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.