Sunday Longread: How can Ireland tackle stealthing?

Eva O’Beirne discusses the lack of awareness around this issue

For those who don’t know, “stealthing” is a colloquial term for the act of removing a condom during sex without the consent of the partner. It’s illegal in many places such as the UK, and is a form of sexual assault. In October 2021, California became the first US state to adopt a law explicitly making the practice illegal.

“None of it worried him. It didn’t perturb him. My potential pregnancy, my potential STI, that was my burden.”

Over five years ago, the Columbia Journal of Gender and Law published a paper by Alexandra Brodsky detailing the “new sex trend” and its emotional impact on victims. Fears around pregnancy and STIs were most prevalent. One victim named Rebecca told Brodsky, “None of it worried him. It didn’t perturb him. My potential pregnancy, my potential STI, that was my burden.”Another victim interviewed for the study said, “The harm mostly had to do with trust. He saw the risk as zero for himself and took no interest in what it might be for me and from a friend and sexual partner. That hurt.” One victim quoted even referred to the act of stealthing as “rape-adjacent.”

“Figures released from the Office of the Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP) show a 35% increase in rape prosecutions in 2020, but according to the Dublin Rape Crisis Centre, only 14% of rape cases make it to court.”

I fear stealthing suffers the same issue as many other kinds of sexual assault where people may not be aware that what has happened to them is assault or that they can pursue legal action when it does. Irish legislation appears to have covered the practice without realising due to what is known as “conditional consent” under Irish criminal law; but just because something is technically illegal doesn’t mean the population is informed. Figures released from the Office of the Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP) show a 35% increase in rape prosecutions in 2020, but according to the Dublin Rape Crisis Centre, only 14% of rape cases make it to court. Many victims simply do not come forward, and that is because Ireland’s handling of sexual assault is notoriously poor. Around 90% of rapes aren’t reported in Ireland.

The gaping holes in Ireland’s sex education system have prevented and will prevent the spread of knowledge about stealthing being a form of rape. The Relationships and Sexual Education (RSE) program barely touches on non-heterosexual intercourse or pleasure, so I highly doubt teachers are willing to tackle the non-consensual removal of condoms during sex and the reasons why a person would do such a thing. It’s worth noting there is also a fairly significant volume of stealthing videos on sites like PornHub, which could misinform teenagers about what sex should be like. You have to realise that the lack of specificity when it comes to sexual assault encourages a culture where we are not equipped to talk about traumatic events that happen to us. Without popular culture, I doubt many of us would understand what stealthing is. 

Fresh discourse around the topic came with the launch of the HBO series I May Destroy You, which featured a storyline in which the protagonist Arabella (Michaela Coel) is a victim of stealthing. The series served as a point of awakening for many people who had condoms removed during sex without their knowledge, and underlined the severity of the assault they experienced. “He’s not rape-adjacent or a bit rapey: he’s a rapist,” Arabella declares, in what is one of the first, if not the first TV series to display the concept of stealthing.

Ireland cannot tackle stealthing until it has adequate consent education, and we’ve been screaming about this issue for years. According to research carried out among 2,150 students by the National University of Ireland Galway (NUI Galway) SMART Consent team, just 15% of women and 20% of men admitted to being content with their sex education at school. In fact, no school is obliged to follow any standard RSE program, instead, it can simply be taught “within the ethos of the school”. 

Perhaps what will really motivate the government is a survey on the issue that reveals the extent of the problem but even then, can we expect a proper response? When commenting on the results of a Department of Higher and Further Education survey on sexual violence and harassment in third-level education, Minister Simon Harris and Dr. Pádraig MacNeela had horrifyingly inappropriate responses. With over 8,000 student participants, it provided a startling insight into the reality of sexual assault on college campuses. 14% of students said someone had oral sex with them while they were incapacitated and unable to give consent, seven per cent said they had been physically forced into oral sex. 34.2% of female students had experienced vaginal rape through coercion, incapacitation, force, or threat of force.

“79 per cent of male students reported feeling safe socialising at night on campus, compared to just 22 per cent of female students. Just over half of female students said they even felt safe during the day.”

Despite these horrifying numbers, the department focused on the result of the survey that indicated the majority of students “feel safe” reporting these incidences, and Minister for Higher Education, Simon Harris, began his statement by welcoming the “positive developments” indicated by some survey results. Dr Pádraig MacNeela, the academic leading the analysis of the report responded in the same way. For context, 79 per cent of male students reported feeling safe socialising at night on campus, compared to just 22 per cent of female students. Just over half of female students said they even felt safe during the day. 

Unfortunately, a lot of stealthing awareness and condemnation looks like it’s going to come from social media, individual activism and sex and relationships writers, at least in an Irish context. Our “conditional consent” model could hold up in court, but the majority of victims simply may not know what happened to them was rape and hence won’t report it for fear of social ostracisation. And from what we’ve seen, the government has no issue putting it on the back burner.

Eva O'Beirne

Eva O'Beirne is the Deputy Life Editor of Trinity News and a Junior Sophister History student.