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Bill that would ban ‘stealthing,’ or lying about sexual protection, may soon become a law

The Washington state Capitol building in Olympia, photographed Jan. 5, 2017, features the classic dome architecture and houses the governor’s office and the Legislature’s two chambers.  (JESSE TINSLEY/THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW)

Content warning: This story contains discussion of sexual violence.

OLYMPIA – Three years ago, Mina Hashemi consented to have protected sex with a man.

She said she was shocked when she later learned the condom had been removed without her consent, an act known as “stealthing” that some elected officials are trying to make punishable by law in Washington.

“I did not consent to unprotected sex, and I felt deeply violated,” Hashemi told a state legislative committee during public testimony. “In talking with close friends about what happened to me, I was disheartened to learn I was not alone in being violated in this way.”

Stealthing is the act of damaging or removing sexually protective devices such as condoms during intercourse without the consent of a partner. It is considered a form of rape in some countries. Canada, Germany and the United Kingdom already have laws banning stealthing. In the United Kingdom, the crime can carry a maximum sentence of up to life in prison.

A bill moving through the Washington Legislature right now would make stealthing punishable with a $5,000 fine. The bill would also mandate the reimbursement of costs and “reasonable” attorney’s fees for the prevailing party.

Hashemi endured deep anxiety in the days and weeks that followed the traumatic event, she said, worrying if she’d contracted a sexually transmitted infection or was pregnant. She missed work to visit her doctor for testing. She had to spend money to buy Plan B emergency contraception, also known as the morning after pill.

A quick Google search showed the Plan B pill retails for $46.99 at the Target.

“I think about the many women who can’t access resources after sexual assault,” Hashemi said.

A 2017 study in the Columbia Journal of Gender and Law brought stealthing to the forefront of national discourse about sexual assault and found the offense to be “rape-adjacent.” The study’s authors wrote stealthing is a grave violation of dignity and autonomy.

Still, California and Maine are the only states in the country with laws on the books that make stealthing a crime. But a few other states also have proposed laws making the act illegal, said Rep. Liz Berry, D-Seattle, the prime sponsor of Washington House Bill 1958.

When a friend of Berry told her she had been stealthed, Berry started to do some legal research on the topic. When Berry introduced her bill earlier this year in the Legislature, she said dozens and dozens of survivors of sexual violence reached out to her saying they were victims of stealthing.

Berry said fellow lawmakers have told her “that happened to me.”

“It’s a lot more common than I realized,” she said.

A 2019 study found that roughly 12% of women have experienced stealthing. Berry said survivors often feel gaslit by their partners and don’t know what to do, because the act still isn’t widely considered a form of sexual assault.

House Bill 1958 passed the House earlier this month with bipartisan support, in a 64-33 vote. On Tuesday, members of the Senate Law & Justice Committee voted to move the bill along, bringing it another step closer to a potential floor vote.

Natalie Beetham, a senior at Lake Washington High School, testified before the Senate’s legal committee in favor of the bill. She said she was afraid to go off to college and date without stealthing being included in the parameters of the definition of sexual assault.

“Consent is a cornerstone of any healthy sexual relationship,” Beetham said. When one party deliberately sabotages the protection agreed upon, it amounts to a blatant betrayal of trust. The partner is unable to protect their own emotional wellbeing and human autonomy, and that is a blatant human right.”

Unlike similar bills in other states, Berry’s bill expands the definition of stealthing beyond condoms to include dental dams, spermicides, cervical caps and any other physical barrier meant to deter pregnancy and the spread of sexually transmitted infections.

Some legislators argued against Berry’s bill, saying it should include lying about hormonal birth control, such as intrauterine devices (IUDs), in the legal definition of stealthing.

In debate on the House floor about the bill earlier this month, Rep. Michelle Caldier, R-Gig Harbor, said the bill did not have her support in its current form, but “the sad part” was that she “actually wanted to vote for it.” Caldier argued the bill isn’t fair to men.

“The reason why is because I believe in equity for both men and women,” Caldier said. “…The sad part is we cannot say that we want to protect women when we don’t want to protect men.”

Berry said hormonal birth control was not included in bill’s definition of a sexually protective device because those types of contraception do not guard against sexually transmitted infections, some of which can be life-threatening.

“This bill was heavily crafted with groups that represent survivors, by women, for women,” Berry said.

Research found stealthing is linked to misogynistic attitudes and the degradation of women. The term stealthing originated from online platforms in which men boasted about the act and dubbed it as such.

If passed, Berry’s bill would make stealthing a civil offense, not a criminal offense. Survivors told Berry going the civil route and making the offense punishable with a fine would feel more meaningful, because the money would help offset costs incurred by stealthing survivors, including Plan B, STI testing and therapy.

If passed in the Senate and signed by Gov. Jay Inslee, the law would take effect on July 1.

Washington’s 2024 legislative session will adjourn on March 7.