Understanding ‘stealthing’ in the context of Australian rape culture

This post is an overview of some of the key points that I made in a talk on ‘stealthing’ and follow up journal article. In the journal article I used an interview from my research to structure an argument about why stealthing did not fit typical narratives of what rape is, especially when the perpretrator is a footballers. I also wrote about some of the preliminary findings from survey research with amateur and semi-professional Australian footballers. You can read the whole article online for free here.

What is “stealthing”?

Stealthing” refers to the removal of condoms during sexual intercourse without the knowledge or consent of the other person or people. Stealthing is a term used by communities of people who purposely set out to deceive their sexual partners into having penetrative sex without the use of a condom (Brodsky 2017). These people believe that men have a natural right to “spread their seed” and give each other advice on how to successfully have unprotected sex without the knowledge of the others involved (Brodsky 2017).

Stealthing is a well known issue amongst gay men (Klein 2014) and is likely to be similarly common amongst heterosexual populations, based on anecdotal evidence (Brodsky 2017). However, I argue that stealthing as sexual violence is not given proper consideration because it does not fit into narrow perceptions of what sexual violence is considered to be. Public perception of sexual violence is influenced by representations of heterosexuality as a chase in which men must relentlessly pursue women. In addition, discussions around non-consensual condom removal have not adequately considered the experiences of queer, trans, and non binary people. My article is focused on a case study involving a man and a woman but there is a need for researchers and writers to discuss queer experiences of non-consensual condom removal.

An example of stealthing: Stephanie’s story

The following names are pseudonyms and words in italic are quotes from the interview participant.

Stephanie explained that she had met Chad, a semi-professional Australian footballer, while on a night out with friends and that she decided to go with him to his house to have sex with him after meeting him that night. She stressed to me that this was the first time she had ever engaged in a one-night stand and explained that she was curious to try it after talking to some of her friends about their experiences earlier in the week.

Stephanie described Chad as leading and expecting her to follow but described this as confidence rather than an expression of perceived dominance. Stephanie felt drunk but still in control of the decision to return to Chad’s home for sex and able and willing to consent to sex. Upon reflection, Stephanie felt that there were some signs that Chad could have been a “wanker” but found their interactions to be fairly standard. Once the two had returned to Chad’s house, however, issues began to arise.

“We get back to his house and he was…trying not to use a condom and I was like well, this isn’t going to happen if you haven’t got one. I was very, very clear and then suddenly he miraculously had some [condoms]…”

Stephanie explained that she and Chad had a conversation about using condoms prior to engaging in sex in which she informed him that she did not use oral contraception and was clear about condoms being her preferred method of contraception. Chad left the room following this conversation and asked his housemate, who was also his teammate, for a condom before engaging in sexual intercourse using this condom. However, at some point during sex Chad removed the condom without Stephanie’s consent or knowledge, thus violating the consent she had given under the stipulation that a condom is used, eventually ejaculating inside of her.

“…when we were finished he says “Do you use the morning after pill?” and I was like “No I don’t, why? Do I need that?” and he was like “Oh, you’re gonna need it.”

Chad’s actions clearly demonstrate a lack of care for Stephanie’s (and his own) health and wellbeing, as well as a violation of her sexual autonomy. Stephanie described these feelings of violation to me and expressed her frustration at being left with the responsibility of mitigating risks such as pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections following being sexually assaulted. She was particularly frustrated as she experienced ongoing medical issues following the use of the morning after pill.

“….I was infuriated, but I also felt really like, this really weird feeling of being like, it was like numb. I can still feel that when I think about it. Numb is probably the best word to describe it.”

Chad later demonstrated a lack of consideration for the law, after Stephanie contacted him to inform him that stealthing can be considered to be sexual assault.

“…I wrote to him and…I said “you know you can leave this on the night but here’s all the things I need to do now…and I have to deal with them because of what you did” and I didn’t get any response and then when I was looking up the legislation it…can actually be rape so I decided to send him this article I had read.”

Chad demonstrated a disregard for Stephanie’s concerns and issues following his actions and dismissed his behaviour by relying on other traits he believes he possesses such as being “hardworking.” It is probable that Chad had refused to identify himself as someone who would commit sexual assault because he did not resemble the kind of person who he sees as a rapist, such as the evil monstrous men depicted in news media cases. He also may not have been worried about being charged with sexual assault because other footballers, like fellow (former) SANFL player Nicholas Murphy, had been acquitted of such charges (Fewster 2016).

“The thing that he wrote (to Chad)…was something like “oh I’m a hardworking guy”… so you’re entitled to use another person’s body however you see fit because you work hard?…I work hard too and…I take care of my body and I look after myself…[I]magine how I feel having to now put this morning after pill in my body.”

How does this fit into broader discussions about sexual violence?

Discussions about sexual violence are overwhelmingly influenced by legal accounts however very few rape cases are tried in court and even fewer result in a guilty verdict (Heath 2007). This means that cases of rape in which the victim was murdered are likely to dominate discussions about rape in the public arena, as convictions are hard to achieve. More commonly, rape is committed by people known to the survivor, occur in their own homes, and do not result in their deaths (Powell et al. 2013; Ryan 2006). Misunderstandings about rape, however, including the perpetuation of rape myths, mean that members of the public are reluctant to recognise rape when it is not committed by seemingly monstrous men and subsequently do not fit the narrative that they are used to hearing (Daly and Bouhours 2010). The lack of rape convictions inevitably plays a role in public perceptions of what “counts” as rape. Therefore, it is clear that notable and reported cases that result in convictions will also influence public perception. Many people believe rape is committed by monstrous individuals who cannot control their need for sex and so prey on strangers and enact violence on them (Livholts 2008). The most notable sexual crimes that result in conviction and are thus able to “stick” in the public’s memory are cases where the victim, usually female, is murdered. These cases have such a profound effect because they dominate media narratives about rape (Livholts 2008; Serisier 2005).

Who are the rapists?

This argument is supported by the lack of public support when rape differs from this narrative, such as when football players are accused of rape. There is an undeniable difference in how media portrays men charged with violent sexual offences, particularly when the victim is also murdered, such as in the cases of Anita Cobby, Jill Meagher, and Stephanie Scott, and how football players who are charged with sexual crimes are represented (Toffoletti 2007; Waterhouse-Watson 2013; 2016). Moreover, reporting of Adrian Bayley, Vincent Stanford, Gary, Michael, and Les Murphy, Michael Murdoch, and John Travers stands in stark contrast and is focused on the details of each individuals’ criminal or socially awkward pasts and described them as “despicable,” “pathetic,” “sadistic,” and “evil” (Koubaridis 2016; Lambert 2016; Meadows 2016).

To date, the only Australian footballer who has been charged and convicted of a sexual offence is Stephen Milne. Stephen Milne was initially charged with rape after he and teammate Leigh Montagna took two women back to their home for sex after a night out. In the course of the evening, the woman who engaged in consensual sex with Montagna found that she had unwittingly been having sex with Milne after the lights in the room were switched on (Waterhouse-Watson 2013). Although Milne was eventually convicted of an offence this can hardly be considered a victory as Milne was initially acquitted of sexual assault in 2004 and was only charged again when it was found that the case was marred by police corruption, intimidation, evidence, and witness tampering (Waterhouse-Watson, 2013). When the case reopened, Milne had retired from professional football and plead guilty to a lesser charge of indecent assault. His teammate, Leigh Montagna, who was also involved in the incident, was never charged with any crime and continued to play for St Kilda until 2017.

Who is raped? 

The “perfect” rape victim is often a white middle-class woman who is considered conventionally attractive, is usually married or in a long-term committed relationship, did not know her attacker, was attacked in public, and is often killed during the attack, such as the memorable deaths of Anita Cobby, Jill Meagher, and Stephanie Scott. However, there are other Australian cases in which women were raped and killed that did not capture media attention and garner subsequent public sympathy. The case of Lynette Daley is particularly poignant as she was an Indigenous woman and the representation of her in comparison to women like Anita Cobby, Jill Meagher, and Stephanie Scott stands out in stark contrast. Lynette Daley died as a result of injuries sustained during violent sex acts inflicted on her by multiple men. Daley was heavily intoxicated at the time and would have been legally unable to consent to these acts according to s 61HA of the Crimes Act 1900 No 40 (NSW), which included lacerations on the outside and inside of her genitals. Daley’s loved ones had to endure a long wait for criminal justice as her attackers were only charged and convicted in 2017–6 years after her death. The men responsible were convicted of manslaughter in addition to aggravated sexual assault. The lack of justice for Lynette Daley would have been particularly frustrating for those who knew her as Daley’s death occurred in a similar time period to the 2012 murder of Jill Meagher whose death inspired massive public reaction, including the 30,000 people who marched to remember Meagher and call for justice on her behalf.

Why do practices like stealthing go unrecognised as rape?

Low conviction rates, misleading media narratives, and public confusion about rape all play a part in public responses to sexual violence. Although criminalisation is only one way to understand rape, it seems to have a profound effect on shaping public perceptions of rape as rape myths hold significance for many people. The narrative communicated by these public perceptions means that men like Chad might not see themselves as rapists, and may not recognise the criminal nature of their actions. Women like Stephanie might not see their experiences as assault and recognise that they can pursue criminal justice and will often instead blame themselves. Meanwhile, public perceptions of rape are limited and are unlikely to change as long as conviction rates and media narratives continue to dictate opinion and influence the perpetuation of rape myths. In short, this cycle of popularised falsehoods about rape is rape culture in action. It is important to recognise that rape is not only committed by people who are purely evil and that they may occupy many different roles for different people in their lives. As Stephanie says of Chad in the quote above, perhaps to his mother he is a good person but this doesn’t negate that he raped her. Rape is not black and white, and neither are rapists or rape victims.

Image by Getty Images

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