Thanks To This Woman's College Paper, "Stealthing" Could Soon Be Outlawed In California

Sep 10, 2021
In The News

When Yale law student Alexandra Brodsky wrote her term paper in 2017 about why "stealthing," the nonconsensual removal of a condom during sex, is "rape-adjacent" behavior that should provide victims with legal recourse, she did not expect it to influence actual legislation.

But California lawmakers on Tuesday approved a bill that would outlaw "stealthing" and allow victims to sue sexual partners who remove condoms without consent — and it all started with Brodsky's paper.

"I wrote the paper in my third year of law school and never dreamed it would actually influence law in any kind of way," Brodsky, 31, who is now a civil rights lawyer, told BuzzFeed News on Friday.

Gov. Gavin Newsom has until Oct. 10 to sign the bill into law, which could make California the first state in the country to make illegal this sexually abusive practice that gets little attention outside of internet forums.

The bill's sponsor, Cristina Garcia, a member of the California State Assembly, said she began working on the issue of stealthing in 2017 after reading Brodsky's study that showed how widespread the practice was and how groups of perpetrators encouraged it online.

Brodsky's paper garnered national attention and is often cited in anti-stealthing legislative efforts.

Her paper contended that stealthing transformed consensual sex into nonconsensual sex and was a “grave violation of dignity and autonomy.”

While people of all genders can be stealthing victims, Brodsky's study drew from the experiences of several women she interviewed.

One woman, whose boyfriend stealthed her when she was a first-year student in college, described it as a "consent violation."

"I agreed to fuck him with a condom, not without it," she told Brodsky.

The woman, who worked at a rape crisis hotline, said that she had heard about similar experiences from many undergraduate students.

Their accounts often started in the same way: "I'm not sure this is rape, but..."

Another woman, a political staffer in New York, told Brodsky that the man she was hooking up with had dismissed her insistence that he wear a condom and removed it halfway during sex.

When she told him that what he had done was "really messed up," she recalled him replying, "Don't worry about it, trust me."

"That stuck with me because [he’d] literally proven [himself] to be unworthy of [my] trust," the woman told Brodsky in an interview for the paper. "It was such a blatant violation of what we’d agreed to. I set a boundary. I was very explicit."

Brodsky found that many of the victims of stealthing feared unwanted pregnancies and sexually transmitted infections. They described it to her as a "violation of trust and a denial of autonomy, not dissimilar to rape," she wrote.

Her paper noted that the law at the time was largely silent on naming and recognizing this sexual harm, despite its "widespread violence."

While Garcia's earlier efforts to criminalize stealthing had met opposition and fallen through, she told BuzzFeed News that she was satisfied that the new bill would include it in the civil code.

“It’s disgusting that there are online communities that defend and encourage stealthing and give advice on how to get away with removing the condom without the consent of their partner, but there is nothing in law that makes it clear that this is a crime," Garcia said in a statement.

She urged Newsom to sign the bill and "make it clear that stealthing is not just immoral but illegal."

Similar bills have been introduced in New York and Wisconsin but have not yet passed.

In Washington, DC, two Democratic lawmakers, California Rep. Ro Khanna and New York Rep. Carolyn Maloney, have been pushing for federal action on classifying stealthing as rape.

"I am glad the California legislature has unanimously approved an anti-stealthing bill and I look forward to seeing it signed into law," Khanna said in a statement to BuzzFeed News. "Nonconsensual condom removal is sexual violence and should been treated as such."

Maloney said that while California's bill would be a "major step forward" in "supporting survivors of nonconsensual condom removal," she urged Congress to "step up" and not wait for individual states to take action.

Garcia said that when she first discussed stealthing with her friends, she discovered that it was "relatable to a lot of women" to whom this had happened.

While Brodsky's study called the act "rape-adjacent," Garcia said, "in my mind, it's rape."

Brodsky said she was excited that the bill was consistent with her paper's recommendation of creating a civil remedy rather than criminalizing stealthing.

"Civil remedies are really valuable to survivors because civil lawsuits can provide the financial support that so many victims need in the wake of violence," she said.

Many sexual assault survivors do not want to see the person who harmed them in prison, Brodsky said, but they do want material support.

Brodsky said that in her experience of representing young victims of sexual assault, the criminal justice system was "useless" to them.

She said many of them didn't trust the police and had no interest in reporting their assaults, while those who did were often retraumatized by that experience. Garcia and Brodsky also acknowledged that overcriminalization disproportionately affects men of color.

Another advantage of civil lawsuits was that they had a lower standard of evidence than criminal prosecutions, Brodsky said, which would make it easier for survivors to convince a jury or judge of what happened to them.

"That can be hugely affirming ... to know that members of your community believe you," she said.