It was a typical night of bar hopping in downtown San Luis Obispo for Cal Poly student Claire (names have been changed to provide the victim of sexual abuse anonymity).
As the night went on, Claire found herself heading home with a close friend and the two began hooking up.
It started out as a consensual exchange, until it wasn’t.
“Did you just take the condom off?” she asked.
“Yeah, it’s better this way,” her partner answered.
He knew she wasn’t on birth control. He hadn’t asked for consent to take off the condom. And until recently, what he did was only considered a murky gray area in California law.
“Stealthing,” or the removal of a condom without consent, is now illegal in California thanks to a law that went into effect Jan. 1. This makes California the first U.S. state to pass anti-stealthing legislation.
This new law specifically states that the act of removing a condom during intercourse without consent is illegal. The language is gender-neutral in order to apply to a broad scope of sexual relationships.
Additionally, it was added into California’s Civil Code of sexual battery, meaning victims can sue their perpetrator.
“Hopefully [the policy] will result in it being talked about more, but I think we’re going to have to wait and see whether it’s actually brought to court and statistics can be looked at more thoroughly,” communications coordinator for Lumina Alliance Hollie West said. Lumina Alliance is a local organization committed to ending sexual and partner violence.
Accurate statistics on “stealthing” are difficult to obtain for several reasons, according to West.
Abuse is often underreported, she said. Additionally, many victims do not know this act has happened to them at the time or in general. Victims may only find out later once they have contracted a sexually transimitted infection/disease or have become pregnant.
“With all abuse tactics, there are things that put people potentially more at risk,” West said. “We call them risk factors to being vulnerable to abuse.”
For college students, these risk factors include alcohol use, freshmen or sophomore status and attending off campus parties, according to the National Institute of Justice.
In a survey sent out by Mustang News, five out of 30 respondents reported that they had personally been affected by “stealthing;” while 16 respondents reported knowing someone who had experienced this.
As a Civil Suit
Previously, lawmakers could only find a gray area for making “stealthing” illegal. They considered it an act of sexual battery, meaning in a court of law this action would have to be proven “beyond a reasonable doubt.” However, instances of “stealthing” rarely meet this level of certainty in court, according to a Sept. assembly analysis report of the new legislation.
Now, as a civil charge, the burden of proof is lower. Jeff Stein, a local criminal defense lawyer who has extensive experience with sexual assault cases, described the lower burden of proof as “halfway convinced and just tipped over the edge a tiny bit.”
Victims who decide to sue can start by filing a lawsuit themselves or with the help of a lawyer. Lawyers then decide how much to sue for based on damages, which can include sexually transmited infections or emotional distress, Stein said.
Because civil cases require a victim who has money to hire a lawyer and a defendant who has money to pay the lawsuit, access to courts for “stealthing” may remain limited.
“It may be harder to find people who want to hire lawyers out of pocket to do these kinds of cases where no immediate opportunity for collecting damages exists,” Stein said.
Here at Cal Poly
Kate MacPherson, a communication studies freshman, said recent reports of sexual assault at Cal Poly have heightened her awareness when she walks through campus at night. She also found the lack of 24/7 reporting services at the university frustrating.
Avery Wells said he does not live with this same fear as a male student at the university. However, the manufacturing engineering freshman said he has gone out of his way to make sure his friends get home safely.
He once met a friend at an off-campus party after she called saying that she had been drugged. However, his friend felt too uncomfortable to report the incident.
“If there’s a problem, we should address it,” Wells said, “then if we can get through that, then yes, we should move on to make that illegal.”
The issue of reporting remained a common theme for students, despite the recent legislative efforts to make this process easier.
“It’s definitely a positive step in the right direction,” communication studies sophomore McKayla Bollinger said, “but I don’t know if it would really ensure change or people speaking up more because of it.”
Regardless of a victim’s decision to report the crime, West said less than 5% of all abuse allegations are proven to be false.
County resources are available for free STI/STD testing to ensure physical wellbeing. Additionally, Lumina Alliance offers comprehensive services that include therapy and advocacy support during law enforcement hearings and medical exams, West said.
“If you know someone or love someone who has experienced any kind of abuse or stealthing, just be there to support them, be there to believe them,” West said.