Last week in Wellington, a man was convicted of rape for removing his condom during sex without consent. For Frankie Bennett, who was subjected to a similar assault, it’s validating – but now we must stop using euphemisms to describe sex crimes.
In 2018 I was “stealthed”; a man I was dating secretly removed his condom during sex, despite the fact I’d made clear I would only sleep with him if we used protection. I felt angry and violated, but also confused – was it bad sex, assault, or even rape?
Last week, Wellington’s District Court answered my question. In a first for Aotearoa New Zealand, a man was convicted of rape for removing a condom without consent during sex.
This landmark conviction echoes courts in the UK and Germany that also found defendants guilty of rape on similar facts.
However, these cases remain controversial in that they challenge widely held views about what rape is, who can say they have been raped and who should be punished as a rapist.
For me, this recent rape conviction is validating. It confirms my own experience was a serious sex crime for which my perpetrator should be held accountable.
For many, however, the only legitimate rape convictions come in the form of “stranger rape”; a dark alley, a defenceless woman and a violent male aggressor. In reality, rape most often happens between people already known to each other and doesn’t always involve force.
Regrettably, I find myself playing into the narrative that the word rape must be saved for the horrific, violent, fear-for-your-life scenarios that fill every woman’s nightmares.
Although I know non-consensual condom removal is rape in the eyes of the law (if only I could prove it), I still find it very difficult to say I have been raped. Although I felt deeply violated and betrayed, I suffered no physical injuries and didn’t feel threatened at the time. In fact, I didn’t realise anything had happened until afterwards; the ultimate in gaslighting.
Is it right to say I experienced the same thing as a woman who was violently raped and feared for her life? Absolutely not. But do men in both cases show flagrant disregard for women’s bodily autonomy and an intent to dominate and control women? Yes.
In hierarchising instances of sexual assault and rape, we pit victims against each other. Patriarchal power structures are clever. In persuading us that what happened “wasn’t that bad”, and that speaking out would insult those who “really suffered”, they deftly silence women. We obediently minimise our trauma, police other women and stay conveniently quiet.
These same patriarchal power structures dodge accountability through rape myths that discredit a woman’s word; she was drunk; she was wearing a short skirt; she was asking for it.
This pervasive rape culture skilfully diverts the conversation away from men’s responsibility to not treat women like objects for their own sexual gratification and towards women to prove themselves as worthy victims. Women must convince the world that men’s actions caused them damage and that they should be believed.
Let’s be clear: all sex crime causes harm. Men who “stealth” take reckless decisions to prioritise their own pleasure over their partner’s safety; a morning-after pill, a nervous STI check two weeks’ later and potentially permanent psychological damage. At present, women are expected to shut up and put up, grateful in the knowledge it could have been much worse.
How bad must it get until women are worth risking men’s futures for?
Because that’s the issue here – men’s futures. We shouldn’t condemn men as rapists! We can’t lock them all up! Their lives will be ruined!
But what about women? Why must women tolerate male entitlement towards our bodies? I don’t hear the same concern for how rape impacts our futures.
The truth is, society is scared to do away with a euphemism like “stealthing” because then we have to be honest about how frequently rape happens. We have to come to terms with how many of us have been raped and, crucially, how many men are rapists.
Naming things accurately and precisely is an act of power. The language we choose to name and frame emerging phenomena and ideas determines how they are received in society. It follows that naming things comes with great responsibility.
“Stealthing” misnames a type of rape. Coined by perpetrators in online chatrooms, it sounds more akin to expert manoeuvre than a calculated sex crime. It is another way we diminish the scale of sexual violence against women.
I now feel able to share my rape publicly. I know this will infuriate some men, who no doubt have very good reasons to staunchly defend the status quo where rapes go unspoken, victims go unheard and perpetrators go free.
If we, like our courts, view consent rather than physical force as the distinguishing factor between rape and sex then we must call out “stealthing” for what it is: rape.
0800 88 33 00 National Rape Crisis helpline. Find helplines and websites for those affected by sexual violence in your own area at rapecrisis.org.nz