"Zain is a rapist," Arabella, the main character in Michaela Coel's BBC drama I May Destroy You, declares. "He's not rape-adjacent or a bit rapey: he's a rapist."
She is talking about having sex with him that was consensual until he removed his condom without her knowledge or agreement, an act known as stealthing.
“I thought you knew,” he claims afterwards, and they move on. It is only later, after she flippantly asks a policewoman whether removing a condom is sexual assault, that Arabella is told that she has, again, been the victim of rape.
I know it shouldn't matter, but it was the middle of the day, we were sober, there was a condom within arm's reach. There was no ambiguity about the situation
Grace, an Irish woman, feels uneasy when she sees the show. “That isn’t quite what happened to me, but it felt similar,” she says.
Grace was having consensual sex with a man she was seeing. “I know it shouldn’t matter, but it was the middle of the day, we were sober, there was a condom within arm’s reach. There was no ambiguity about the situation. Funnily enough, we’d actually had the conversation. I’d said, ‘This time, you have to wear a condom..,’ and he said, ‘Yeah, of course’. Then, a couple of minutes later, he... Well, put it this way: he didn’t.”
This may not quite rise to Arabella's definition of stealthing, but as Noeline Blackwell, chief executive of Dublin Rape Crisis Centre, explains, we don't have an explicit reference to stealthing in Irish law. What we have is actually a step better.
“What constitutes consent is an area that wasn’t always clear until the 2017 Criminal Law (Sexual Offences) Act, which says that a person consents to a sexual act if they freely and willingly agree to engage in that act. So if the nature of the act they’ve agreed to is protected sex, and someone deceitfully removes that protection, then the other person is mistaken as to what is happening.
“Because they’re mistaken, it is now set out that if intercourse occurs, there’s a case to be made for rape. It is nonconsensual at the time the person removes – or doesn’t put on – the condom.”
So what about in Grace’s situation?
“The communication between them was that the sex would be protected and it wasn’t, so she was mistaken,” says Blackwell. “It’s extremely serious and very clear in our law. If there’s deceit, then it is straightforward: there’s ground for saying that there was rape.”
The difficulty with stealthing and similar behaviour is that “very few people are going to complain about this kind of behaviour. Lots of people engage in sexual conduct that is criminal, and could be complained of as a rape, but won’t know to go to the police”, she says.
“You don’t want to think about it, that someone who you love, etc, that they might con you in this way. A lot of the time, too, it’s okay to recognise that it is abuse; what they do with it after that is up to themselves.”
You don't react how you think you would. I thought I'd stand my ground a bit better. We talked about it after. He eventually came to the conclusion that he was just lazy
This now rings true for Grace. “I was a bit in shock,” she says. “I don’t think I’d really registered what happened. I knew it was bad, but I didn’t really have the words in the moment.
“You don’t react how you think you would. I thought I’d stand my ground a bit better. We talked about it after; I called him a s**t bastard numerous times. He eventually came to the conclusion that he was just ... lazy... My health, my safety, my boundaries: no respect for them. Just because he was lazy.”
The danger is that because it could happen with someone whom you normally know and trust, the severity of the situation isn’t apparent. “There’s a habit of saying it doesn’t matter,” says Blackwell.
“Stealthing is sometimes seen as a boastful dare – you hear that kind of thing as something fun that people get away with, but they’re getting away with really harmful activity, dangerous, possibly criminal activity, and leaving people worried about STDs, pregnancy, about a whole lot of things.
“From our point of view there’s a lack of respect for the one you’re with, the danger of coming close to something nonconsensual and criminal.
“Most people don’t want to engage in harmful criminal activity; that’s not the way most people are thinking, It’s the way our society has been structured for so long, the way men particularly have been groomed into that sense of power. What’s the power kick in stealthing?” asks Blackwell.
“I am getting one over on the other person. I am able to con the other person. I am putting my enjoyment over the other person’s safety. But why is that? If you think of all the books, songs, films with a strong, macho hero, a great sense of entitlement and great sense of confidence in their capacity: what is genuinely respectful, genuinely consensual, gets forgotten.”
I realised I had to do everything in my power to make sure he wouldn't do it again. I'll never know if he does or doesn't, but at least I can say I've told him explicitly, I've tried
Forgetting, whether intentional or not, is something Grace hopes won’t happen again to the man she’d been seeing.
“I messaged him over lockdown. I hadn’t spoken to him since then but just realised that I had to do everything in my power to make sure he wouldn’t do it again. I’ll never know if he does or doesn’t, but at least I can say I’ve told him explicitly, I’ve tried.”
The cultural background Blackwell refers to is gradually retreating, being replaced with more nuanced depictions of sex and intimacy, like I May Destroy You and, of course, the now Emmy-nominated Normal People.
“What I loved about it was that Connell and Marianne were clearly enjoying themselves. There was real communication at an early stage, checking in with each other. It was really interesting to see how well they played it.”
Ultimately, Blackwell says, “we have to continuously return to the simple but messy question: ‘Is what’s happening right now between us consensual?’ If it’s not then you’re abusing the other person, and committing a criminal act, and causing harm to another person.”
Dublin Rape Crisis Centre’s national 24-hour helpline is at 1800-778888