In October 2021, California became the first state to ban “stealthing,” which is the act of non-consensual condom removal during sex.
This law broadens the legal definition of sexual assault in California. Under state legislation, stealthing is now considered a form of sexual battery, which is another term used for sexual assault. People who have experienced stealthing have the option to sue their perpetrators in civil court.
But for many, stealthing isn’t a very familiar term. I spoke with a former University of Southern California student, who was sexually assaulted by way of stealthing during her time attending the school. To maintain anonymity, for the purposes of this story, I’ll refer to her as JD.
The first time JD had ever heard of the term was actually after the law went into effect. And she told me that after her stealthing assault, she wasn’t sure how to process her trauma.
“I couldn't tell if I was being overdramatic,” JD said. “And it's weird because if somebody else had told me this story, I would be like, ‘That's not OK — what you experienced.’ But in my own situation, it was hard for me to really validate my experience and my own feelings.”
Because of JD's uncertainty of whether stealthing “counted” as sexual assault, filling a report to USC didn't feel like an option.
“I really did not know it was something I was allowed to be upset over,” JD said. “And I don't think reporting it ever crossed my mind because what happened felt wrong, but it's not the same as other situations [of sexual assault].”
The thing is, well before the law was signed into effect, sexual assault has been a widespread issue on many college campuses — 13% of all students experience rape or sexual assault through physical force, violence or incapacitation. So JD is definitely not alone in her experience, especially at USC.
In the fall 2021 semester, USC had multiple allegations of drugging and sexual assault that occurred at some of their Greek life parties. USC senior Natalie Bettendorf told me the campus culture around sexual assault is a product of USC's failure to put their foot down.
“People who commit acts of drugging and sexual assault do it because they know they can get away with it,” she said.
Some schools may not provide the support or resources survivors need to heal. So some students turn to services outside of their university. Callisto is one example. It’s a nonprofit that provides many alternative ways to take action for college students who are survivors of sexual assault.
I spoke with Amanda Stewart, Executive Director and Director of Development at Callisto. As a sexual assault survivor, she sees the outlawing of stealthing as a way of providing other survivors with another line of action.
“When someone removes a condom during intercourse or another sexual act — if that hasn't been consented to — that breach of consent removes survivor agency and autonomy,” Stewart said. “This [law] gives them a way to take some of that power back.”
The California stealthing ban gives survivors a way to take action, but it also requires them to report their assault. And many sexual assault survivors say the process can extremely triggering and lengthy.
Callisto spoke with over 200 student survivors. All of them said reporting was not the first step they wanted to take after their assault, according to Stewart.
“Survivors want to understand what their options are and what their rights are before they make a decision,” she said. “It's important to understand what the Title IX process looks like before you start it.”
Title IX is a law to protect people on campus from discrimination based on sex — including sex-based harassment, sexual assault and other forms of sexual violence. But Title IX cases are often a grueling process for a survivor.
“Students just feel like it's such a long, dehumanizing process to go through filing a report and a case,” Bettendorf said. “The system is really focused on … this idea of not ruining the life of the person who has been a perpetrator of sexual assault.”
Because reporting to their school can be so complicated, survivors may search for alternatives to take action through an external organization. A big reason to look outside of their college is because many staff on campus are mandated reporters, who are legally required to report what happened if they know about it. But with a third-party organization, survivors can fully hear out advice and their options without it automatically turning into a reportable event.
While the stealthing ban is a good first step, there’s still more work that needs to be done.
All three women I spoke to agreed they ultimately want to put power in the hands of those who truly understand the trauma around sexual assault. And the only way for there to be a system that centers on survivors is for them to design it themselves.
But rather than tackling the entire court system, change could start on campus grounds.
JD wants to see reform in how sex education is taught in school. In class, she was taught that “no means no” when discussing consent. But JD highlighted that consent is required at all points of sex — which wasn’t included in her sex education. She said it’s important to lay out specific definitions of what sexual assault can look like.
“We need to emphasize you need consent for every individual aspect of sex because that's where things get hazy,” JD said. “And that's where people enter into the argument of ‘gray area’ [in what’s considered sexual assault]. But it's not a ‘gray area’ if someone feels uncomfortable.”
JD wants more safe spaces that are survivor-focused — where people can talk about what they’ve experienced without judgment. Bettendorf agrees there needs to be more survivor-centered courses of action.
“[The reporting system] needs to be designed in a way with a lot more emotionally supportive measures that focus on the victim,” Bettendorf said. “There has to be this larger benefit of the doubt — supporting the victim in whatever way. And that has to be priority number one.”