[Content warning for sex, sexual abuse, eugenics, child luring, ABA]
It is for some reason still confusing to most people that disabled people have sex. Even able-bodied disabled people are not expected to be sexual. This comes from our history of disabled people being forced-sterilized under eugenics laws, and cultural ideas that people with divergent brains cannot give valid sexual consent.
For so many decades, it was abominable to consider that disabled people were procreating and birthing another generation of disabled people. It was the goal of eugenics to “thin out” the number of disabled and neurodivergent people, and to promote the breeding of neurotypical people. But we are still here. Eugenics still echoes in the ways that we think about disabled and neurodivergent family life, and this has caused barriers to healthy sex lives for autistic people.
Many autistic people who were in special education classes did not receive sex education, like their peers. Because of this, topics like consent, bodily autonomy, choice, relationship abuse, and sexual health were not taught to them. Even if they were taught, how can any lessons about consent and bodily autonomy be taken seriously when BCBA’s are grabbing their wrists and punishing them for behaving in ways that are intolerable to typical people? How can we teach a child not to take candy from people who want to sexually abuse them, and that they should take candy from a BCBA as a reward for acceptable behaviour? How can we teach an autistic child how to differentiate between people who use positions of social authority like priests and Scout leaders to sexually abuse people in their care, and the autism professionals that they will be punished for not obeying?
Being raised up in this environment where you are at the mercy of professionals and authority figures, while other children are being taught the importance of their own autonomy, sets us up for normalizing relationship abuse and sexual abuse. An abuser who pouts and gets angry at us for not making ourselves sexually available when they want feels an awful lot like the caregiver or teacher who pouted and got angry at us for stimming in class. As we were taught to live to impress the people with authority in our life, so too were we taught to live to please anybody who claims authority over our bodies.
When we do find sexual partners who respect our bodies and respect our autonomy, we are sometimes told that they are with us because it is easy to make a disabled person consent to sex. We are also told that we have few choices, and we need to “settle for what we can get”. These are deeply hurtful sentiments that are too common.
Neurodivergent people have the right to refuse sex from anybody for any reason, just like anybody else. We have a right to healthy and fulfilling sexual relationships, and to have our autonomy respected. And we have a right to be alone if nobody in our lives can live up to these very simple expectations.
To promote healthy sexual relationships for autistic people, we need to expand what “sex” is. As sex is any bodily stimulation shared between people, if the one-dimensional “neurotypical sex” is dangerously stimulating to the sensory profile of an autistic person, or not stimulating enough, autistic people can change what “sex” means in order for it to be satisfying. Senses and stimulation can change to meet each individual’s needs. It is our body, and our relationship. Nobody outside of our bedroom can tell us if we’re doing it wrong.
We also need to expand how consent is given and taken away. Verbal cues such as “I want you” and “stop” are not useful when an autistic person is in non-verbal space, as we often go into when we are overstimulated; the circumstance where we will most definitely need to be communicating that we need this to stop. Healthy autistic sex will have multiple cues for starting and stopping, utilizing both verbal and non-verbal communication. For example, three hard taps on a bed, covering the face with one or both hands, or violent twisting of the body could be non-verbal cues to stop. Ignoring non-verbal cues to stop sex must be taken as seriously as verbal cues to stop. The non-verbal cues must be recognized as if the person was screaming “STOP!!” at the top of their lungs.
We also need adequate sex education for autistic youth and adults, to teach those important lessons about consent, bodily autonomy, sexual health, and how to recognize abuse. We need these teachings delivered using the preferred communication of the autistic person receiving the lesson. And more than that, we need adults to model these teachings about consent, and respect the bodily autonomy of autistic people of any age.