I first heard the term “stealthing” recently while reading an article, and something about the predatory practice, where men remove a condom before or during sex without their partners' consent, made me pause. The article triggered an eerie sense of deja vu in me when I considered the violation of removing protection two people have agreed to use.

As I continued reading the article, the eerie feeling kept surfacing. What was it about this disturbing “trend” that triggered me? I hate to call it a trend because there’s nothing trendy about it. It’s sexual violence, period. But I realized it transported me back to a time when I felt powerless, helpless, and violated. When I was 8 years old, I was molested by an older male cousin. Back then, I didn’t have words to describe how broken and violated I felt as a result of the abuse. I just knew something felt wrong.

As a child, I was powerless to stop what was happening, and powerless to get the justice I later knew I deserved. That feeling of something being wrong shouldn’t be ignored, and I’ve come to realize it’s the type of feeling that only a cowardly and sinister act can provoke. You know, deep down, you’ve been violated in a way that profoundly disregards your physical, emotional, sexual and spiritual well-being. And this is wrong.

My journey of healing has been a long road. Being a survivor of childhood sexual abuse left me with two decisions — suffer and feel broken until my time here is up, or take control over my life. I decided to take control. As I began to heal, I realized that there were many people who were suffering in silence, like me; maybe if I had the courage to tell my truth, it might help someone else find theirs. So I began to volunteer my time and tell my story to advocacy organizations, documentary filmmakers, and through public speaking engagements in hopes of raising awareness and promoting healing.

My work has put me in touch with many survivors who describe feelings of helplessness and violation. And now I’m hearing some of these same feelings described among victims of stealthing. Women are talking about situations where they feel something terrible has happened, but they’re not really sure if they’re over-reacting, or if a crime has been committed. The self-doubt creeps in, and they wonder, “what just happened?”

The trend has recently been described in a paper published in the Columbia Journal of Gender and Law. The authors write: “nonconsensual condom removal during sexual intercourse exposes victims to physical risks of pregnancy and disease and, interviews make clear, is experienced by many as a grave violation of dignity and autonomy.” The paper calls stealthing “rape-adjacent,” and argues for the creation of a new legal tort to give victims a way to pursue remedies in court.

The more I read on the issue, the angrier I get. Guys are actually bragging about stealthing women as if it were a notch on their belt. They find great pleasure in the practice, and they nonchalantly admit to it as if it were normal sexual behavior. A man who takes away his partner’s right to say ‘no’ believes it’s his right to make sure the sexual experience is tailored to his liking, but his partner’s voice is silenced.  

The narrative is sickening. Whenever I think about sexual violence, I find it’s always about power, and rarely about sex. Underlying it all is one person’s need to control someone else. As I relate the issue back to my childhood abuse, I realize that stealthing encompasses the same spirit of abusive control, and should be seen as nothing less than a clear infringement of another’s will, agency, and rights.

It’s hard to understand where these attitudes of control and entitlement come from, but the culture in which we grow up plays a large role. As men, we are taught from a very young age to be in control. Displays of authority and strength are qualities that make us “real” men. Unfortunately, that outward display of false masculinity can manifest into insecurity. A real man doesn’t need to dominate others to show strength.

As I listen to the stories of victims coming forward to speak about their experiences, I am saddened, but I also have hope. No one should have to experience this type of violation; the men who commit these crimes are insecure cowards. But I have hope because the victims are taking back their power by exposing these gutless predators. I hope that we can shift the paradigm of control as we expand the conversation about sexual violence. The issue isn’t always clear-cut; mistakes happen, condoms break, miscommunication abounds. The deciding factor comes down to victims knowing what happened wasn't a mistake, but a deliberate act to silence their voices and ignore their wishes.

There’s still plenty of room for us to learn the nuances of what constitutes sexual violence, and it starts with honest conversation.

Mark Godoy Jr. is a childhood sexual abuse survivor and victims’ rights advocate.