California just became the first state in the U.S. to outlaw "stealthing," a slang term for the nonconsensual removal of a condom during sex.
The law, signed by Gov. Gavin Newsom on Thursday, makes it a civil offense under state law for someone to remove a condom without their partner's consent.
"For a majority of the people, it's like, 'Yeah, it makes sense that this is immoral and it should be illegal,' " state Assembly member Cristina Garcia, who sponsored the legislation, told NPR.
"A lot of people told me, 'I can't believe it's not already illegal,' " she added.
The California State Legislature had approved the measure without opposition.
Stealthing was a little-known phenomenon, but that's changing
Garcia said she was motivated to write a bill to ban the practice after reading law student Alexandra Brodsky's law journal article on the topic in 2017, which has since been credited with kick-starting a wider discussion on stealthing.
Brodsky, who is now a civil rights attorney and author of the book Sexual Justice, says that few people were talking openly about nonconsensual condom removal at the time and that victims face additional scrutiny because stealthing starts with consensual sex.
Brodsky says not only is nonconsensual condom removal a violation in itself, but it also poses the risk of an unplanned pregnancy or the transmission of a sexually transmitted infection.
"The experience of realizing that your partner, your sexual partner, has no concern for your autonomy, your individual dignity, your right to make decisions about who you have sex with, when and how," Brodsky told NPR, "that's a terrible violation regardless of whether a physical injury occurs, regardless of whether a pregnancy occurs."
A 2018 survey of patients at a sexual health clinic in Melbourne, Australia, found that 32% of women and 19% of men who have sex with men had experienced stealthing.
Pop culture has also cast a spotlight on nonconsensual condom removal.
A plotline in the BBC show I May Destroy You revolves around the main character, Arabella, having sex with a man who removes his condom during sex without her knowledge.
When Arabella confronts him about it, he says he thought she could feel that he wasn't wearing the condom anymore.
Perpetrators can now be sued for stealthing
Stealthing won't be a crime under California law, but it will be a civil offense, allowing people who experience it to sue the perpetrators directly in civil court if they choose to.
"Civil litigation keeps decision-making in the hands of survivors, which can be particularly important in the wake of sexual violence, which is itself a denial of the victim's right to make decisions about their lives," Brodsky said.
Only a small percentage of sexual assault cases brought to police ever go to court, she added, and many victims may not want to involve law enforcement.
"There are a lot of survivors who don't want to see the person who hurt them in prison but really could use some help rebuilding their lives, paying for mental health care, paying off medical debt, being able to take some time off from work in order to heal," Brodsky said.
Garcia, the California Assembly member, says she hopes the new law will lead to others like it — as well as a more nuanced understanding of the many different kinds of sexual violence.
"I do hope that other states follow," she said. "I do hope that this elevates the discussion."