Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Stop stereotyping sexuality, sheesh!

Compared to neurotypical people of my own age group, I have a relatively modest amount of past relationships. Before I met my current partner, whom I love very much and consider to be my perfect match, I was only in a committed relationship with one other person, and I've had a few encounters that didn't amount to anything particularly significant. But in these minute encounters, I've noticed some particularly interesting differences between the way I as an autistic woman am treated by a potential suitor as compared to a neurotypical female.
For the record, I am also pansexual. This means that I am not particular about the gender of my partner, and I am equally attracted to men, women, and anyone who doesn't fit into the prerequisite gender roles, provided I feel that "spark" with them.
Since I often "pass" as neurotypical and I don't usually reveal my autism to someone until the subject gets brought up, I've noticed a schism between how I am treated by potential suitors when I am presumed neurotypical, and after the "big reveal". It's given me an interesting, and perhaps unique, insight into the way that society treats the sexuality and "dateability" of people with mental disabilities.
Even though I am candid and open about my sexuality, I don't usually seek out partners. I'm a loner by nature, and both of the serious relationships I have had happily fell into my lap, though with my current boyfriend, I had been actively in love with him for quite some time and was very happy when I found out he loved me too.
However, having a certain amount of pretty privilege, being white, cisgendered, TAB (temporarily able-bodied), pear-shaped, and tall, with long legs, a long neck, high cheekbones, and large eyes, means that I am sometimes subject to unwanted flirting, more often by men than by women. When this occurs, I am unsure of the proper way to respond, so I react out of a mixture of a desire to keep the person at an arm's length, and wishing not to appear rude. I can't seem to bring myself to outright reject a person, even when every instinct is telling me to do so, I am forced to remain friendly against my better judgement.
At first, these flirtations tend to be extremely sexual in nature, and focus a lot of emphasis on my appearance, with the interested person calling me "sweetie", "gorgeous", "honey", and "babe", amongst other pet names, instead of "Leah", my preferred form of address. Often, they will try to initiate small but intimidating forms of physical contact, such as touching my face, laying a hand on my shoulder, or touching my hand. All of which make me extremely uncomfortable, and make my sensory/tactile anxieties go absolutely haywire. This is often the step when my disinterest in non consensual physical affection with strangers becomes apparent, as I can't hide my discomfort any longer. But it's often brushed off as me being "shy" or in several cases, a "tease".
After getting to know me and becoming more aware of my quirky mannerisms, the person interested will often make a comment about it, at which point I "come out" as autistic. The reactions of that revelation have ranged from surprise/disbelief in the form of "But you seem so normal!" to outright rejection of my diagnosis, one person telling me, "No way, you're so normal, and autistic kids (nice way of infantizing autistics while simultaneously holding up the myth that autism is a children's syndrome) are majorly sick and effed up!"
But as time goes on and my honesty becomes apparent, I notice a shift in attitude. The most common symptom is a tone-down in the sexualized language, treating more like a child, and speaking to me in a slow, deliberate voice, as though I had difficulty speaking or was of below-average intelligence and verbal ability. Basically, their vision of me has changed from being neurotypical, and therefore sexy and desirable, to being non-neurotypical, and being therefore childlike, asexual, and not appropriate to be sexualized out of a fear that I might not comprehend the consequences.
I find this attitude insulting. I had the good fortune of having many a resource in my teens that helped me cope with my changing feelings and body; the best one being Asperger's Syndrome and Sexuality, by Isabelle Henault (http://www.amazon.com/Aspergers-Syndrome-Sexuality-Adolescence-Adulthood/dp/1843101890) which not only explained appropriate expressions of sexuality to me, but helped me come to terms with my pansexuality and how to properly deal with situations like sexual harassment and assault. I am therefore just as, if not more, educated than a neurotypical on healthy sexuality and relationships. My disability should not be an automatic neutering. There are people with autism who are asexual of course, but in my experience, the idea that we're all asexual is just another symptom of the stereotype that autism is a childhood affliction and that autistic people vanish from relevance once we are past our 18th birthday. It freezes us in a perpetual childhood, and we cannot be respected as adults with the same desires for intimacy and companionship if we are considered neuter beings.
The flip side of the autism reveal coin is even more insulting, but inevitable in a culture where mental illness is feared and stigmatized: I have had potential romantic suitors who have, upon learning about my autism, attempted to shield me entirely from emotional conflict, citing a fear that I would have a "meltdown" or "blow up" if something went wrong. As though I were a child on the verge of a temper tantrum!
I cannot repeat enough, the fact that when it comes to abuse in relationships and society in general, people with mental disabilities are a lot more likely to be the VICTIMS of an attack or ongoing assault than they are the perpetrators. Autistic women are particularly vulnerable to this, since without proper tools and knowledge we can easily become victim to a neurotypical partner's abuse and not know a means of escape.
So I found their idea that if I lost my temper I would pose a danger to others to be laughable. This one is sinister in its stigmatizing people with autism as unstable and unfit for relationships, but it stems from the same idea. Instead of being sweet little children who don't know how to take care of ourselves, we become unbalanced freaks who could go after you with a pickaxe at the slightest provocation.
These ridiculous assumptions are the only ones in need of a pickaxe to the head. What people with autism need are supportive resources that can give a comprehensive sex education and teach about the full spectrum of sexuality, from my own to asexuality. What neurotypicals need is to understand that disabled people, not just people with autism, but all, deserve a fully realized, healthy sexuality that is celebrated, and a chance to express their sexuality in a safe manner with a partner who will not make these hurtful assumptions.
Am I asking too much? No way. I certainly got lucky with my own neurotypical partner. I am sure all other people with autism who desire a partner deserve the same.


  1. Yep.

    One of the things I thought was really weird about Maxine Aston's book Aspergers in Love is that she made it sound like autistic women in relationships with NT men (same-sex relationships were given very short shrift in this book; I can't even remember if they were ever mentioned) were all tyrannical, jealous, ranting harpies who were very likely to abuse their partners. I'd never heard that before, and it seemed really unlikely and bizarre to me.

    Uncontrollable anger would not be on a Top Ten list of emotional problems autistic women are unusually prone to by *my* reckoning!

  2. I have less experience than you in the way of "coming out" to potential mates --- of all the people I've been in love with, two have been friends who already knew, and one was someone who suspected *something* was off about me. (Before getting to know me and hearing that it was autism, he thought I was intellectually disabled).

    I'm actually not sure I ever want to try conventional dating, because of the very things you describe! Particularly, the touch thing. No *way* would I be ready to have a date touch me until I knew hir pretty well, and trusted hir, etc., and most people don't expect to have to wait that long. (I've actually had one bad experience where I didn't know I could set these boundaries, so I essentially became some random guy's girlfriend in high school because I didn't know I could say no! He touched me a lot, and I never liked it, never really consented to it, and that experience is still messing with my ability to have normal sexual relations. So, no, I don't ever want to feel that kind of pressure again.)

  3. If you ask me, it's a habit of North Americans to paint all people, women in particular, with any type of non-neurotypicality as emotionally unstable and dangerous. I'm not sure why exactly, but it seems to be a common societal trope. I think in the case of women with ASD, they're mistaking anxiety issues (Which I admit to having freely) with anger management issues and having temper tantrums.
    As for conventional dating, the more I think about it, the more I think it is unsuitable for women on the spectrum, so long as our current social climate of devaluing personal space and bodily integrity flourishes. Healthy relationships between neurotypicals and people with ASDs can't flourish if that is permitted, in my opinion. I'm very lucky that my partner and I had the good luck of starting out as an internet relationship, so there was plenty of time for us to get to know our personalities and tastes, and physical affection came naturally to us when we did meet because we were so familiar with each other on the emotional/psychological front already.

  4. Great post. I have AS and I'm almost certain that my boyfriend is on the spectrum as well. I personally think an autistic-autistic relationship has a lesser degree of difficulty to it than an autistic-NT relationship, even though sometimes when our schedules don't perfectly mesh we can have issues (for example, I need a LOT of sleep, and he's practically nocturnal) and since we were both raised in NT society despite being autistic, it can be hard for us to, for example, say that we need time for ourselves since both of us are mortified of hurting the other's feelings.

    And also, in light of your recent post about children, I would like to request that from now on you replace words such as "infantilizing" with "objectifying," since that doesn't deny the humanity of children. And dangit, some of us autistics LIKE to be childlike. In comparison to what people often say about autistics being dead inside, I consider myself to be full of life, and that most certainly includes being enthusiastic about little things, dancing around randomly, and being able to ramble on about subjects that interest me—if one day I woke up and I was an NT and those qualities were gone, THAT would make me dead inside.

  5. @Theinkdonor: Your note about replacing "infantilizing" with a less adult-centric word is duly noted, and I will make sure to avoid such language in the future. I appreciate your correction.
    Thank you for your comment.