Stealthing in gay sexual culture needs careful discussion, not criminalization.

Is Criminalization the Best Approach to “Stealthing” in the Gay Community?

Is Criminalization the Best Approach to “Stealthing” in the Gay Community?

Outward
Expanding the LGBTQ Conversation
June 1 2017 4:13 PM

Stealthing Is a Disturbing Aspect of Gay Sexual Culture. But Calling It a Clear-Cut Crime Won’t Solve the Problem.

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Bareback brinksmanship is a complex problem for gay and bi men.

DmitriMaruta/Thinkstock

In May, a new paper in the Columbia Journal of Gender and Law sparked outrage about stealthing—defined as a penetrative partner removing or tampering with a condom during sex without a receptive sexual partner’s knowledge or consent. Treating the issue as a growing trend, media outlets shared dozens of stories about victims of stealthing, both straight and gay. Most of the gay men presented understandably saw stealthing as, in the words of paper author Alexandra Brodsky, a “disempowering, demeaning violation of a sexual agreement” that put them at risk for sexually transmitted infections in a community where anxiety about HIV runs particularly deep.

But while most of the coverage rightly highlighted people who were victims of clear cases of assault, it largely excluded meaningful insight from people who had initiated the act, and it did not attempt to understand the motivations behind condom subversion. Indeed, the only glimpse into the mind of the stealther that readers were offered came from online trolls who, in the words of Brodsky, brashly celebrate the "increased physical pleasure, a thrill from degradation” of nonconsensual, unprotected sex.

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If stealthing is truly the dangerous trend, especially among gays, that the buzz makes it out to be, it’s important to examine the experience from all angles to determine why it’s happening. So I reached out to the many gay men I know who have been involved in some form of stealthing—on both sides of the equation—to find out if it’s as new to the gay community, or as plainly monstrous, as the headlines make it seem.

I first learned the word “stealthing” a few years ago. My boyfriend at the time opened his laptop to start a Netflix binge one morning, only to reveal an online gallery of amateur videos where people with smartphones recorded themselves surreptitiously removing condoms during sex. When he sheepishly explained this was a gay stealthing fetish site, I was surprised—not by the description of the act, but that there was a word for it. For years, I had witnessed sex partners attempting to remove condoms, heard my friends describe similar experiences, or heard about their own attempts to quietly remove condoms during sexual encounters. Now all those stories and experiences—usually shrugged off as a disturbing but nevertheless real aspect of gay sex—could be gathered under one word.

Lest you think that “shrug” means I’m condoning sexual assault, let me be clear: I don’t want to make apologies for stealthing. But I do want to expand our definition of the act, which in practice comprises a range of situations that exist all along the spectrum of consent, many of them more complicated than an outright trick or violation.

Understanding this requires first grappling with gay men’s fraught social psychology around condom use. In my experience, nearly everyone is afraid of STIs, and the specter of the AIDS epidemic still lingers (if more faintly, in the age of the HIV-prevention treatment PrEP). Condoms are still acknowledged as a best practice, especially for bottoms, who bear a higher risk for contracting HIV. But few actually like the feel of them, top or bottom. Some tops can’t maintain an erection while wearing them. And perhaps some gay men are simply fatigued by the vigilance they are expected to maintain during sex, after years of being stigmatized as a group at risk for HIV infection—for these guys, removing a condom can feel like removing a yoke of fear and shame. And yet, due to that same shame, many gay men feel unable to talk openly about their desire for condomless sex (which, of course, can be perfectly safe if negotiated in a mature and rational fashion). And so, during a sexual encounter, the sexually savvy gay man is aware that certain parties might tacitly push or scheme to throw condoms out of the picture, using the heat of the moment as cover.

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Stealthing emerges from a history of trauma and shame around gay/bi sexuality.

DimitriMaruta/Thinkstock

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“When I think back about a decade ago, I remember what I called the courtesy condom,” my friend Kevin told me. “The condom you put on so you can both act like you’re being responsible before it magically finds its way off and you both realize that neither of you objects.”

For Kevin, and for many of the people I know, stealthing back then rarely described a truly malicious act. Tops often bragged about sneaking bareback sex, and bottoms often bragged about allowing tops to sneak bareback sex—albeit only among close friends. It had the air of being covert, but often both parties were gently encouraging the end result. Whatever the motivation—pleasure, thrill-seeking, macho posturing, a death wish—so-called “stealthing,” in my experience, almost always manifested itself as a dangerous dance for two that gay men tried not to think about too carefully. It could be celebrated with a wink in conversation, as long as it was never fully discussed. It was done but verboten, and therefore not really visible enough to be fully condemned for what it was: a reckless, deceptive flirtation with sexual risk.

But in January 2016, stealthing emerged as a matter of public discussion in a new way, thanks in part to the story of a young man who was stealthed in Edinburgh, Scotland.* Matt, as he is called in a BuzzFeed News article, was leaving a friend’s house when he received a disturbing WhatsApp message from a former hookup: “I cummed in your ass without a condom.” More abusive messages followed, calling Matt a “revolting jackass” and mocking him for being pranked. And within a few weeks, Matt had tested HIV positive.

Matt’s story illustrated the ugliest, most malicious side of stealthing, an act of violation far worse than the games of brinksmanship played by many gay men. Matt had been careful to check that his partner had used a condom and made sure that it was clear he wanted a condom to be used. He was unquestionably victimized.

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At the time, I began writing a response to his experience but ran into dead ends in every direction. Many of the people who felt free to joke with me about stealthing in the past now declined to talk about it in interviews, and those that did were evasive, offering only terse replies. Mostly, I could only come by repetitions of previously disclosed anecdotes. Stories about encounters where receptive partners seemed to close their eyes or turn away as an act of stealthing took place. Stories where bottoms went about their day half-sick with worry and half-delighted: Did he cum in me? Some of the latter stories paralleled my own. And fragmentary stories like this continue to be all I can glean from friends who were eager to discuss the subject before it came in for mainstream approbation.

But in these diverse stories I found a single message: Stealthing has a powerful meaning in gay sex that is utterly distinct from the heterosexual and heteronormative narratives presented in the CJGL paper and the subsequent media response. The study is admirable for drawing parallels between heterosexual and gay experiences of stealthing, but it’s remiss in failing to place gay stealthing in the context of gay sexuality and the psychic fallout of the AIDS epidemic more broadly.

In the past year, media coverage has encouraged gay men to conceptualize stealthing as a matter of villains and victims. The act is often tied to appalling narratives like Matt’s experience in Edinburgh, and as a result, it is approached as a problem for other people to worry about—“naïve” or non-vigilant bottoms, mostly. But in reality, stealthing is too complex to be discussed only in terms of victims and perpetrators, monsters and innocents. Hardly a “new trend,” it is a widely practiced act that stems from and rehearses the deepest anxieties of the wounded gay psyche—pleasure, disease, machismo, masochism, thrill-seeking—and all gay men need to grapple with it, bottoms, verses, and tops alike. To frame it in it other terms is to polarize and distance a very real, very present issue in our community, and to diminish rather than increase the space for productive discussion.

If we are to fight the harm that bareback brinksmanship can cause among gay men, it should be in context, in our own terms, and in the language of our lived experiences—rather than in articles that echo straight narratives. The recent outcry against stealthing has inspired talk of new legislation that responds to it specifically as a crime. But before we respond to a sexual situation that exists at the messy intersection of desire, trauma, consent, and health, it’s important to talk meaningfully about what we’re responding to.

Names in this article have been changed.

*Correction, June 2, 2017: This post originally misspelled Edinburgh, Scotland.

Miz Cracker is a writer and drag queen living and werking in Harlem, New York. A current listing of her shows and appearances can be found at mizcracker.com.