How Autism Affects My Sex Life
The Mighty asked me to write about my sex life. What a question to receive in your inbox! But for some reason I did not delete it. You see, I have an invisible condition. I am autistic. And through the years I have learned, as many autistic people do, to present myself in a very neurotypical way. So the vast majority of people meeting me would not spot my autism.
I have had a few people know from first meeting me, but these tend to be experts in the field of autism. A lot of the people I talk to through my work at The Sensory Projects have a penny dropping moment when I mention it to them. Suddenly my off-kilter phrases, my bluntness, my lack of eye contact and ferocious interest in one subject make sense.
When you have an invisible condition, and on top of that do a pretty good job of hiding it, it is easy for people to think it does not affect you. Of course it does: I expend a few million calories a day just in masking my autism. One of the kindest things anyone has ever said to me came from a friend, not a particularly close friend, just someone I see from time to time. When I came out as autistic to them, they responded instantly with “You must be so exhausted from hiding it all the time.” Being so suddenly and accurately understood brought tears to my eyes.
As I type I am wondering why I kept that email. Why I opened this document. I make such efforts to hide my autism, why would I write about something so private?
The answers come slowly. My autism does affect my sex life, and in asking me to write The Mighty have shown me a similar kindness to that friend. The question shows an understanding of my lived experience that is rare in my world. As a person on the spectrum who is able to articulate these things, I feel a duty to at least try. When I first began to talk about my autism I was very worried that in describing my experiences I would detract from the experiences of those who live far more challenged lives than me, but overwhelmingly I have been supported. A few parents in particular have pushed me to share more, explaining that my words have given them a route to understanding their loved ones, and rather than detracting from their experience, I am enabling them to share it a little more. I have also had support from other people in the autistic community, grateful that I have managed to put into words something they experience but could not explain. That is what I hope to do… of course I cannot promise to speak for everyone.
So, enough talking around the topic… time to address it head on!
Has my autism affected my sex life? Yes.
The Good, the Bad and the Ugly
The biggest effect autism has had on my sex life, by far, has been positive. Autism has made me loyal, up front, pragmatic and honest. Once partners get over how blunt I can be, the clear information is liberating. Autism has given me a brain not prone to taboos, so if I love you, and you love me, and you want to try swinging from the rafters then I will always say yes.
Sex itself is not taboo for me; I have no hang ups about it being dirty or bad, it is simply sex. My autistic brain enjoys making rules for life. The one it made for me with regards to sex ties in nicely with Blur’s Britpop classic “Boys and Girls”: “Always should be someone you really love.” I have had a handful of sexual partners through life; each one loved me and I loved them. The relationships typically last between two and six years. And the sex is good!
If I keep on about the good we will all get squeamish, so just trust me: Autism is good for my sex life.
The bad tends to be around the edges of a sex life rather than the sex life itself. Autism means I process language slower than neurotypical people, so in a conversation with a neurotypical person it is as if I converse on a delay, and this doesn’t work well when a conversation is intense. The breakdown of my relationships, the loss of those people I loved who loved me, more often than not would be chalked up to “communication breakdown.” BBC Radio 4 shared a series of interviews with me about the role autism played in the breakdown of my marriage; they are a classic example of the above.
Another role autism plays in my sex life is emotional. The autistic brain processes emotions differently to the neurotypical brain, and is more liable to emotional shutdown, which can make things tricky. This was especially difficult before I received my diagnosis, as I was trying to understand my own emotional landscape through a neurotypical paradigm.
I am someone diagnosed in adulthood. Prior to diagnosis I might experience emotional shutdown – during which I will feel nothing at all – and look at my partner, this person whom I love, and yet feel nothing. If a neurotypical person were to look at their partner and feel nothing they would worry; they would question their emotions and likely conclude the spark was gone. I used to do the same, reasoning that I could not possibly love them if I could look at them and feel nothing.
Now, post-diagnosis with all the power that knowledge brings me, when I look at a partner and feel nothing my first thought is very practical. “Ah, maybe I am in shutdown. I’ll wait a couple of days and see what I feel then.” This one thought alone could mean the relationship I am now in will last forever!
I want to reiterate that the good is by far and away in the majority with regards to the impact of autism on my sex life. I also want to say that like the bad, the ugly is far less likely to happen post-diagnosis.
The ugly is sexual abuse and rape. Women with autism are more likely to be victims of sexual abuse than our neurotypical peers, for all sorts of reasons. Perhaps a lack of social awareness puts us in positions of risk. Perhaps our natural openness or tendency to trust people makes us vulnerable. Perhaps some people interpret our directness as a come-on.
I am disinclined to try and untangle the reasons in my own life, because while I am certain my autism played a role in putting me into the situations in which I have experienced abuse, the blame for abuse should always rest on the shoulders of the abuser. No matter what role my autism played, they had no right to do those things.
Rape is harder still to talk about. I worry that the wording is too strong, but if someone has sex with you without your consent, that is rape. It is the word for it. It happens to people when they are drunk – perhaps sober they would have consented, perhaps they would not. They wake up, they have had sex with the person they met the night before – was that rape? For me, when I am in emotional shutdown I cannot connect with the parts of my brain that inform my consent. Being in shutdown is akin to being drunk or intoxicated in any other way. When I am in shutdown I cannot give consent. And I have had sex when in emotional shutdown. I reflect back on these times and consider whether, had my emotions been up and running, I would have said yes or no. I try to believe it would have been yes, but I know some of them to be no. Did that person rape me? Not knowingly, no. They were good people, people who would not have laid a finger on me if I had been drunk, but they did not know I was autistic, and at the time neither did I.
Diagnosis and the access to knowledge it brings is vital. It protects against the bad and the ugly and enables me to maximize the good – and fortunately for me there is an abundance of the good. Happy Valentines Day, The Mighty!
If you or a loved one is affected by sexual abuse or assault and need help, call the National Sexual Assault Telephone Hotline at 1-800-656-4673 to be connected with a trained staff member from a sexual assault service provider in your area.
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Photo by P. Bennett.