16 July 2017

Undesireability and sexual mockery (from autism meetups to high schools)

Content/TW: Sexual harassment, sexually/generally abusive relationships (including in linked posts)

[photo: stock image of an East Asian child wearing blue shorts and a yellow shirt, sitting with knees up and arms crossed to cover face, and head down, beside a backpack and in front of a brick wall, from an article about racist bullying.]

Undesireability and sexual mockery
(from autism meetups to high schools)

Just yesterday, Kim Sauder at Crippled Scholar wrote a brilliant essay on what happens to disabled people not considered nonsexual but outright undesirable at "Undesirable: Toxic Romantic Dreams, Disability, Sexuality and Relationships." Earlier this year, Kassiane Asasumasu at Radical Neurodivergence Speaking also wrote a badass post on a particular phenomenon that happens to her and many other autistic people who are women, femme, or forcibly assumed to be/assigned feminine or female, called Autism Meet Up Groups ARE NOT for "finding a girlfriend".

I want to share some of my own experiences with what Kim and Kassiane have written about. This type of sharing is something I generally don't do much of, and frequently avoid, because of my deep discomfort with the self-narrating zoo exhibit expectation that Jim Sinclair first named and described in the autistic community, though that type of exploitation and abuse is by no means specific to autistic people.

In one autistic youth meetup many, many years ago, a parent of an autistic young man felt the need to inform my mom (who then passed on the information to me) that her son had never talked to a girl before. Even if the other person's mom meant this statement purely as an observation of fact (as far as she was aware of the goings-on in her son's life), and had no ulterior motive or agenda with putting this information into the conversation, I felt immediately uncomfortable.

When someone's parent tells your parent, who then tells you, that they have never spoken to someone assumed to be/presenting as the "opposite" gender, there feels an unspoken expectation. Not just what some would call "heteronormative" (really, just assuming that everyone is either a girl or a boy, and if you are one, you must be attracted to/interested in the other, by default) expectations that he may now suddenly be romantically and/or sexually interested in me, but also that I must be automatically interested in return based solely on our (assumed) genders and the fact that we are both autistic. The other autistic person's mom never said the rest of this, at least to me, but as Kassiane repeatedly points out ... being autistic by itself is not the basis for a romantic/sexual relationship when you know nothing else yet (or very, very little) about the other person.

There are other layers in there, like the assumption that of course autistic people should and would date only other autistic people, which includes its own ableism and disablism, by both implicitly assuming that allistic (non-autistic) people are somehow "above" autistic people and that we would be a step down for them to deign to date, and conversely, that autistic people are unable to date/have sex/have a relationship with allistic people because they would automatically be "out of our league." (Yes, this is also patriarchal language that assumes all relationships are a pursuit with the other person your prize, because that is part of the same gross assumptions here.)


Total tangent time: "Ableism" is more common in the United States. "Disablism" is more common in the rest of the English-speaking world especially the United Kingdom. A lot of people are very attached to their preferred term, and will usually argue that it is the other one that centers nondisabled people. I used to believe that, and preferred ableism. Currently, I think both terms are useful and actually have different meanings. Ableism means the value system that promotes some people's bodyminds as valuable, worthy, and desirable while by definition dismissing other people's bodyminds as not valuable, not worthy, and not desirable. Disablism means the oppression specifically foisted on disabled, mad, neurodivergent, Deaf, sick, and other divergent and atypically bodyminded people. But I don't think this distinction is super important in everyday conversation, especially since those two phenomena are clearly and obviously related and connected to each other. OK now back to the rest of this post.


Kassiane describes something that is familiar to way too many of us who are autistic and also  women, femme, or have at some point or continue to be forcibly (and incorrectly) assumed to be/assigned as female or feminine. How that one offhand comment from another autistic person's mom gave way to years and years of trying to go to autistic meetups and only finding constant sexual harassment even and especially after requests to stop and signals, implicit and very explicit, of not being interested and not being available.

At an autistic adult meetup, I once walked in a room and immediately several men locked eyes on me and began moving toward me, each one of them trying to get my attention and start up a conversation immediately, and at least two of them explicitly telling me they were interested in me romantically/sexually by saying they wanted a girlfriend. I don't remember the rest of the questions or what they said; I just remember saying that I was already in a relationship and that we were exclusive. At least one of these people kept asking me about dating him.

Another time, a white autistic man I've never met in person and had never spoken to before in any context at all sent me messages through Facebook telling me that his fantasy was to date an autistic Asian female, and that since I was an autistic Asian female, I would be perfect for him. I shouldn't need to explain why this was creepy, inappropriate, racist, and gross for at least a dozen different reasons.

I don't go to autistic social meetups anymore, almost ever.

When I was in fifth grade, many years before I ever went to any autistic meetups, a group of girls crowded around my desk and told me that they dared me to walk over to another girl and tell her that I thought she was hot. They were giggling as they told me this, and I immediately got the sense that there was something funny going on -- funny to them, of course -- but I thought about it, and I couldn't figure out what it was. I thought that "hot" meant "beautiful" or "pretty," and I did think that that specific girl was pretty. So I couldn't figure out what would be wrong with telling her that I thought she was hot and since they were pushing me to just go and do it, I did. I walked over to this other girl and I told her, "I think you're hot." The girls who dared me to do it burst out laughing. I was immediately embarrassed and I still couldn't figure out why.

Later, I don't even think that much later, I figured out that "hot" didn't mean just pretty/beautiful. It specifically meant "sexually attractive." They managed to mock me by getting me to do something they had figured out implicitly I didn't understand because my young, autistic, asexual self would never have figured out without being explicitly told, and then laughing at me. It was supposed to be hilarious (to them) and humiliating (to me) because one girl telling another girl she was hot would make me a lesbian, and therefore give them another reason to mock me.

In seventh or eighth grade (I think, maybe a little earlier), someone photoshopped my face onto someone else's face in a photo of another person in our class dancing with someone at a dance. The classmate who wasn't photoshopped was also a disabled student (multiple learning disabilities) who was constantly bullied and harassed by other students. He was the one that my "friends" were talking about in eighth grade when they said that I was a retard because I hung out with other retards. The joke, and why it was supposed to be so humiliating, was probably because both this other person and I were assumed (a) undateable by everyone else, (b) funny, self-sustaining subjects of mockery by existing, and (c) only "fit" for each other, so each of us seen as dancing with the other being seen as an insult and embarrassing to the other of us. (He was my friend. We did dance at another dance much later.)

Around fifth through eighth grade, because all these years are really starting to blend together the more I think about it, which may also just be a sign of getting older, there were rumors that I humped the flagpole all the time at recess. Our recess lot was a small paved gravel/tar lot (same type of paved ground that is used for parking lots and streets for cars). In the back of it away from the entry/exit fence gate, was a flagpole in a raised concrete mound. I liked to walk over there and pick my nose because I figured that other people wouldn't really be able to see me picking my nose if I stood at the right angle behind the flagpole. (Yes I'm now admitting something that is arguably actually embarrassing, unlike dancing with a friend and having a crush on a girl.) I figured out pretty quickly that saying I was humping the flagpole was an insult and supposed to be mean and another reason for people to think I was gross and then socially outcast me even more. But I didn't know what humping meant. And as one of many autistic kids who didn't have a whole lot of friends in my peer group, and at that time, was pretty sure that talking to another peer would be instantly dooming myself even more, I walked up to a teacher and I asked her what humping was. (Her response was to stiffen and awkwardly tell me, I think that's something you should ask your parents.)

(I didn't even remember the humping rumors until I was in the middle of writing this post, when the memories leaped from some hidden part of my brain to remind me that they had happened. It seems I've blocked out at least some of this stuff.)

But I haven't gotten to the worst thing, the thing I'll never forget.

I wrote a post more than four years ago about strangers and acquaintances deciding that it is totally OK to ask me extremely personal and invasive questions related to the fact that I am adopted. (My own feelings and relationship to being an adoptee are more complicated and nuanced than what I wrote about then, but the part about the questions is still true and relevant.)

But this has also happened to me about sexuality, twice that I specifically remember.

The first time was when I took my driver's education class. Hosted by a well-known driving school, my class had about 20 or 30 students total in it. I didn't know anyone else there. Some of them probably knew each other, since we were all from surrounding towns/cities and it's New England. I don't really know for sure, because I'm faceblind and can't quickly or intuitively figure out how neurotypicals interact without being coached through it.

At some point, we went over to a pizza place nearby for lunch. While we were there, a group of maybe around ten or slightly fewer of the other students were sitting around a couple of tables, obviously talking and snickering. One of them asked me, "Do you have a boyfriend?" I said yes, because at the time I was romantically involved in a weird long-distance relationship. Then they asked me a series of other questions.

"Have you made out?"

"Have you french-kissed?"

"Have you had sex?"

"Have you done a blow job?"

"Have you done anal?"

I don't remember all of the specific questions or all of the wording.

I just remember feeling confused, embarrassed, and singled out, and I knew even while it was happening that they were doing it to mock me. They were doing it because it was funny for them, and supposed to be embarrassing for me. And even though I knew they were somehow making fun of me in doing this, I couldn't stop answering the questions because even to this day, I struggle with saying no and setting boundaries, but of course it was way worse back then. I couldn't figure out how to not answer their questions in some or another way, so I kept responding and each time I answered one question they asked me another one.

The second time it happened, a few months or maybe a year later, there was a horrible déjà vu. I was in my high school, a small private Christian school, in a small room where sometimes a few students would hang out and study. There were only a handful of other people there in the room. But the same questions started.

"Do you have a boyfriend?"

"Do you have sex?"

Almost an exact repeat. I don't remember all of the specific questions or their wording, but I do remember at the time, that the questions were almost or exactly the same as the first time. And just like the first time, I had a gut instinct that I was being made an object of mockery, and that everyone else was in on the joke, and that even though I knew I was being made fun of, I still couldn't shut it down. To the best of my knowledge, the people who did it the second time didn't even know any of the people who did it the first time.

None of them may have known that I'm autistic, or maybe all of them did. High school is when I started being a lot more open about it. (It's also when I first got involved in autistic activism and self-advocacy work.) But they had all figured out, whether or not they knew the specific word for what kind of neurodivergent I am, that I was gullible, easily manipulated, and hilarious (for them). They had figured out I wouldn't say no. They had figured out I wouldn't evade or shut it down. They had figured out I wouldn't turn the tables and set the questions on them, let alone give them a verbal smackdown. They had figured out I was socially awkward, socially oblivious, and socially ignorant enough to walk into their trap and lay there. All of those traits are related to being autistic in a neurotypical-dominant world.

This is a very specific and particular kind of sexual harassment. I know that now even if at the time all I knew was that I was being mocked without knowing exactly how/why. And while I may not remember the exact questions, wording, or sequence, I'll never forget how I felt so ashamed and exposed in both of those situations, because I felt like I was supposed to both prove that I was sexually knowledgeable/experienced to be socially accepted, and, like any information that I had had any sexual activity at all would also mean I was filthy and gross. (I'm sure plenty of that also had to do with purity culture, since I was raised in an Evangelical Christian church, and once even went to a church retreat with a special day set aside for purity and keeping ourselves pure until our [with Christians, heterosexual, monogamous, child-bearing] marriages. And we were taught that sex wasn't dirty ... but only if it met those requirements.)

In my lifetime, I never really got the message that I was expected to be nonsexual and desexualized because I am autistic. (I know many other autistic people do get those messages -- especially if they are nonspeaking and/or have multiple other apparent disabilities.) Instead, I got a series of messages that I was in fact a sexual being, but anything to do with my sexuality was gross and an object of mockery, or, to be used only for really fucked up fetishes for which I could become a fantasy object (but that was much later). I'm willing to bet money that I am not the only autistic person of any gender or sexuality or asexuality to have had this kind of sexual harassment happen to them. It seems particularly targeted to people who are neurodivergent in pretty specific ways, and like it particularly emerged in adolescence -- in high school -- though I'm sure it could and has happened to autistic adults of younger and older ages too.

Just in case I wasn't clear, this kind of behavior and sexual interrogation is ableist sexual harassment and ableist bullying, and can probably amount to ableist sexual abuse depending on the circumstances. I can probably think of even more ways in which my a/sexuality was targeted by some or another person or group to be dragged into the open and mocked, but honestly, I'd prefer not to go trawling through memories that it seems like I've blocked out at least some of. My point is that many of us have had extremely varied experiences with all types of sexual harassment and sexual abuse, both the type of abuse that desexualizes disabled people, and the type of abuse that hyper-sexualizes and/or mocks or pities, and some of it can be incredibly disability-specific.