Study suggests ‘stealthing’ – non-consensual condom removal – a common practice

A Monash University researcher has conducted the first study globally into the prevalence of ‘stealthing’ or non-consensual condom removal, finding that one in three women, and one in five men who have sex with men (MSM) have been subjected to it.

Stealthing can lead to unwanted pregnancy, sexually transmitted infections (STI) including HIV, and to emotional distress.

The Melbourne Sexual Health Centre’s Rosie Latimer became interested in the phenomenon after an article about it appeared in the Columbia Journal of Gender and Law in April 2017. The article, by Yale Law School graduate Alexandra Brodsky and based on anecdotal evidence, attracted international attention. It raised the question of whether stealthing should be considered sexual assault.

The issue flared again late last month as Singapore announced it is set to become the first country in Asia to make stealthing a criminal offence and two US politicians publicly pressured the Department of Justice to clarify its stance on the practice.

Ms Latimer, a Central Clinical School medical student and PhD candidate, decided to investigate how prevalent the practice was after finding there was no existing research on this. “No one had asked how often it happens,” she said.

“Anecdotally, I had heard of patients presenting to Melbourne Sexual Health Centre, disclosing to doctors and nurses that they had been stealthed.”

A questionnaire queried 1189 women and 1063 MSM who came into the centre over three months from 22 December 2017, and found 32% percent of women and 19% of MSM reported having ever experienced stealthing.

“This was higher than I would have expected, but is in line with rates of sexual assault in both women and men who have sex with men,” Ms Latimer said.

Half the respondents said they had experienced emotional distress after an incident of stealthing while 9% of women and 4% of MSM said the relationship involved had broken down.

Respondents also reported catching STIs and contracting HIV but this could not be shown to have occurred as a direct result of the sexual encounter involved, as it was an anecdotal questionnaire, and likely that most people had other encounters before and after the stealthing incident, Ms Latimer said.

Two groups were particularly vulnerable to the practice: female sex workers, who are more likely to experience sexual assault in general, both in and out of their workplace, and; MSM with anxiety or depression.

Ms Latimer said the findings could be useful to clinicians. “Clinicians, in particular those who work in sexual health clinics, should be aware of the practice because stealthing might be the reason patients are coming in to the clinic.”

Understanding situational factors could also assist in the development of preventive strategies, particularly for female sex workers and MSM.

Rosie Latimer was first author on the paper, supervised by Associate Professor Catriona Bradshaw and Dr Tim Read, joint senior authors.

Ms Latimer’s main body of research is investigating a relatively new STI called Mycoplasma genitalium.

Latimer RL, Vodstrcil LA, Fairley CK, Cornelisse VJ, Chow EPF, Read TRH, Bradshaw CS. Non-consensual condom removal, reported by patients at a sexual health clinic in Melbourne, Australia. PLoS One. 2018 Dec 26;13(12):e0209779. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0209779. eCollection 2018.

Read the Columbia Journal of Gender and Law article.