When consent is contingent on condom (or other-barrier) usage, to remove that barrier or fail to use it is voiding the consent. That is rape.
TW: Discussion of rape, rape culture and sexual assault
By Aaminah Shakur
Two years ago I had a fling with a cis male friend for fun. I became angry with this partner when I discovered after our third encounter that they had never opened the condom I had handed them. Once the damage was done, I didn’t feel like I could demand he wear a condom going forward. (Note: Consent is constantly being negotiated – you can absolutely demand your conditions at any stage in the situation or relationship.)
About two weeks into our passionate friendship, I started to experience significant pelvic pain and got sick as well. A visit to the doctor confirmed I had contracted herpes, and an additional blood test told us it was not just a first-time flare from a dormant illness, but newly contracted. Because I also have fibromyalgia and am chronically malnourished, the herpes had profound impact on me, and I have a rather atypical reaction to it, and ongoing significant difficulty and pain, including constant outbreaks and a compromised immune system. We remain casual friends even now, but that experience changed our dynamic and ended our sexual relationship.
I’m not angry with him over contracting herpes because there are always risks with sex. He says he didn’t know he was a carrier, and it doesn’t really matter whether I do or do not believe him — it won’t change anything. What continues to anger me is the violation of his decision to ignore the condom I expected him to use.
When we talk about what consent looks like, we often don’t talk about the real toll it takes on people to have their consent neglected. Yes, there is shame, self-blame, being victim-blamed, etc. as in any other rape – and struggling to even name the situation for what it is. There are other side effects that are less often acknowledged, and lead to additional self-blame and shame, such as contracting an STI or becoming pregnant. There are very real physical effects that make it impossible to ignore or “move past” the experience of betrayal and assault.
There are other trauma-responses that survivors endure, sometimes without even making the connection to sexual violence they have experienced. Some of those symptoms/issues can include pain and emotional turmoil during/after physical exams, difficulty trusting partners inside and outside the bedroom, inability to breastfeed or struggles with other aspects of basic baby care, and all the other standard symptoms we’re familiar with as symptoms of trauma. It’s also important to talk about how breaches of consent don’t just happen in casual hook ups but also in more substantial relationships.
You’ve probably heard of a “new movement” called “stealthing.” Stealthing is a practice where people purposely remove condoms in the midst of sex without telling their partner. There are plenty of articles out there to explain this practice, thanks to a study that came out in April of this year. Since then, swift action has been taken to attempt to make the practice illegal, but some feel those efforts lack a nuanced understanding of the practice. I personally disagree with the study’s title, calling the act “rape-adjacent” (Note: that phrase was offered by a survivor, who has a right to name their own experience, and this likely taps into the discouragement survivors often feel to more bluntly name their experience and risk being told they are wrong.)
The act is rape. When consent is contingent on condom (or other-barrier) usage, to remove that barrier or fail to use it is voiding the consent. That is rape. I do not, however, want to talk about the legal ramifications at this time. I want to talk about how we can think about this complex topic and teach consent better.
My friend wasn’t part of a stealthing movement. He didn’t consider not using a condom to be an inherent right of his manliness (he just enjoys sex better without a condom), he wasn’t being malicious, and he wasn’t intentionally trying to exert power over me. He did, apparently, have some misguided notion that we were going to “get serious” which led him to believe we didn’t need barriers.
The failure to communicate what one is expecting out of a relationship and thoroughly negotiate the terms and changes to those terms is extremely common. I also suspect that failure to fully communicate and re-negotiate a growing relationship may lead to this type of situation more than we realize. The reason I remain casual friends with him is because I do believe him when he says he didn’t think about how consent factored into his decision to not use the condom. I believe him when he says he is sorry and that he understands he disrespected me and my autonomy. I believe him when he says “I never thought about it like that,” and I believe that is true for many others also.
When I said above that consent is constantly being negotiated, I mean consent, like other aspects of a relationship, has contingencies, and consent can be withdrawn or given at any stage in the situation. Consent can be withdrawn with or without offering a reason, it’s not open to argument. Each step requires communication between the people involved.
This is something we need to teach much more explicitly, however. Simple mantras like “no means no” have proven irrelevant because there are many reasons someone might struggle to directly say no. The follow-up method of “yes means yes” has proven just as useless because there are many reasons someone concedes when they don’t want to. The idea of “enthusiastic consent” is also imperfect because we can argue about what “enthusiastic” even means, and furthermore many of us can think of times we were quite definitely consenting but sex isn’t always about “enthusiasm.”
Rather than cute sayings, we need to acknowledge that consent is both complex and quite easy. It is either given freely or it is not. It is either continually sought and given or it is not. It is only complex because we are having to overturn and recreate a culture that has mistakenly claimed it’s not fairly simple to obtain it and stop when you don’t obtain it.
That we have to explain that removing (or not using) a condom when that has been requested voids the consent to sex is concerning. It seems so simple. In any other non-sexual situation, this would not be confusing to people.
If I tell you I will do something for you under specific conditions and you don’t want to agree to those conditions, we decide not to move forward. If you agree to those conditions and then change your mind, I also change my mind about moving forward. If I find out later that you didn’t adhere to the conditions, and were dishonest about it this proves you knew I would have stopped and you knew you were wrong. Our culture claims consent is so difficult and that sex is not logical, it is instead emotional and messy and hard to understand. But it’s not hard to understand if we listen to each other.
I can’t say whether my friend learned his lesson – who knows what people really do after they tell you one thing. I hope it changed him because it certainly changed me, but I’m afraid that doesn’t go far enough. It’s not just one person. It’s a whole culture that says “I thought she was ok” but never asked her or that says “I didn’t think about it like that.” It’s a whole culture that has men writing advice on how to intentionally go stealth, and that makes us feel bad to name that as rape. It’s a whole culture that tells us there has to be a reasonable explanation for why people believed they had consent and that absolves them of the fact that they didn’t have it. It’s an out-of-date culture, just using ever expanding new methods.