About 30 years ago, just months after starting work as a prostitute, Maxine Doogan became pregnant.
She had been with a new client at a massage parlor in Anchorage, Alaska when she realized he had removed his condom surreptitiously during intercourse. Shocked, she ran to the bathroom. When she returned the client was gone.
Doogan, then in her mid-twenties, went to a nearby health clinic for a round of tests for sexually transmitted infections and later gave a silent thanks for each negative result.
Six weeks later, Doogan sought an abortion. It cost her around $300 (about £220 at today’s conversion rate) and after the procedure, she couldn’t work for a month.
What the client did was wrong. But as far as she knew it wasn’t illegal.
“There’s just no recourse for something like that,” she said.
Now, in one US state, there is.
Last Thursday, California Governor Gavin Newsom signed into law a bipartisan bill that outlaws non-consensual condom removal, known as “stealthing”. The new legislation adds the act to the state’s civil definition of sexual battery, making California the first US state to render stealth illegal.
The law gives victims a clear legal remedy for the assault that Doogan, who now lives in San Francisco, suffered decades ago. And advocates say it marks a sea change for other survivors who, unlike Doogan, might now have their day in court.
“We wanted to make sure that it’s not only immoral but illegal,” said California Assemblywoman Cristina Garcia who introduced the bill.
Garcia has been working on some version of this legislation for years. In 2017 and again in 2018, she introduced a bill that would have made stealing a criminal offense and allowed prosecutors to seek jail time for perpetrators. These bills either died on the floor or did not get a hearing.
This new version, which amends just the civil code, passed in the California legislature with no opposition. Survivors can sue offenders for damages but no criminal charges can be brought forward.
“I still think this should be in the penal code,” Garcia told the VelkiNews. “If consent was broken, isn’t that the definition of rape, or sexual assault?”
Legislative analysts have said that stealing could be considered a misdemeanor sexual battery, even though it is not explicitly named in the criminal code. But Garcia’s new law removes any ambiguity for civil claims which, experts say, will make it easier for survivors to pursue their cases.
“We can start to talk about it in a way where we have a common language,” Garcia said.
Garcia said she was inspired to bring the topic of stealthing to the House floor after reading a 2017 Yale Law School research paper by then-student Alexandra Brodsky – who is now widely credited with bringing the term into popular use.
Brodsky, who now works as a civil rights lawyer and is the author of Sexual Justice – which looks at how to respond fairly to sexual assault – detailed a number of stories in her paper from survivors in the context of otherwise consensual romantic or sexual relationships.
Their accounts often started the same way, Brodsky wrote. “I’m not sure this is rape but…”
They detailed their fear of sexually transmitted infections and pregnancy, as well as intense feelings of violation and betrayal. But the survivors Brodsky spoke to – many of whom reported being raped previously – did not describe stealthing as equivalent to sexual assault.
People weren’t making that connection yet, Brodsky said. “I think a big part of the problem was that a lot of people thought they were the only person this had happened to,” she said.