Though “stealthing” is common, state law is silent
By Emma Platoff
It happened at his house in Newton, when Catharine Jones was 17. It was dark, and she couldn’t see what was happening, so she didn’t realize that he had removed the condom while they were having sex. He didn’t tell her until it was over, and when he did, he laughed, Jones recalled recently. He wasn’t her boyfriend; they hadn’t been using another form of contraception. Jones didn’t tell her mother, but a friend guided her through the next steps: Plan B to ward off unwanted pregnancy, a test for sexually transmitted diseases.
She felt betrayed, and hopeless, and confused.
“I knew it was wrong, but I didn’t know there was anything I could possibly do about it. And I guess there wasn’t much I could do about it,” Jones said in a recent interview, more than a decade after the incident. “I wasn’t even sure if it counted as an assault. . . . It wasn’t concrete. And that’s kind of why I was confused: What happened to me?”
Nonconsensual condom removal, known as “stealthing,” presents a clear violation and breach of trust. But it is not specifically designated as a crime anywhere in the United States, making it difficult for survivors to grapple with what they have experienced, and nearly impossible to seek recourse through the criminal justice system. Now, some Beacon Hill lawmakers are pushing a bill that would make Massachusetts the first state to create both civil and criminal penalties for stealthing. So far, only California has outlawed the act,though the state did not make it a crime punishable by prison time. The law signed by Governor Gavin Newsom in October makes nonconsensual condom removal a civil offense, allowing people who experience it to sue perpetrators for damages.
State Senator Diana DiZoglio, the Methuen Democrat who is pushing the bill, said it’s critical for Massachusetts law to take stealthing as seriously as it takes other forms of sexual violation.
“When somebody is sexually violated, it impacts their mental health, their physical health, and our public health,” DiZoglio said. “This is an important issue that needs attention from our legislators, so we can take a stand with survivors . . . and make it clear that this is wrong.”
Her bill, which was recently considered in a committee hearing but has not yet been voted on by the Legislature, would add stealthing to Massachusetts’ indecent assault and battery law. It would allow prosecutors to pursue perpetrators criminally, and also empower people who experience stealthing to seek civil damages to cover expenses like medical bills, emergency contraception, and STI tests. Another measure, filed by state Representative Erika Uyterhoeven, a Somerville Democrat, would amend state law to make clear that “there has been no valid consent” to sexual contact if stealthing occurs.
Stealthing already is outlawed in a number of other countries, DiZoglio said. In 2018, a German court convicted a police officer of sexual assault for stealthing.
Wisconsin and New York both have considered measures on stealthing, but neither state has outlawed it.
The act of stealthing is not new, but it has begun to gather greater recognition among academics and advocates in recent years. The Internet has created forums where male perpetrators discuss it, research shows. A 2017 Yale University study, done by Alexandra Brodsky, drew greater attention to the issue. A California assemblywoman began her push to outlaw it in that state the same year.
Stealthing also has emerged more prominently in pop culture, including in a scene in the popular television series “I May Destroy You,” in which the protagonist, played by Michaela Coel, ultimately calls out her partner publicly as a rapist for removing his condom without her consent. In the United Kingdom, where the show is set, stealthing is punishable as sexual assault, but successful prosecutions are rare.
Research also shows stealthing is all too common. According to a 2019 paper in the journal Women’s Health Issues, which studied more than 500 women between the ages of 21 and 30, 12 percent had a partner engage in stealthing. Another study of hundreds of young men, published the same year, found that nearly 10 percent reported engaging in nonconsensual condom removal.
Brodsky, an attorney who has researched the laws around sexual violence, said it might be possible to go after perpetrators of stealthing under some states’ existing laws against sexual assault, sexual battery, and gender-based violence. But specific legislation on the issue would make it easier, she said. She added that she believes civil remedies would likely prove “more useful” for survivors, given the difficulty of prosecuting sexual misconduct cases and other factors.
It was Brodsky’s 2017 paper — and the subsequent debate in the California Legislature — that reminded Jones of the stealthing incident from her teenage years.
After high school, as she went to college in Boston and eventually moved to California for graduate school, she did her best to suppress the memory. In high school, she had struggled to define the experience. Later, she had tried to suppress it. But the bill in the California Legislature put a name to what she had experienced and made it clear that many people had suffered the same type of violation.
“I was like, ‘Well, that definitely happened to me,’” Jones recalled. It was painful to revisit the memory. But it also made her wonder: “If this happened to me, how many other people is it happening to all the time? Especially when the concept is to hide it from people?”
The bill and the study also sparked a conversation with her mother, Carolyn Ramm, who said she was horrified to learn what her daughter had gone through more than a decade earlier.
Ramm knew that anti-stealthing legislation had been introduced in other states. “We thought, in that case, why not Massachusetts?” said Ramm, an attorney who lives in Newburyport. Ramm decided to reach out to her state senator, DiZoglio. They met in the summer of 2019 and DiZoglio agreed to take on the issue.
DiZoglio and state Representative Vanna Howard, the Lowell Democrat who is sponsoring the bill in the Massachusetts House, both said they are optimistic that their bill will make progress when the Legislature resumes its formal meetings in 2022.
If passed, Howard said, the bill would “deter future bad actors,” and “provide some type of justice for future victims of these acts.”
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