Autistic Boundaries: Flirting & Assault

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It’s well documented that autistic people are more vulnerable to sexual assault than their neurotypical counterparts.

One of many reasons for this, and the topic of this blog post, is an uncertainty about appropriateness of touch. I’ve heard some say this is about sensory processing, but I’d personally say this issue is less about physically processing the touch and more about processing the social context of touch.

I’ve noticed that autistic women especially are at risk of this type of boundary-pushing, just because the way our society is arranged leaves women more vulnerable in general to this type of victimization, but I’ve heard of this being an issue for autistic men as well. Pretty much across the board, neurotypical people are taught (both directly and indirectly) that flirting can never involve clear communication*.

Combine that with the fact that men specifically are taught to flirt by chasing, pressing boundaries, and trying again and again when they are told some form of “no”, and I’ve noticed that neurotypical men tend to misread autistic shyness or confusion as an invitation to try harder, and not “give up” with regards to flirting.

“But what about the men,” you might ask? Again, women can also be predatory, and autistic men are sometimes on the receiving end of this as well. I lean towards using heterosexual examples where women are on the receiving end of this both because it is a systemic rather than case-by-case issue, and because I myself am a women, and using my own experiences to illustrate.

At its mildest, these types of touch and boundary pushing can cause unease and discomfort when—for example—an autistic person isn’t sure what to make of a coworker who is constantly staring at them, touching them, and following them around the office. At worst, this is why autistic people are massively more likely to be victims of rape and sexual assault.

Personally, I’ve found that neurotypical men have a tendency to (seemingly intentionally) interpret my lack of reaction for an invitation to continue with inappropriate overtures, especially in the workplace.

Men seem to love to touch women on their lower backs, which is absolutely inappropriate in any context but a close (typically sexual) relationship. This also happens to be an overwhelming sensory experience that makes me shut down, so if, say, a coworker rests his hand on my lower back (to make a point? I’m not sure why men do this but again it happens constantly), I’m not going to throw him off or tell him to stop, I’m going to freeze.

If you are a man and having a hard time imagining why a woman being touched in a vulnerable spot by a man would be so unnerving, imagine a man much taller and stronger than you putting his hand on your throat out of nowhere. Even if his intentions aren’t “threatening,” being touched this way is very unsettling!

A neurotypical woman might react differently than I to this type of touch, if only because she would have more of a choice to communicate in that moment versus my tendency to overload and freeze up.

Additionally, I’ve found that with many men, establishing even overt sensory boundaries isn’t really possible. I once worked with a man who insisted on hugging me hello every time I saw him. He knew I was autistic, and didn’t like hugs, and his response was to chuckle and say he was going to do it anyway. He had no ill intentions; this is just how men are raised to treat women, and most think nothing of it. I’ve heard many similar stories from autistic people, both male and female. (Again, this is a systemic problem with how men treat women, but I’ve both heard of and seen women treat men this way so it definitely does happen on an individual basis.)

And keep in mind, the above examples were all workplace-related. It can get much worse at bars or parties, or, the ultimate risk, dates. Apps like Tinder can be extremely dangerous for women, and I’d also argue that they’re potentially even more risky for autistic people, men and women alike—of course the literal physical danger is highest for women who are dating men, but these risk factors affect all autistic people, in both heterosexual and homosexual social interactions. How is a person who is both overwhelmed by unexpected physical touch, and unaware of how to socially deal with someone behaving in a way that makes them uncomfortable, meant to handle a pushy date who keeps physically escalating despite their partner’s discomfort? Not well, to say the least.

This is a complicated topic that shines light not only on issues with autistic/allistic communication, but on our culture’s rules for interpersonal relationships in general. Flirting by definition is subtle, and we have for hundreds of years romanticized boundary-pushing (and crossing). But at the very least, we need to be talking about this. Especially as it pertains to our most vulnerable populations.

P.S. Seriously, if you have any insight as to why men put their hands on women’s lower backs constantly, but don’t do that to other men, please leave a comment. I genuinely have no idea why this is so common, and I consider myself pretty good with body language, so this is one of my social-translation white whales.


*For more on the why and how behind flirting as indirect communication, see this wonderful video explanation.


13 thoughts on “Autistic Boundaries: Flirting & Assault

  1. As much as I found your blog interesting, again I feel I’m not aloud to say anything negative about it being as I am white straight male. A category where you’re automatically the bad guy, where you can’t hope to feel what it is like to be in their shoes. I can tell you I have always had huge empathy for people suffering in all aspects, I myself delft in similar situations in the past. Like what you said about comparing being having a hand to the throat is somewhat the same as a efectionate touch on the back and thats not me 100% disagreeing with you. To be fair I rarely do it, so I don’t know what type of men you come across. I wouldn’t do it to someone I just met, but where I’m from it’s a form of endearment.

    It’s not always vindictive or has a hidden sexual motive, it’s just shows you’re in that stage the you’re conferrable with them. To be fair I’ve only worked with one person that had autism (that I know off) and he was very open about it and a cousin with a case of extreme autism that she would definitely let you know if you did something wrong! You’ve probably had some bad experiences and I just think what you wrote might scare autistic readers that hasn’t dealt with this yet?

    Again I’m not saying you’re complely wrong and I enjoy reading your work, plus it keeps me weary on how to deal with people who are autistic.

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  2. Kirsten,

    I think you are a wonderful writer. Thanks for keeping me on your list. You have a wonderful clarity of expression.

    Thanks!

    Doug+

    Sent from my iPhone

    >

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  3. Bounderies,..not all men with Autism are like this .i am not i have aspergers and m.e .i will say it is Sensory
    issues .i have aspergers ,m.e .long list health issues.i take part in a lot lot research these include …
    sexuality .sex, sex education .bi-sexual and more ..sexual abuse
    my blog,http;//mark-kent.webs.com
    twitter.supersnooper

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  4. “He knew I was autistic, and didn’t like hugs, and his response was to chuckle and say he was going to do it anyway.”

    I would actually say that DOES constitute ill-intent.

    He might not have intended to sexually assault you or escalate any further than what he was doing, but persistent intent to violate your stated physical boundaries against your wishes IS bad intent.

    Liked by 2 people

  5. neverever saw a man puts his hand on the lower back of a woman who he is not in romance with. is it visible anywhere outside the US? i cannot recall this even in hollywood movies, which do tend to capture paradigms of body language.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. i think the lower back touching is men forcing bodily intimacy from them to you, establishing dominance in that area and its like the first step in saying “i can touch your body (intimately) however i want without your consent” and it may or may not be a conscious thing, definitely a learned behavior of toxic masculinity

    Liked by 2 people

  7. The way neurotypicals learn to flirt and progress relationships is often alien to me, and I’m a neurally atypical now-middle-aged man. I don’t really understand why many NT men behave the way they do with women, having listened to the women in my family, my girl friends growing up and throughout my adult life, and plain old observations over time and in varied situations. I also don’t really understand NT women’s flirting, signaling, etc., and that’s from finding out misconceptions and disappointments they spoke of to me or to others well after I missed or misinterpreted their behavior/language. I do not default to the idea that anyone is at all attracted to me, and my tendency towards literalism and missing what are considered widely to be common, simple social cues means I miss what is being aimed at me *and* my behavior is misconstrued as either playing hard-to-get, coy, or being uninterested in them as people. I am also commonly presumed to be gay because I’m not what anyone would call a skirt-chaser. I don’t touch unless I am given direct permission, and I ask before presuming or doing lots of things. (I’m rambling a bit. Apologies. There’s just a lot in your post I can relate to, including dealing with violence/aggression when dealing with NTs assumptions/presumptions. “Flirting & Assault” is right.)

    As far as the hand on the lower back goes… When I have bodyguarded friends and acquaintances who cosplay at various comic/tv/movie/whatever conventions I would do it to maintain safety contact while navigating crowded floors full of frequently grabby fans. Many men see it as an indication of “She’s with me”, and it does seem to make an impact. Far fewer situations arose in those moments. (I was instructed to start doing it years ago by a friend of mine, who was a professional cosplayer. I’m 6’1″, and she’s 5’2″. She said it would work well, and it always did.) I believe the gesture/touch is an outward indicator of coupling or of protection. It is also used presumptively by men in efforts to rope in women with “dominant” body language and touch. Men do talk about it sometimes. I have heard the conversations, and I understand the gesture appears in books about how to pick up women. Regarding people as objects is just boggling to me, but it seems to be quite common. /rambling

    Thank you for your post.

    sincerely,

    M.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. I think men might touch women in the lower back as this area is close to the body parts that are tied to reproduction, sad to say, much like dogs sniff one another in the rear. Even though we are “civilized” we still many instinctive behaviors from early humans. It is no doubt not acceptable and something we men ought to learn to stop.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. “… if you have any insight as to why men put their hands on women’s lower backs constantly….”

    Because they are evil shits. Alas, I can conceive of no other reason why anyone would touch another person that they do not know intimately. Touching people IN ANY WAY is called “battery,” and is against the law in all sane societies.

    Liked by 1 person

  10. thank you for this very timely post. i just commented on your consent post from last year, but since you’ve named the elephant in the room i’ll just be blatantly honest and share: i was sexually assaulted earlier this month. by someone who frequents my workplace. we had set a date Specifically to Just Cuddle. i expressed very clear boundaries about not wanting to do anything sexual. he agreed to that. and then once i was in his bed, he pushed and pushed and pushed. i held boundaries a handful of times, physically and verbally (which is SO HARD and SO NEW for me, and i was SO PROUD of myself), and then went into shutdown. i am so fucking pissed about it, and so tired of this happening. this time, at least, because of all the work i’ve been doing lately and FINALLY (just over a month ago) finding things written by adult female-bodied people with autism, i’m able to add all this data in with the stuff i know about myself based on past trauma, and am filling in SO many information gaps about myself, and shit is all making sense.

    which means i’m also having SO much more empathy for myself, and am figuring out how to clear space in my brain to think through this stuff as a structural problem, calling for support from friends and family, and figuring out ways of getting support that actually work for me. hearing you describe this process from an autism perspective instead of just a person-with-trauma-history perspective is So helpful.

    and really, confirms my suspicion that i basically should not try to date unless i’m living in an intentional community (read: modern commune) or some other environment where radical social norms are in place that make safe communication and boundaries much more likely for me. otherwise i’m looking at going into dates with a disclaimer at this point. like, Hey, we’re just now meeting, but guess what? i have all these weak spots, and if you push me, i will break, and if you break me, when i manage to put myself back together again the vengeance will be fierce. ready to sign on for that? yes/no. also i’m the best cuddler. but ya gotta be game for some really blatant conversation. no subtle flirting here.

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  11. I see this often in South African men. My father, my ex husband, colleagues I have respect for and even my Aspie friend. The hand does not necessarily touch the back, but even if it does it would be a light touch. Sometimes when letting his lady companion walk first by putting his hand lightly on her back to direct her in a certain direction. Personally I experience this as a caring gesture and not offencive at all. Putting his hand on my bum however, is another story 🙂

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