sheepishly.
He’d left his wallet. “I didn’t know what was more shocking: the fact that he had done what he had done or the fact he ran like a child.”
She previously considered herself a good judge of character but has completely changed how she views dating, she says.
Ruby, 24, from London was stealthed by a friend she slept with after a night out at university, and says, similarly, that it massively eroded her trust in others.
“They feel as if they have an entitlement to your body when sex should be a collaborative experience,” says Ruby of perpertrators. “It should be shared consent and shared decision making.”
She adds: “At no point am I willing to ever give up control now because I feel like people have just taken it for granted.”
For a long time, Dearbhla felt a mix of embarrassment and denial about the incident with Tom. “I always thought, well, it could have been worse, which is a horrendous way to think because there is no hierarchy of assault, as such,” she says. “I think that’s what I’m trying to get my head around at the minute.”
Isla, who has since experienced a more violent form of sexual assault, says it’s important to recognise there is no ranking of sexual violence. “Objectively one may seem worse than another, but we should remember trauma can affect people in different ways.”
Survivors are often hesitant to use the words rape or sexual assault, says Katie Russell – due to society’s concern with the reputation and feelings of a someone labelled a rapist over the person subjected to a traumatic crime.
“We need fuller clearer conversations with children from the earliest possible age, and then more broadly in society with adults who are way beyond school age to really educate people as to what consent is,” she adds, warning against creating a “hierarchy of victimhood”.
As Russell says: “Consent isn’t the absence of something, rather, it is a positive, active and ongoing concept.”
*Some names have been changed and surnames omitted for anonymity.