LIVIA Petter didn’t want to have unprotected sex with her date that night – and she didn’t know she was going to.
But the 27-year-old, from London, was ‘stealthed’ – when a condom is secretly removed.
She got pregnant and had an abortion.
Now Olivia has shared her story with us
The night before it happened he was kissing me up against his living-room window. People on the street below were cheering. “Wow, we must look really hot,” I thought.
I’d met Sam* four years previously through a friend. He was tall, interesting and carried the quiet confidence of an Oxbridge graduate. We didn’t have a lot in common, but that didn’t matter much. Sam made me feel desired for the first time in my life. It felt great.
Things changed one Sunday afternoon. We were watching TV in his flat when he put his hand on my leg. Taking this as an obvious instruction, I started kissing him.
Clothes were quickly yanked off, left in a crumpled heap as we rushed to his room. Though we had tried to have sex before, one of us had always been too drunk or tired. Finally the conditions were right.
I thought it was going to be fantastic. It wasn’t. Clumsy and awkward, sex with Sam, I realised, had been much more exciting before I’d had it.
When it was over he rolled off me and went into the bathroom. That’s when I noticed the condom lying on the floor. “Oh yeah, I wasn’t wearing it when I came,” he said, strolling back into the bedroom naked. “You should probably get the morning-after pill.”
I was sexually assaulted that day, though I didn’t know it at the time. Stealthing, as it’s colloquially known, is a crime in England.
It is recognised by the Crown Prosecution Service as an example of a “conditional consent” case, whereby consent is granted under conditions that are then vitiated: I had consented to having protected sex with Sam, not unprotected sex.
Although a British man was convicted in 2019 after removing the condom during sex, no data currently exists on stealthing rates in the UK.
Anecdotally, though, stealthing is being talked about more and more among millennials, for whom consent has been a rising concern since #MeToo.
The whole thing was humiliating, which is why I didn’t talk to anyone about itOlivia Petter
I’d heard of stealthing before, and yet it was only after I watched Michaela Coel’s acclaimed BBC drama I May Destroy You last summer that I realised it had happened to me.
In the series Arabella (played by Coel) has sex with an acquaintance called Zain, only to discover afterwards that he had taken the condom off halfway through. Arabella is shocked, but it’s not until later that she registers the truth.
“He gaslighted me with such intention, I didn’t have a second to understand the heinous crime that had occurred,” she says before describing him as “a rapist under UK law”.
Indeed, it’s not unusual for stealthing victims to have difficulty validating their experiences as assault — one woman in a US study described her experience as “rape adjacent”.
Perpetrators like Zain say things like, “I thought you realised,” and so survivors wonder if they did. What struck me about I May Destroy You, though, was Arabella’s certainty about what had happened to her. She calls Zain a criminal because he is one. It took me a long time to realise that Sam is too.
The dynamic was off between Sam and me from the start. I was 19 when we met, and because I spent most of my early twenties pining after someone who wasn’t interested in me, I hadn’t ever really dated anyone before.
As a result, when we finally got together I was terrified of scaring him off. So I tried to be all of the things I thought men liked: easy-going, self-assured and sexually confident. I lied about what music I enjoyed, said I’d watched films I hadn’t even heard of, and even gobbled up the salmon he made for me, despite having been vegan for 10 months.
The fact that we had nothing in common didn’t matter because as far as he was concerned we had the same interests. I wanted Sam to think I was a completely different person from who I actually was. In short, I wanted him to think I was a Cool Girl.
The Cool Girl is much more than a stereotype. It’s an entire persona tailored to the straight male gaze that is born out of sexism, social conditioning and popular culture. Gillian Flynn famously deconstructed the Cool Girl concept in her bestselling 2012 novel, Gone Girl, describing her as the “hot, brilliant, funny woman who adores football, poker, dirty jokes and burping”.
Cool Girls, she writes, “never get angry” and “let their men do whatever they want”. As insouciant as she is enigmatic, she likes everything that men like while maintaining all the tropes of conventional femininity.
The concept is predicated on the belief that showing even the slightest bit of resistance or vulnerability with a man will see you banished to the land of “needy” women.
And so I didn’t get angry when Sam told me he had taken the condom off. I didn’t even flinch. The compulsion to be “cool” was too ingrained in me: I’d given him all of the autonomy in our relationship, to the degree that he could do no wrong. So instead of recognising his actions as stealthing, I blamed my sexual inexperience.
The whole thing was humiliating, which is why I didn’t talk to anyone about it. At least I didn’t until three weeks later, when my period was late.
I told Sam I was pregnant over the phone. He didn’t say much, though a few minutes later I received a text from him describing unplanned pregnancies as an “arbitrary burden”.
My friend Lola came with me to the clinic. Sam offered, but I knew that would shatter the veneer I’d spent weeks fastidiously crafting — it’s hard to be the Cool Girl when you’re having an abortion.
Sam dumped me shortly after that. The abortion had been psychologically and physically traumatising, and while I took comfort in thinking it might bring us closer together, it wound up being the very thing that drove us apart.
Despite everything I was devastated. It’s only recently that I’ve allowed myself to feel angry about what happened. But I still haven’t been inclined to report it. And I never will.
I know Sam could easily undermine my allegation by claiming the condom had simply fallen off or insisting I’d known that he had removed it. It would be my word against his, and mine would be the one that would be aggressively challenged.
I also know that conviction rates for sexual assault in the UK are very low — in the year to March 2020 only 1.4 per cent of rape cases recorded by police resulted in a suspect being charged or receiving a summons. This number is likely to be much lower when it comes to conditional consent cases.
It was only after I’d been in a relationship for several months a year after I’d split up with Sam that I started to feel safe and respected during sex. Before that I didn’t trust anyone and had got into the habit of ending dates with 20-minute inspections of postcoital condoms.
It would be easy to blame porn for the way some men in my generation disrespect women in bed, particularly given that millennials grew up just as X-rated material, much of it rooted in misogyny, was becoming so accessible online. But I think the problem runs deeper than that. The existence of stealthing reflects a wider generational misunderstanding about consent and what qualifies as a non-consensual experience.
I was brought up thinking that rape meant strange men dragging women into dark alleys, for instance. The cases we hear and talk about are often the most violent and prolific. They seem far removed from reality, which means that when they happen to us we might not realise it until much later.
I didn’t have the wherewithal to think of myself as a survivor. And as Sam brazenly whipped that condom off, I dare say he didn’t think of himself as a perpetrator either.
I know now that he raped me, but I’d still have a hard time saying that to him. Or to anyone else, really. For years I’ve felt like my story wasn’t worth telling. I have to keep reminding myself that it is. All of ours are.
‘Millennial Love by Olivia Petter is out now and published by 4th Estate. Olivia is a senior lifestyle writer at The Independent.’