How I May Destroy You is helping make stealthing a crime in Chile
A Chilean politician was inspired to make stealthing illegal after discovering how many lives are affected by this form of abuse.
27 Jun 2022
Content warning: this article contains mention of rape and harassment
Not many television series inspire groundbreaking legislation in countries thousands of miles away from where they are set and written, but Michaela Coel’s I May Destroy You (IMDY) isn’t the average show.
A sweeping study on sexual abuse, the Bafta and Emmy award-winning series cracks open the harmful, yet often muted manifestations of rape and harassment. In one bold scene, Coel’s character and series protagonist, Arabella, experiences stealthing – taking off a condom during sex without consent – and later calls it out as rape. Watching the scene from her home in Santiago, Chile, Maite Orsini realised that women and queer survivors of stealthing in her country had no legal protections to help them. Orsini is a 34-year-old lawyer, trained firefighter, former model/actress and two-time elected deputy – the Chilean equivalent of MP – but first and foremost, she’s a women’s rights advocate. She was moved by Coel’s writing.
“I May Destroy You impacted me a lot,” she tells gal-dem. “A lot of times, [abuse] is spoken about as if it was something inherent to being a woman, and the series reveals the necessity to deconstruct that.”
Orsini was unfamiliar with the term stealthing until she watched the IMDY scene. Arabella, played by Coel, has consenting, protected casual sex, but her partner removes his condom. Arabella later hears a podcast that flags the behaviour as a premeditated and deliberate form of abuse that is punishable under UK law.
After watching, Orsini investigated stealthing legislation in other countries – and how frequently it was happening in Chile. While there’s no official statistics on how often stealthing occurs across the country, Orisini’s research indicated it’s happening “more than (she) ever imagined”. “It was different for everyone I spoke to, but some had their lives very seriously impacted by it.”
Last year, Orsini submitted a proposal to legally classify stealthing as a crime. In January, the bill swept through the lower House of Deputies, garnering 73 votes in favour of it and just three against. It will now move to the Senate for further approvals and discussion rounds before it can be made law.
“Stealthing [in Chile] today is not classified as a crime. Unfortunately, if a woman reported it to the police, there would be no prosecution,” explains Orsini. She hopes that the bill, if approved, will enable survivors to take legal action against their abusers and send a strong message to denounce this behaviour.
“We should have the right to choose how we want to have sex, and he took that right away from me”Isidora
Sexual rights advocates across the world debate whether stealthing should be classified as a rape or an abuse crime, with definitions and legal consequences differing country to country. The UK does not have a dedicated stealthing law, as it falls under rape, although survivors say reports of stealthing have been left uninvestigated. Cases that have ended in prosecution include a man who secretly pierced his condom before having sex, and was sentenced to four years in prison in 2020. Similar sentences have been handed out in New Zealand, where a man was found guilty of rape after taking off his condom during sex and is currently serving a three-year and nine-month jail term. This year, in Germany, a woman was sentenced to a six-month suspended sentence for rupturing her partner’s condom without his knowledge – but it was classified as a sexual crime, rather than rape. In most countries, including all of South America, no stealthing laws or judicial protocols exist.
Similar to the Germany ruling, the Chilean draft categorises stealthing as sexual abuse crime punishable to between 61 to 540 days in prison. Orsini says the definition didn’t come easy. “In the case of stealthing, the sexual relationship starts as something consented, accepted as sexual intercourse with protection, and when the protection isn’t there the consent is lost,” she explains. “We understand that it is serious, but not the same as sex that is forced from the beginning. That’s why we differentiate it.”
Though people in Chile have mixed feelings about the bill, Isidora, a survivor of stealthing, supports it. She found pre-cancerous cells in her cervix which required surgical removal and threatened to impact her reproductive organs. She cannot confirm her abuser was to blame, but she is sickened by his violation of her trust. “No one protects us, and a lot of [men] don’t even care,” she tells gal-dem. “We should have the right to choose how we want to have sex, and he took that right away from me.”
Paula, which is not her real name, felt safe enough to accept her date’s invitation to go home to his house. She had sex with him on the condition that he wore a condom, which he agreed to. But then he took it off without her knowing. “He prioritised his pleasure over respecting me,” she says.
While Paula’s glad that Orsini is trying to criminalise stealthing, she isn’t sure it would be effective. “It will be an infinite ‘my word against yours’. What can you do if you have no evidence? The court will minimise what you feel and it’s even more infuriating.”
“The feminist fight is international. We have to look to other countries to advance equality for all”Maite Orsini
Her concerns are underscored by the high impunity rates for rapists and sexual abusers in Chile – in 2020, only 26% of sexual crime cases resulted in legal prosecution. The subject was brought to attention by the Chilean feminist anthem ‘A Rapist in Your Path’, which went viral and was performed by women across the world in 2019 and 2020, including outside the trial of Harvey Weinstein in New York. The lyrics accuse the president, judges and the police as complicit in all rape crimes, upholding impunity for abusers.
Despite the difficulties it could face in practice, Orsini defends the law as a way to flag it as a crime and not just excusable behaviour. She explains that raising awareness on stealthing is key, so she uploaded clips of I May Destroy You to her social media, to encourage her followers to watch the scene. “It’s important to give it a name, which is why we used the Anglo-word, stealthing”, says Orsini. “We could have invented something in Spanish, but then people won’t find as much information.”
For Orsini, Coel’s writing revealed that lack of justice is shared by abuse survivors across the world, “The series is set in the UK, a place that is much more developed than Chile, but [survivors] experience the same difficulties as women here,” she reflects. “The feminist fight is international. We have to constantly look to other countries to advance equality for all, not only in our countries.”
Orsini describes herself as a “left-wing feminist since the crib” who “cannot stand injustice”. She is serving her second term as deputy for Santiago and is a founding member of Chile’s ruling party Broad Front, led by leftist president Gabriel Boric, predominantly formed by former student protest leaders who are striving to revolutionise their country’s inequality and conservative politics. Alongside the stealthing draft, Orisini is rallying to end Chile’s ongoing criminalisation of abortion and eradicate period poverty.
“Being a woman in Chile is difficult, and it has cost me to get up every morning and fight for a country that is safer, but one day I hope to have a daughter, and that she can live in a country that allows her to be free and fearless.”
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