(content warning: sexual harassment and assault; misogyny)
I have come across incident after incident in which women, femmes and other people perceived as women find themselves being bombarded with unwanted sexual or romantic propositions, sexual harassment and outright sexual assault by cis men on the spectrum in spaces that are either by or for autistic people, or in online communities for autistic people. I know several women and femmes who have experienced harassment from men who think they’re entitled to their affections or their bodies, including lesbians. I’ve seen guys being creepy towards women in person, and have reported them to event organisers. Before I transitioned and started being perceived as male by the general public, I had a man propose marriage to me online as a way of getting me out of my parents’ abusive household. I was 19. He was in his 40s at the very least–more than twice my age.
Being autistic does not exempt you from the forces of toxic masculinity, compulsory heterosexuality or other forms of gendered hostility. Autism may make people internalise society’s messages differently from other people, but that doesn’t mean that we don’t internalise those messages. We are people and people are a product of the societies in which they are brought up.
I believe some of this is attributable to the systemic desexualisation of disabled people, including autistic people, during childhood and adolescence. The assumption is that we won’t be interested in romantic or sexual relationships anyway–or shouldn’t be–so we are not taught how to approach relationships in a healthy, positive way. It’s also the case that a lot of autistic people struggle with learning social norms that are seen as simply arbitrary. There may be some social norms that are simply arbitrary, but respecting people’s romantic and sexual boundaries goes beyond simple social niceties. When those developmental factors are blended with cultural messages that promote male entitlement and rape culture, some autistic men end up with attitudes that both reflect their difficulty approaching women or people they perceive as women, and the idea that they’re entitled to a romantic relationship or sex because they’re men. This results in situations where men in autistic spaces will do things ranging from awkwardly asking people on dates because they’re both on the spectrum and they think the other person is pretty to full-blown sexual harassment and assault.
Like everyone else, these guys need to be told that nobody is entitled to romance or sex, but that there are ways that they can learn how to build healthy relationships to the people they’re attracted to. Build bonds based on common interests. Don’t treat autistic space as nothing but a dating opportunity. Work on how to make friends first. Value women and people perceived as women as human beings, not just as opportunities for dating or sex. Respect the boundaries of people who say they aren’t interested in going out with them or sleeping with them.
We need to stop tolerating this kind of behaviour in autistic space and be absolutely clear that harassment and assault are unacceptable. I have been in way too many spaces where guys like this are routinely allowed to come back. Being autistic should not absolve you from common decency, and common decency includes respecting the sexual and romantic boundaries of other people.