Autism and Sexual Harassment
Last week I wrote about why the #MeToo movement hasn't gone 'too far'. I wrote that piece the day that the Aziz Ansari story broke and since then there has been disparity of opinion over whether that scenario constitutes 'Sexual Harassment'. At this point, I'm not particularly interested in whether it does or not. The point, to me, is that the woman in that scenario felt she wasn't listened to, couldn't say 'no', was under pressure. Same with 'Cat Person'. And that other women are now coming forward in droves to say, 'I have felt the same. Often.' I am one of those women.
A great part of this problem lies in the way we teach men and women, boys and girls, to navigate the world. I touched on this last week, but to sum up, women are frequently brought up to put their own needs aside in order to make others happy, thereby making it harder to give a firm 'no'. In contrast, men are encouraged to be competitive and assertive. There is, clearly, already an issue here. But to all the people saying, 'Why can't you just say no? It's her fault for not saying no,' in my experience, not only is it common for men not to pay attention to non-verbal cues, it is also common for them to ignore these verbal cues. And by verbal cues, I include saying 'no'.
A case in point: many woman will know the routine of going out with their friends, only to be approached by a man they're not interested in. They say, 'No thanks,' politely to an offer of a drink or a dance, they turn away and try to ignore him, and eventually they're forced into saying, 'Sorry, I have a boyfriend,' or, 'I'm a lesbian,' or 'I have to go meet my friends.' Because our simple, 'No,' is not respected. You say it, they persist. Already we're in the realm of disrespect. This is also relevant in relationships. Below is my favourite cartoon on the subject.
What I really want to talk about is all of this in relation to autism, specifically, why autistic people may be more vulnerable to sexual coercion, harassment, and abuse. The above is a brief reminder that neurotypical people, especially non-men, can find it difficult to say no, and often have their 'no' ignored or disrespected. But for autistic people, saying 'no' can come with a whole other heap of implications.
Being autistic means that your brain is different to the majority of other brains. And when your brain is different, you might act differently, like different things, and be scared of different things. This isn't in and of itself problematic. But society wants all brains to be the same. You might not realise it, but they do. That is why ABA, a controversial therapy that uses rewards for 'wanted behaviours' exists for autistic people. But there are also more widely relatable examples.
How often have you come across the following scenarios, or been one of the participants?
[At a bar with friends]
Okay I think I'm going to head home now.
No! Stay for a bit longer. Have one more drink!
No, I'm pretty tired.
Aw, come on. It's still early!
[Going to a family event]
Is that what you're wearing?
I don't think that's very appropriate.
Why? It's just jeans.
You should look smarter than that today.
[Discussing your job]
Are you going to ask for a promotion soon?
I don't think so. I'm happy in the role I'm in at the moment.
But you could be doing so much better. You're more than qualified.
I know, but I don't think I'd enjoy a senior role as much.
But you'd earn so much more! And think of the opportunities!
For better or for worse, society likes people to operate in a predictable, uniform way. The trouble is, as autistic people, we face this ALL THE TIME. Our ways of living are likely to be more outside the norm than a neurotypical's and so we face this pressure to go against our own wishes and comply with society's expectations far more often. Our 'no's have been ignored more. People try to influence and convince us more, and persuade us to change our minds more. This shit gets tiring, people.
So you get used to saying 'yes's that you don't mean. Yes, I'll stay for one more drink. Yes, I'll change into a dress. Yes, I'll talk to my boss. Because sometimes the yes you don't mean isn't too damaging. So you convince yourself into it, because it seems to matter to other people so much. A half hour more at the bar won't kill me, so I'll do it. I guess I can wear a dress just for a few hours. And after a while, you get used to the fact that your 'no' will just be persuaded into a 'yes' anyway.
This can also happen in a far more insidious way. We observe these expectations in action and they worm their way into us so that we do it to ourselves. Again, this also happens to neurotypical people. 'I must say yes to that party or Sara will be disappointed.' 'I should stay late at work because everyone else is.' 'I've got to go to the gym because I'm putting on weight.' But with autistic people, this happens more often and with more intimate aspects of our lives. 'I should want to play with other kids in the playground because that's what everyone else seems to do.' 'I jump around when I'm happy but people think it's weird and I get laughed it.' 'I'll be teased if I eat the same thing for lunch again, but it's what I want to eat.'
So we turn our own 'no's in to 'yes's preemptively, so we don't have to hear the speech from someone else. We are human, after all. We want to have friends, and be loved, and included. So we find a way to do it. By pretending to be something we're not. It's then a short step from a reluctant, 'Okay, I'll stay for another drink,' to 'Okay, you can kiss me,' and, hey presto, you've 'consented'. The person kissing you doesn't think they've done any coercing. But whether they have or haven't, your lifetime of being coerced by others, and by yourself so as to 'fit in' as best you can, has done it for them.
Another aspect of being autistic that can make us particularly vulnerable to sexual harassment is not always understanding others' intentions. I said last week that I don't truly believe anyone has bad intentions. I literally can't imagine how someone would want to hurt someone else. So this never enters my head as a possibility. But even if another person isn't being malicious, their behaviour can still come as a surprise to me. If I'm with someone who I'm enjoying a conversation with and they say, 'Let's swap numbers,' I will probably have no clue whether they mean they want to be friends, or they're just being polite, or they might be romantically interested in me, or they just want to hook up. I've learnt that when I'm with a romantic partner and they say, 'Nobody's home...' they don't just mean, 'It's nice and peaceful.' Because I don't always interpret cues (or, to my mind, clues) like other people, I can easily find myself in a situation that I didn't expect or want to find myself in, and have no idea how I got there.
A passage from Lola Phoenix's article on how complicated consent can be when you're autistic particularly struck me.
From an early age, I took things very literally and never enjoyed breaking the rules. The mounting anxiety and the crushing guilt I felt afterwards never seemed to outweigh whatever rewards were promised; I liked doing what I was told. And, especially as a kid on the autistic spectrum, there were some basic rules I understood about life. One of them was that adults were always right and should always be listened to.
To my mind, rules help me navigate the world. One of the rules we're taught again and again is 'be kind to people'. This excellent advice. But to a literal, black and white thinker, it can become confusing. We are told try and make people happy. We are told to be polite and not hurt people's feelings. Sometimes we do things that we don't want to do in order to make other people happy. For example, I have watched more football than I would care to, because people I love, love football. By the same token, my boyfriend has watched more reality singing shows than he would care to. Tit for tat. But I was never told that this doesn't apply to intimate relationships. How are you meant to know that you can watch an Everton game when you don't want to, but shouldn't have sex when you don't want to? Nobody told me that rule.
This is one of the (many) reasons why sex and relationship education is so important, especially for people on the autistic spectrum. We might need to be given information in more detail, using more words. We might need it to be more literal than is considered comfortable in our 'polite' society. We definitely need more information than 'here's a diagram of a penis and use a condom' (the sum total of my sex education). And we desperately need to be taught about abusive relationships in general. Even if sex isn't involved, we are still open to being abused or manipulated in other ways, for the same reasons.
This is merely a snapshot of what there is to say regarding autism and our vulnerability, specifically to sexual harassment. I'm sure I will write more on the topic in my book (yes, I'm writing a book!). But for now, if you want further reading you can check out Safety Skills for Asperger Women by Liane Holliday Willey EdD as a start.