The term "stealthing" is doing the rounds on the internet right now. In case you haven't heard, it's a term that's used to describe a man agreeing to wear a condom, and then deliberately removing or damaging it during sex.
The issue has been raised because a recent study has found that the phenomenon is common (and on the rise) among young people, and there has been corresponding media attention. Fortunately, the practice has been swiftly and unanimously denoted as deeply unethical, and lawyers have pointed out that stealthing meets the legal definition of rape.
However, while there is no question that the practice is reprehensible, the term "stealthing" has been widely adopted by media outlets covering the news. And that, frankly, is a problem in and of itself.
The term "stealthing" has the obvious benefit of rolling off the tongue faster than "non-consensual removal (or damaging) of a condom during sex," but, as Katie Russell from the charity Rape Crisis points out, it risks trivializing the issue. "It's a very acceptable term for something that's extremely unacceptable and actually an act of sexual violence," she points out.
Russell has a solid point. The term "stealthing" has positive connotations, and makes an act of sexual assault sound like a cool, light-hearted trend. It conjures the image of a commendably sneaky ninja, rather than a rapist worthy of our most wholehearted contempt.
Why does it matter what we call it, though? Surely the main issue is to make sure that men aren't doing it, rather than quibbling about what it's called?
Well, not so fast. Feminists have long argued that we live in a rape culture, or a society or environment whose prevailing social attitudes have the effect of normalizing or trivializing sexual assault. There is abundant evidence that we live in such a culture. The same is true when it comes to stealthing: it's treated like a joke rather than a serious sexual assault that does real harm to victims. Look, for example, at the following memes:
In all of these examples (and there are legions more to be found in the internet's grimiest corners), stealthing is framed as something to brag about. Images of men (and lions) looking smug and satisfied – rather than deeply ashamed and guilty – abound, and the comments sections are full of endless strings of cry-laugh emojis. Very rarely, the odd person will chime in with, "Wait, isn't that...rape?", but they're soon drowned out by the racket of everyone having a chortling good time.
Okay, but that's still just a bit of fun, isn't it? Everyone actually knows that stealthing is wrong, but it's fine to laugh at a meme about it, surely?
There's one gaping hole in this argument: this is exactly the type of mentality that helps rapists thrive and continue to go unpunished. When rapists are interviewed, they consistently try to normalize their behavior as something "all men do." Alarming numbers of men will admit to rape, so long as the word "rape" isn't used.
Rapists believe their behavior is not unusual, and jokes that normalize and trivialize rape confirm this to them. So when they sexually assault their next victim, they do so believing that their behavior isn't especially unusual or deviant.
Sandra Newman, quoting a rapist
As one subject put it: ‘When you take a woman out, woo her, then she says: “No, I’m a nice girl,” you have to use force. All men do this.’
Terrifying numbers of women are being raped. One in every six American women will be raped in her lifetime. Almost all rapists will walk free; assured that what they did wasn't "really that bad" and something "all men do, really." Women and other victims will not bother to report their crimes, because rape culture ensures survivors of sexual assault go unbelieved and unsupported.
It's really, really bleak, and honestly not funny.
So, let's call "stealthing" what it really is: rape. Serious sexual assault. A crime. And, when we see our friends joking about it, or come across memes glorifying it in the depths of the Instagram explore section, it behooves us to respond not with strings of amused emojis, but rather, "Nah, that's fucked up."
If you have been sexually assaulted, there are resources to help you.
For more social discussion, read all about the new drug turning people into zombies here.