Rape Culture, Autism, Ableism, Body Language and Consent

Before I start this post, a few disclaimers:

Firstly, this post comes with trigger warnings for rape, rape culture, and ableism.

Second, I do not speak for all autistic people here, or even for all autistic men.

And third, and probably most importantly, I have an incredible amount of privilege as a cis het allosexual man who has been lucky enough never to have his consent violated in any but the most minor of ways. That means that when it comes to discussions of less-privileged people’s experiences around sexual assault, sexual harassment, and frankly even normal dating experiences, you should listen to those people, and not to me, where we differ.

All that being said, I am underprivileged in a couple of ways, and the most important here is that I am autistic, and something I’ve seen a lot in recent days has been rape culture and ableism working synergistically with each other in ways I find deeply disturbing. So I’m going to talk a little about that here, so maybe people reading this won’t fall into the particular pitfall I’m seeing others fall into (even as I’m undoubtedly going to fall into others myself).

As background, there is some discussion going on at the moment of a story about a minor celebrity. I — and pretty much all the women I know, and most of the men I personally associate with who’ve commented on it — read that story as the celebrity being a dangerous sexual predator who repeatedly sexually assaulted a woman. Some men on the Internet, though, claim to read the story as being “a bad date”, “a sad story about mixed messages” and so on.

Now from this, two takes have arisen that I find wrong in equally important ways.

One of those takes is “he clearly got mixed signals, it’s no-one’s fault, mixed messages are A Thing and it’s not his fault if her body language was difficult to read”. Now, before we go *any* further, I will point out that two problems with this are, firstly, that in this particular story the woman said “no”, explicitly, clearly, and repeatedly, and secondly that, as Dale Smith put it on Twitter, “if you’re getting mixed messages that means that some of the messages you’re getting are telling you to stop”. Either of those, even ignoring anything I say later, would be enough in itself to demolish this argument utterly.

The other take, though, is one I’ve seen being made by non-shitty people (unlike the first) and is something along the lines of “any man who says he can’t read obvious signals from someone’s body language is a liar and probably a rapist.”

Now, I completely understand the thought process behind that, and largely agree with it. But “largely” is not the same as “wholly”, and there’s a very important exception there — there really are people who can’t read body language.

Blind people, most obviously, can’t see body language in the most literal way. But also, many (not all) autistic people, including myself, can’t read body language, certainly not well enough to interpret it with any fluency in the moment. (I can, sometimes, pick up a little of what someone is trying to communicate, if I try very hard, but in much the same way I can pick up a little of Greek after having done a year of Classical Greek in school aged twelve and only getting 33% in the exam — I can sound out most of the letters, guess at the meaning of some words based on their resemblance to English, but have a working vocabulary of two-and-a-bit words (I just went through it in my head — I can remember, I think, the words for man, bull, and pull, but I’m not sure about the last one)).

That’s something that differs between autistic people, and it’s not a hard-and-fast rule that no autistic person can pick up on body language — hell, after twelve years of marriage, I am almost able to guess whether or not my wife needs a hug without her saying so with almost fifty percent accuracy — but there are definitely people out there, not a large number as a proportion of the population, but a large number in absolute terms, who can’t read body language.

And… frankly, I’ve found the large numbers of people saying that we don’t exist — even though they’re doing so for the best motives, for the motive of trying to stop rape, something that I couldn’t support more — a little distressing today. Almost traumatising. Because we do exist.

But the crucial thing here is that that does not mean, contra the human excrement making the first point above, that women just have to accept being raped by people like me as a fact of life. Because being unable to read body language does not make one a rapist. Being a piece-of-shit rapist makes someone a rapist.

The “logic” of the first group implies that men think “I’m not sure from her body language whether this person wants to have sex with me or not. Oh well, better not check, I’d better just rape them,” and that this is a completely reasonable thing to think. It is not.

Those of us who can’t read body language have a responsibility, firstly to make that clear to anyone we’re trying to communicate with about something important, which consent is (in those cases where we know it — there are people who are unaware of their limitations, and who assume themselves to be neurotypical, but even those people aren’t excused from the second part of this), and secondly to *use alternative means* to ensure that partners are entirely willing. Asking “are you OK?” “Let me know if there’s anything you’d like me to do differently.” “Can I [do X]?” “Would you like to [do X]?” “Are you enjoying this?” — those sorts of things are the absolute responsibility of anyone who doesn’t want to do harm. And those things are not just possible, but *easy*.

And on top of that, there is always the simple option — if you’re not sure, stop. Even if the person has given verbal consent, freely and without intimidation or coercion, it is always best to err on the side of caution. When the worst case for stopping is that you miss out on sex, and the worst case for not stopping is rape, stopping is always the best option — and knowing that does not rely at all on being able to read body language.

So there is absolutely no excuse whatsoever for rape or sexual assault. Being unable to read body language does not magically remove culpability for harm caused to other people, and it is *the responsibility of the person who might cause the harm* to find ways to ensure that the other person is safe and comfortable, and if you can’t do that you shouldn’t be having sex at all. (An analogy here — I have a motor-coordination problem that means that were I to get behind the wheel of a car I would probably crash into people. Having that disability is not my fault, but it would still be my fault were I to drive into people.)

And ironically, I think one of the few things that *might* raise the risk of “accidental” assault would be telling people that “everyone can read body language”. In that circumstance, victims would have a reasonable expectation that their body language was being understood and there was no need to verbalise a lack of consent, and the rapist might have the honest belief that he could read body language (because “everybody can read body language”), so I think that in a small way saying that men can all read body language actually contributes to the rape culture it’s attempting to oppose.

(Even if that did happen, the rapist would still be at fault. I want to make that *extremely* clear. No-one can or should use that as an excuse — see above. Rape culture is a thing, and something that needs to be fought on a societal level, but it never absolves the individuals who commit rape from their individual responsibilities.)

But luckily, you don’t have to make that argument at all. You don’t have to say “you could read her body language”. You can simply say “mixed messages mean some of the messages say ‘no’, so stop”. You can tell men to take responsibility for their actions, and to ensure they have active, continual, consent, freely given. And you can do that without erasing disabled people.

This blog post is supported by the generosity of my backers on Patreon. Patreon’s well-publicised missteps last month led to the level of support dropping dramatically, so I appreciate even more than usual the people who continue to back me, and now would be a better time than ever to join them.

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5 Responses to Rape Culture, Autism, Ableism, Body Language and Consent

  1. Jess says:

    I’m an autistic woman who’s experienced a shit-ton of sexual aggression – starting at age 11 – and I estimate that PRECISELY ZERO of it came from men with ‘difficulty reading body language’.

    Actually, men on the spectrum are usually so worried about making a mistake and accidentally giving offense that one practically has to signal ‘enthusiastic consent’ with fireworks and sky-writing before they get the message. And then one has to determine whether they are enthusiastically consenting too, or just going along because they don’t know how to say they don’t really want to.

    It’s neurotypical assholes who rape and harass. Those bastards have NO problem reading body language that says “I don’t want to, but I don’t know how to stop you.”

    • Andrew Hickey says:

      Absolutely agreed, except that I don’t think *only* neurotypicals are rapists and harassers. I think rapists and harassers are *far more likely* to be NT, because autistic people tend to have more cognitive empathy, a horror of breaking rules, and a general scrupulosity, but I wouldn’t want to say that *only* NTs are rapists, because sadly being autistic isn’t completely incompatible with being an srsehole.

  2. David Lewis says:

    For another perspective on how autism has been used, google the Australian television personality don Burke. It is horrific how he self diagnoses as autistic to excuse some of his behaviour. It’s full of triggers.

  3. jude314159 says:

    you’re assuming “rape culture” is only a problem when it comes to serious sexual assaults. I agree that men like you (well intentioned, clueless about body language) don’t rape, but men like you can be very scary.

    the “what if he’s autistic?” defense is already used to “explain” sexual harassment and assault. it has the opposite effect to the one you intend. if you tell a woman that her harasser/assailant/rapist couldn’t help it because body language is too complicated, most of the time you’re defending a man who *does* know better, very occasionally you’re shielding an autistic man who doesn’t know better from short term pain (while allowing him to keep sabotaging his own social life), and every time you’re telling the victim her pain doesn’t matter as much as his would if he was autistic.

    a female stranger you’re trying to make friends with isn’t ever going to say “hey, I know you didn’t mean it but [thing you did] was creepy” because she *doesn’t* know you didn’t mean it, and you’re literally outnumbered 100:1 by men who know full well not to do that. she won’t tell you, because her survival instincts are telling her not to. what you need, is for people who know you to stop making allowances (and expecting other people to do the same) because you’re reading body language as a non-native speaker and start telling you what behaviours are sabotaging your social life.

    to that end, a non-exhaustive list of creepy things men have said & done to me that have been justified by ignorance includes:
    – pulling me onto a bed & pinning me down
    – when I said I didn’t want to talk, repeatedly asking “why?”
    – cornering me the next day to ask why I wouldn’t hug him
    – a stranger asking for my phone number & address. at a bus stop. at 1 am.
    don’t do these things.

    • Andrew Hickey says:

      I think you’re misreading what I had to say. To be very clear, I do *not* think, and have never said, that rape culture is “only a problem when it comes to serious sexual assaults”.

      I was also *not* defending people who harass. I said *the opposite*. I have repeatedly, over and over again, including in this very post, said that ignorance is *not* a justification for harassment.

      NONE of the behaviours you mention are ones I have engaged in, or would engage in. They are also not behaviours that are excusable because of autism. You are accusing me here of *making precisely the kind of defense that I was arguing against*.

      NONE of those things you mention are things I would defend, and NONE are excusable because of autism or any other communication disability (at least so long as that communication disability does not have other cognitive effects).

      I did not make a “but what if he’s autistic” defence of that kind of behaviour. I *do not* ever make that defence, and spend a *significant* amount of time telling people they should not defend harassing behaviour by claiming the harasser is autistic, because that throws both victims of harassment *and* autistic people under the bus.

      The sheer level of ableism and incorrect assumptions in your comment is quite staggering. You really, really, have no idea what autistic people are *actually* like. They are not the ones who have behaved like that to you, and nor are they the ones defending it. To quote from https://miss-s-b.dreamwidth.org/2017/11/02/autism_sexual_assault_bullshit.html by my friend Jennie:

      “Finally, we know we are bad at social cues. Honestly, we do. We can read and everything, so we know what you neurotypicals are saying about us. Because we know this, the vast, VAST majority of us err hugely on the side of caution in all social interactions, whether sexually charged or not. This is probably why so many people subscribe to the myth that autistic people are standoffish or aloof. We’re actually just terrified of crossing the invisible boundaries. For an example, I’m a reallly huggy person, but I always ask before hugging someone, even if I have known them forever. Even my best friends and partners. Even my own daughter. A person’s bodily integrity is absolutely sacrosanct, and touching someone without permission would be literally, actively painful for me”

      That “we know we are bad at social cues” is the clue there. When you’re talking about “men like me” — and you did, specifically say, “men like you”, without knowing me — when you’re talking about autistic people who are aware of our communication problems, for the most part we are *so* aware of the possible problems that we literally do *nothing* for fear of causing offence.

      The fact that you talk about “a female stranger you’re trying to make friends with” kind of proves how little you understand. Here is, in total, a list of every conversation I have had in person with people who are not my wife since January 1:

      That’s it. I do not try to make friends with strangers. EVER. PRECISELY BECAUSE I know that there is a strong likelihood of me giving off creepy or scary social cues. And that goes for pretty much every autistic person who is even moderately well-intentioned and realises their impairment.

      I am not defending autistic harassers any more than I am defending non-autistic harassers. I do not believe, and did not state, that the harasser’s motive matters in the slightest.

      And I think you owe me an apology for posting what amounts to ableist hate-speech here, in response to a version of my post which you made up in your own head, rather than the one I wrote.

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