I shared a meme on Facebook the other day which generated some discussion and controversy. The meme listed a number of attributes which are often stereotypes to describe Autistic people. The meme interested me because two of the stereotypes were actually true for me – that apparently Autistic people don’t drive and also that Autistic people are asexual. Let’s put this in context…
Sexuality and disability is a loaded subject. It shouldn’t be of course but sadly it is. Up until quite recently, the prevailing view was that people with disability are not expected to have sex and if they do, heaven forbid that anyone should mention it. According to many people – and unfortunately quite a large number of people – those with physical disability, neurological or intellectual differences or metal illness either do not or should not have sex. It would seem that sex is only for able bodied, neurotypical, good looking, thin, young people. In recent years, many disability and Autism advocates and activists have challenged this view. Many Autistic people do have sex and enjoy it. They have relationships with others and have all the wonderful range of different sexualities and diverse gender identities that exist. A right to be seen as a sexual being is a fundamental right,. Seeing all Autistic people as default asexual is disempowering and invalidating (and wrong). It plays into that view that we are perennial children. We are moving into a world where Autistic people can express their sexuality, The is A Really Good Thing. However, there is a snag.
Many Autistic people are in fact asexual. I am one of them. It is not that we have been brainwashed into thinking we should have or enjoy sex. It is simply that we are asexual. For me, I find sex repulsive and invasive. That is the ‘asexual’ bit. I also have absolutely no desire to be in any kind of intimate partner relationship. This is known as being a-romantic. Asexuality has all sorts of different variations. One can be asexual and homo-romantic (meaning the person does not want physical intimacy but is attracted to the same gender in an emotional way. So an asexual homo-romantic woman would seek a platonic (i.e. no sex) relationship with another woman. They would be partners but would not have sex.) Asexuality is often seen as being part of the Queer spectrum. I consider myself Queer as an asexual woman and I identify as a non-binary gender to some degree (that’s another blog post though!)
Like many people with divergent sexualities and gender identities, it took me many years to realise I was asexual. I was never interested in a relationship with a man and had experienced sexual abuse from men so thought that was why I found intimacy with men repulsive. I decided I must be lesbian because there were three sexualities on offer as far as I knew – gay, straight or bi. I spent years in asexual relationships but sort of by default. The partners I chose had mostly also experienced sexual violence and abuse. The difference between them and i was that sex for them brought up trauma, It didn’t for me – I just had absolutely no interest in it and found even the thought of kissing disgusting.
As time went on I realised I had been single for a long time. I read a news article about a man who had tragically killed women in a mass shooting overseas because he had been reluctantly celibate for some years. I reflected that I had been celibate for years but that I felt no sense of frustration or desperation for sex or a partner. I must admit I was quite relieved that I wasn’t all frustrated and angry at my lack of a partner but I wondered if there were other people like me who really didn’t care about his love, romance and sex thing which the rest of the world seemed in the grip of but which made no sense to me.
When I started my journey as an Autistic self-advocate I met an Autistic friend who was very proud of her asexual identity. We got talking and I thought maybe I was asexual too.
There is a challenge for asexual Autistic though. I will return to the meme I mentioned at the start of this post. Asexuality is a stereotypical assumption of Autistic people he’d by vast numbers of non-autistic people and apparently a lot of the media too. Sexual Autistic people have spent years fighting to get their right to be seen as sexual beings accepted in mainstream society. Then along comes asexual Jeanette and her disinterested mates. Sometimes I think some people think I am ‘letting the side down’ by actually living an unhelpful stereotype. There really isn’t much I can do about this. We human beings have a tendency to simplify situations. The easy answer is often the one that gets accepted. But this is not an easy answer. I – and my asexual Autistic peers – can be seen as unintentionally betraying the good work others have done to dispel the myth around Autistic people and sex.
The problem is not people validating the stereotype by their asexuality (or whatever else). The issue is the fact there is a stereotype in the first place. Assumptions and stereotypes come from somewhere – usually a fairly vague observation of common characteristics from people starting from place of bias. Once they become a stereotype they also become unhelpful and prescriptive. Autistic people are ALL sexualities. Challenging those unhelpful assumptions is the best thing we can do. Once people beyond the Autism community understand that we are all the different sexualities and genders that exist – including asexual – that will be a win.
[And just a couple of points about my asexuality: it is not because I ‘haven’t met the right man/woman’, because of my medication or because I am somehow childlike. And if you think it is due to farm chemicals or similar, my brother grew up on the same farm and he has three kids. It is just how I am. Like Autism, it is not a terrible thing or a deficit.