Condoms 101: Stealthing, Barebacking & Consent

29.10.2021
Marissa Del Mistro

*Trigger warning: the below article discusses sexual assault. 

Like many others, I finally learnt the proper terminology thanks to Michaela Coel’s “I May Destroy You.” The 2020 series highlights Coel’s sexual assault in a dark yet oddly humorous manner. The show shed light on many important issues, but what stood out to me was Coel’s character’s experience with “stealthing.” 

If you are unfamiliar with the term, stealthing or stealth-breeding is when the penetrative partner intentionally removes or tampers with a condom during intercourse, without the other’s awareness or consent.

It’s an alarming phenomenon, and I was equally alarmed when I learnt the prevalence of this act. Studies show that 1 in 5 males who have sex with males have been subjected to it, and 1 in 3 for women. There are plenty of personal stories of this occurring shared across the internet. 

Of course, it’s impossible to know the actual numbers due to under-reporting, inability to safely report, and the fact that many individuals do not know that they were even subjected to this. 

The magnitude of this act is severe – firstly, the potential exposure to STIs/HIV or pregnancy. 

But the emotional turmoil is also serious. As a blatant power move and utter disregard for one’s boundaries, it can feel demeaning, degrading, and even traumatizing. The seriousness of stealthing or stealth-breeding should not be overlooked. 

So, why do it? 

Personally? I could not tell you. 

Sexual health centres and researchers such as Alexandra Brodsky hypothesize the following reasons as to why folks may stealth: 

  • They find condoms too restrictive. 
  • They want to ejaculate inside of their partner(s).
  • They prioritize their personal pleasure over anything else. 
  • They want to exert power or even shame their partner(s).
  • They want it to “feel better for you.”
  • They feel it is a “natural male instinct/right.” 

Let’s be clear: if the sex you consented to, wholeheartedly, was with a condom, the moment that gets removed, without a discussion and your explicit, jubilant consent – this is something new and immediately becomes non-consensual. Non-consensual sex is grounds for potential assault. 

Consent & condom-less sex 

However, suppose you have those intimate discussions, carefully evaluate your situation, and consent to remove the condom. In that case, this is likely no longer considered stealthing. 

The desire to forgo the condom or barebacking is nothing to be shamed. It is sometimes referred to as a “healthy transition” between couples or sexual partners. 

Some research suggests that barebacking creates stronger emotional intimacy through fluid bonding (sharing fluids with one another), increased trust, physical connection, improved mood, less stress, and a more robust immune system. 

There are, of course, increased risks, including increased risk of HIV, STIs, and possible pregnancy. 

In principle, sure, it may not sound different than “condomless sex,” but the distinct difference is trust, consent, and communication. It is also significantly different from stealthing. 

What are some considerations before going condomless? 

It should be a decision you take seriously and responsibly. It will also require honest communication with your partner(s). Here are some considerations to make before making this decision: 

Sex-pectations

It might be the least sexy aspect, but communication, boundaries, and expectations are imperative. If you are in a monogamous relationship, it might look like agreeing no more condomless sex with others. 

If you are in an ethical non-monogamous sitch, you may have a primary partner that you agree to have condomless sex with, but that intimacy is strictly reserved for you two, and with anyone else, it’s time to condom up. Or you may fluid-bond with a strict group, who are also only fluid bonded to another. Again, discussions, baby! 

It is also completely cool to change your mind/expectations and boundaries at any time if your circumstances or your comfort levels change. The important thing is that you should never feel the need to compromise on your sexual health preferences.

Test Results 

If you're planning to get intimate sans condom, head to the sexual health center and get your checks. Maybe make it a cute date? But seriously, you’ll want to be open and honest about your results to prevent passing anything along. It can take between 5-10 days to get your results, so you should keep the condom on until you know your STI status.  

If you test positive for HIV and you are keen to bareback, there is antiretroviral therapy (ART), that when taken as prescribed, can manage the virus, making it undetectable. When one has undetectable HIV, they cannot transmit

Preventative meds 

You may wish to consider taking preventative medications. We live in an incredible time, with tools like PrEP (pre-exposure prophylaxis), a drug you can take daily to protect against HIV, and vaccines available to protect us from Hepatitis B and HPV. 

If you or your partner can get pregnant and you do not wish to, you can discuss different contraception options like patch, diaphragm, or the pill (amongst others.) 

Your body. Your choice.

As highlighted, stealthing is a grave violation. If this has happened to you, you should not hesitate to get emotional and sexual support from a trusted source, maybe a doctor, therapist, or whomever you trust. 

Try and find ways to reclaim yourself, your body, and your sense of feeling in control - there is help and resources available for you. 

The magic of consent and communication is that it changes the circumstance, and context, dramatically. When consenting adults discuss going condomless, they can reap some benefits. Still, it’s a personal decision that no one should be pressured into and requires regular discussions and boundary checks. 

Written by:
Marissa Del Mistro

Marissa is a writer, editor, and passionate advocate. Marissa received her master’s degree in human rights and democratization and has had the privilege to work with vulnerable communities with a focus on immigration and rights realization in both Europe and Canada. She currently lives in the beautiful unceded Coast Salish Territory of the Lekwungen and W̱SÁNEĆ nations.

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