Condom Sabotage Isn’t A Joke

Amanda Marcotte

The accusations against Julian Assange have brought forth a fancy new defense of abusive behavior, which is that condom sabotage isn't that big a deal.  In reality, birth control sabotage is a common and particularly scary form of abuse.

Without commenting either way on the validity of the accusations against Julian Assange, the founder of Wikileaks who was recently arrested under politically suspicious circumstances for rape charges in Sweden international officials would usually ignore, I want to say that the charges themselves are very serious.  I realize it’s hopeless to suggest that pointing out the charges are serious isn’t the same as stating he’s guilty.  And that it’s probably hopeless to beg people not to rehash the same tired accusations that are always whipped out against women who file criminal complaints about rape.  When someone who has ever done anything that someone else liked is accused of rape, Rape Apology Day is declared, and all common sense is usually thrown out the window.  But I beg of you, this article has nothing to do with the validity of the charges or rendering judgment on Wikileaks itself.

This is about the seriousness of the charges and of birth control sabotage. Both of which are being downplayed by interested parties who struggle to grasp both that a man could do something they admire and do something that is immoral and illegal. Not that he did do it (please, people, calm down!).  But surely grown-ups can realize that people are complicated, and many can have both good and evil inside them.

The charges in this case, from what has been accurately reported, are rape, sexual molestation, and coercion—including accusations of holding a woman down and having sex with a sleeping woman.  But, as Jessica Valenti reports, there has been some information to suggest that one of the women is charging that Assange assaulted her by having sex with her after she withdrew her consent because he reneged on a promise to use a condom.  Unsurprisingly, the usual rape apologists stood by their usual claim that if a woman consents to [fill in the blank], then a man has a free pass to force whatever sexual acts he wishes on her.  But more surprisingly, some people came up the novel idea that birth control sabotage is not, in and of itself, a good enough reason for a woman to withdraw consent.

Most upsettingly, Naomi Wolf bypassed the actual accusations that Assange forcibly raped women, and latched on to the condom aspects of the case to accuse the women of being oversensitive babies.  Her facts were all wrong, of course—the lack of condom use was mostly noted in the charges as an aggravating factor, because the alleged victim had insisted on condoms. But I want to look carefully at the notion that a man sabotaging a woman’s birth control shouldn’t be considered a form of assault.  I’m not talking about honest mistakes (such as a condom breaking while you’re unaware), but the problem of men slipping off the condom during intercourse to get one over on the woman they’re sleeping with, claiming they’re wearing one in a dark room when they’re not, or otherwise doing things to a woman’s preferred form of contraception that makes it less effective.  Is this behavior just being “caddish,” or should it be considered a form of abuse?

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I’m in the latter camp, and think that if you had a few high profile cases where men were convicted of sexual assault for performing what I call the “condom slip,” then the incidence of this dangerous, abusive behavior would go down dramatically.  I think that penetrating a woman who asked for a condom without a condom, either through force or trickery, is sexual assault and should be treated as such.  I think men who do this and other kinds of birth control sabotage, through force or trickery (which is a kind of force), do so in order to abuse and dominate women. And I’m not alone in this thought.  There’s a small but growing body of research to back me up.

As researchers Elizabeth Miller and Jay Silverman discovered, birth control sabotage is one of the many ways that domestic abusers demonstrate their dominance and control over their victims.  They do the condom slip, flush pills down the toilet, or otherwise use coercion to get unwilling women to submit to unprotected sex.  Often, they desire the pregnancy in order to make it harder for a woman to leave the relationship, but at the root of this is a desire to use a woman’s ability to get pregnant as a way to hurt her. 

Indeed, it’s not uncommon for men who force pregnancy on unwilling women to then demand an abortion.  It’s not about having babies, but about controlling women’s bodies.

It seems to me that tools in the abuser’s toolbox are often employed by men who sexually assault women they aren’t in relationships with. Just like batterers, rapists do what they do because they want to dominate and control their victims.  For a predatory man, it might be a particular thrill feeling like you’ve gotten one over on your victim by threatening her not with up front violence, but forcing STD and pregnancy risks on her.  This has the added bonus, to an assailant, of being hard to prove and therefore unlikely to get him in trouble.

As Miller and Silverman noted, the problem of birth control sabotage isn’t just about women’s rights and emotional well-being—though in a perfect world, that would be reason enough to care.  It’s also a public health menace.  Birth control sabotage increases the rate of unintended child-bearing and all its heightened risks, STD transmission, and abortion. If we can’t care about women for themselves, we should care about how men employing clever, quasi-legal forms of assault are hurting the public health.  Instead of laughing off the condom slip as some kind of caddish behavior, we should see it for what it is: abuse.   And it should be taken seriously as a legal matter.

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