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.


7 thoughts on “Autistic Boundaries: Flirting & Assault

  1. “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

  2. 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

  3. 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

  4. 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

  5. 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

  6. “… 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

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