Monday, October 12, 2009

But What About the (Aspie) Men??!

There's a phenomenon I've been noticing off and on for a long time in online discussions of rape culture (most recently, here), and the snap decisions women have to make all the time about how much to trust each random man* they encounter: when women start talking about what sorts of cues and impressions tell them to avoid a particular man, other people pipe up to tell them they're being unfair.

Most often, the appeal takes this form: What if he's just got Asperger's? Those Asperger people, they can't tell what kind of signals they're sending, or that they might be creeping you out! Give creepy-looking dudes a chance!

This derailing tactic also commonly appears in discussions of consent, where it usually plays out like this: Feminist blogger writes about the myriad social pressures on women to say yes (or at least not say no) to sex they don't want; feminist blogger suggests that our understanding of what rape and consent are should reflect this, and proposes a model of consent resembling this one, or this one, or this one; whatever model the feminist blogger espouses, it's going to put more responsibility on men to make sure their female partners really want to do X sexual activity; male commenters pop up complaining that women's body language is just too danged hard to read, and if the feminist blogger's plan were adopted, hardly anybody would ever have heterosexual sex ever again!

The man with Asperger's usually makes his entrance here, as an extreme example of Everyman's dilemma.

Of course, this is all perfectly true --- autistic people do often fail to understand nonverbal cues, social context, or how other people are likely to interpret their actions, which does mean that straight autistic men will probably creep out a lot of strange women as they try to teach themselves to flirt (or not; I don't know how to flirt and have no desire ever to learn) --- and sometimes this fact can be brought up and discussed in a non-derailing manner**.

Far more often, though, it's brought up not to add anything to the discussion at all, but to end it. Straight men's oft-proclaimed incapacity to decipher the subtle ambiguities of straight women's facial expressions and body language places all the onus for creating a safer, more egalitarian heterosexuality back onto women's shoulders.

An example, from this comment thread at Hugo Schwyzer's blog, is this response to this earlier comment:

You [referring to previous commenter] have already said that some of the men in your experience can't read the non-verbal clues. That wasn't me. That was you.
So that's the way it is.
In other words, that's the world now.
It makes no difference if men are hardwired or if men are clueless. Your experience has told us that some aren't picking up your nonverbal clues. So what are you going to do about it in the immediate future?

Wishing won't make it change.
That's the way it is, and wishing won't make it change. So either do something about it (all by yourself, naturally, since we men are clearly unwilling or unable to help you) or shut up and quit bothering us!

"saying many men currently DO NOT correctly interpret nonverbal signals (or notice them at all) is not the same thing as saying that men CAN'T. do you seriously not get the difference between those two statements?"
I think this is unfortunately both true to some extent: a) men (on average) don't learn to be as good as they can be in interpreting non-verbal communication. This is something that can be dealt with if there was a real recognition that they needed help in this area, that not everything is "naturally" given or not, and b) men (people with a male brain structure) will on average ceteris paribus never be as good as women (people with a female brain structure) are on average when it comes to interpreting non-verbal communication. There are researchers who suspect that "autism is an extreme version of the male condition." (Simon Baron-Cohen)

"Many of these sex differences [in empathizing and systematizing] are seen in adults, which might lead to the conclusion that all they reflect are differences in socialization and experience. But some differences are also seen extremely early in development, which may suggest that biology also plays a role. For example, girls tend to talk earlier than boys, and in the second year of life their vocabularies grow at a faster rate. One-year-old girls also make more eye contact than boys of their age.

In my work I have summarized these differences by saying that males on average have a stronger drive to systemize, and females to empathize. Systemizing involves identifying the laws that govern how a system works. Once you know the
laws, you can control the system or predict its behavior. Empathizing, on the other hand, involves recognizing what another person may be feeling or thinking, and responding to those emotions with an appropriate emotion of one's own.


...

We know that culture plays a role in the divergence of the sexes, but so does biology. For example, on the first day of life, male and female newborns pay attention to different things. On average, at 24 hours old, more male infants will look at a mechanical mobile suspended above them, while more female infants will look at a human face."
[link]
There are several rhetorical sleights of hand at work in the invoke-the-Aspie gambit. First, there's the handy conflation of autistic men (who, if we use the current thinking that about 1% of people are autistic, and that the ratio of autistic men to women is 4:1, should represent about 0.8% of people, or 1.6% of men --- a tiny minority, even if not as tiny as it used to be reckoned) with all men. In the first comment I quote, the argument is that because some men really can't read nonverbal signals, no man should be expected to***.

This line of argumentation also completely erases autistic women from the discussion, by making "autism" synonymous with "clueless, socially awkward man who can't understand his mysterious female partner." Autistic women might have that kind of problem (or we might not, since I think we might be likelier than autistic men to be partnered with other autistics****, with whom there isn't quite so much of a body-language barrier), or our difficulties with nonverbal cues, social context and other stuff falling under the umbrella of "intuition" or "common sense" might take a more sinister form. Earlier in this post, I mentioned the snap decisions most women make every day to try to minimize their chances of being raped by a stranger. Such snap decisions are often going to rest on evidence of the type that's completely invisible to many autistic women.

This tactic is also a way to use intersectionality against feminists: a feminist who confesses hirself unsympathetic to the hypothetical Aspie bachelor's plight opens hirself up to accusations of ableism. (Or, in the weaker version of this appeal, where the hypothetical man is not an actual autistic but just a well-meaning, socially awkward, geeky guy, the feminist becomes the stuck-up Mean Girl who won't give the sweet but wallflowerish Nice Guy the time of day. Since most women have been socialized to be nice, and polite, and not selfish or superficial, this high-schoolish taunt can have surprising power even over grown women).

*The
Shapely Prose guest post I linked to uses a wonderful phrase to describe this: "Schrodinger's Rapist." Every man hovers in a sort of quantum superposition between Rapist and Not-Rapist in the eyes of the women who have to interact with him, and often women will err on the side of caution --- assume every man you meet is a rapist --- because the alternative --- trusting a man who later rapes you --- is horrible. More horrible than having to live as if half the people you run into on a daily basis are violent criminals who will hurt you if they're given the chance.

**I think the commenter at Shapely Prose who first brought up autism accomplished this. She might've been the first person I've ever seen raise that issue in good faith, though.


***I do hate that the discussion of consent always goes there, just because there are people who can't read those signals, and such people do sometimes have sex. Where I part ways with the "What about the Aspie men?!" crowd is that I insist that, if a man can't get a reasonably clear idea of whether his partner is enjoying herself just by looking at her, he should stop and ask her. Is that really so hard?

****If you're wondering how that can possibly be true, remember there are a lot more diagnosed male autistics than female ones.

22 comments:

Anonymous said...

Hey there doll you wanna F**** or whatever that strange suppressed word was in Jim Morrisons rendition of the End....

The aspies males assumption of the right to get his rocks off never mind that it requires mutal consent is one of these annoying socially constructed dilemmas.

kaz said...

Hey, just wanted to say thank you for this post. I tried to comment on that post, but I have this thing where I have to read all the comments on a post before commenting and at around #500 I decided it wasn't that necessary after all. But. Anyway.

I agree with you; it annoys me massively that "what about the Aspie men?!" gets brought up as a derailing tactic, both because it is derailing and because it makes it very hard to *seriously* discuss the issues about the Aspie men. As you point out, the points they bring up are true, and it's a tricky intersectional issue (e.g. I think Aspie men are *much* more likely to back down and leave you alone if you explicitly go "hey, I am not comfortable with this", but that puts the onus on women to do something potentially dangerous again).

What frustrates me is that Aspie behaviour doesn't map one-to-one to creepy NT guy behaviour. I mean, sure, not everyone has Aspiedar, but there are many behaviours we tend to mark as "creepy" that are actually not so much symptomatic of manipulative jerks as of autism, mental illness or other neuroatypicality. I'm pretty sure most women would consider stimming, or talking to yourself, or other such things very clear warning signs. I'm guilty of it myself, and I've had to mentally hit myself over the head with "you just avoided that guy because you were creeped out by his doing something *you do too*". I would like to see /that/ get discussed sometime, but as long as people are trying to use Aspie guys as a derailing method I don't think it's going to be happening.

Also, so much word on the Aspie women. Life becomes so very terrifying when you live in a world like it is described in that thread with the additional bonus that you can't actually tell the difference between creepy and non-creepy behaviour, and that your decision-making skills are so bad in short-term that chances are you'll talk to the guy anyway. (There have been incidents. :()

Also, something that should be noted: if creepy NT guys would stop being creepy, women could stop interpreting "creepy" as "rapist probability just went up" and instead as "autistic probability just went up", which would be nice for everyone involved.

Sarah said...

Fascinating post. I tend to think that descriptions of what "creepy people" look like do sometimes run into ableism--and not just autism, either--a few of the comments on Shapely Prose made me groan in that regard. (And for goodness' sake, people, learn to spell the word "Asperger's"!) But nevertheless there is that whole derailment issue. Thanks for starting a discussion where these issues can be discussed without privileging either maleness or neurotypicality.

kaz is so right in saying that autistic men are more likely to respond to explicit suggestions. I don't understand how it's potentially dangerous for a woman to give such a suggestion, though. I mean, if Creepy Guy is really Creepy Guy and not autistic guy, he's going to cause problems for you regardless, right? But maybe some Creepy Guys do respond badly to being told off directly. These situations are pretty incomprehensible to me.

Of course, I can't imagine most of the autistic men I know going up to random women and pestering them, either...

Lindsay said...

@Anonymous,
I must've missed that part of "The End" --- admittedly I haven't listened to the song all that often. I do often go crazy trying to figure out what a poorly enunciated word in a song is, though. So I'll be listening for that. :)

@Kaz,
I usually have that comment-reading compulsion, but once a thread gets over 200 or so comments long, I lose it. I read as many comments as hold my interest, but then I'm done. I won't usually comment on a thread that long, though, either.

And I was going to talk about, but ran out of steam, the tradeoff I see between more and less socially-aware women. I move through the world more or less without fear (well, okay, I'm afraid of cars. Them things are scary!) because I cannot perceive any of the things other women see as danger signals, and I am frankly too naive even to be looking for them. Part of this fearlessness is rational, since I am quite large and work out a lot, to the point that I'm now as strong as most guys who work out, but most of it is just that it doesn't occur to me that other people might pose a threat to me. I don't think about other people at all. And, now that I know something about rape culture, it does kind of worry me that I can't make the kinds of judgments more aware women can that might reduce my chances of having an "incident." (I talk to strangers whenever they talk to me, and sometimes I initiate random conversations. I have indeed had strange men say they find me attractive, and ask for a kiss or to date me or whatever. So far, either a "no," giving them one kiss and leaving, or telling them my age has sufficed. But I've definitely had the experience of having other people thinking of an interaction in sexual terms when I was not, and it *DOES* put one off balance).

I also totally agree with you that Aspie men are probably fairly likely to back off when you tell them explicitly that you're not interested. But not all of them will --- one of the commenters at Shapely Prose pointed out that, even if a man is autistic, that doesn't guarantee he won't rape you --- and, again, I don't blame women for not wanting to risk a confrontation.

Lindsay said...

Sarah, yes, I also hate the "privileging either maleness or neurotypicality" thing. Thanks for giving me a pithy way to describe it!

"I tend to think that descriptions of what 'creepy people' look like do sometimes run into ableism - and not just autism, either ..."

Yes, I thought there might be other disabilities that neurotypical/temporarily able-bodied people tended to read as "creepiness," but I couldn't think of any concrete examples besides autism as I was writing the post, and couldn't find a way to express it generally that wasn't a huge semantic mess. So thanks for bringing this up in the comments, it's definitely not an issue confined to autism.

I also think class and race figure into it, too --- men of color and men who read as lower-class get treated with a lot more suspicion when they're out in public than middle-class-seeming white men do, I think, because of most people's idea of what kind of person A Rapist is.

flewellyn said...

Excellent post.

As an actual man with Aspergers, the "Aspie derail" enrages me. It's true, in the past I have made mistakes in recognizing social cues, and frightened people as a result. In every case, when I found out, I was mortified, and tried everything possible to make up for it, most importantly by not doing it again.

Aspergers is NOT an excuse for not making the effort, and "asshole" is NOT on the Autism spectrum.

Meowser said...

Like I said in that monster thread on SP, the biiiiig difference between a skeezy NT guy who ignores your "go away" signals and an aspie guy who doesn't get them is this: The NT guy leering at you on the bus, by and large, doesn't give a shit what YOU want. He cares about having a belt notch to show his d00d friends, even imaginary ones. He really thinks he can wear you down, because that is a game that he cannot lose at the expense of his NT manhood.

The aspie guy, OTOH, is probably not interested in such member-measuring contests. And if he is, he will probably lose interest as soon as he is old enough to figure out that NT d00ds will never read him as "normal" and "one of them" no matter what. He just wants to make a connection, not for a belt notch but for healing. If you tell the aspie guy, "Excuse me, but I'd really like to go back to reading this book," or you pointedly ignore him and turn up your music after his greeting to you, he is more likely to get the hint that you are not interested in talking to him. It's not likely he will continue to slobber all over you after that, whereas most of us have experienced NT guys who have done exactly that, and worse, even after a direct declaration of disinterest.

Alyssa said...

What I like most about this post is this bit from one of the footnotes:

"I insist that, if a man can't get a reasonably clear idea of whether his partner is enjoying herself just by looking at her, he should stop and ask her. Is that really so hard?"

So right.

I do understand that a lot of auties/aspies can be afraid to ask these things, because they're afraid that they'll get a, "But you should know already!" response (sadly common), but a relationship of any kind (even just with a co-worker, or an acquaintance that you talk to on the bus for like five minutes each day) does require careful communication, especially when the partners are of different neurologies, and I think it's always better to be up front about what your intentions are.

(Full disclosure: I'm not a dude, but I'm forced to spend about half my time pretending to be one.)

Ali said...

Yes, I thought there might be other disabilities that neurotypical/temporarily able-bodied people tended to read as "creepiness," but I couldn't think of any concrete examples besides autism as I was writing the post, and couldn't find a way to express it generally that wasn't a huge semantic mess.

Another disability that comes to mind is cerebral palsy. My girlfriend has it, pretty mild, and on good days she has a limp. On bad ones it's like a drunken stagger. Combined with the classic cp hand (clenched fist, held up near the chest), I can see how some NTs might interpret that as distressing.

She puts up with my autism, I walk more slowly so she can keep up.

Snarkysmachine said...

I don't know about "good faith". I do know I find coded language tiresome and tend to ask people to unpack it when I see it. Sometimes I can't tell if it's just lazy writing or something decided more sinister. In this case it seems to be lazy writing.

I don't automatic default to aspie = creepy anymore than I default to male = rapist. I just like when people use words that haven't previously be used as coded language to "politely" discuss groups of people they'd rather not be bothered with.

shiva said...

I need to write much, much more of a response to this, because it cuts *very* close to home... but my own blog is probably the more appropriate place for it, and i need to seriously refurbish/restructure my blog first. But:

"In the first comment I quote, the argument is that because some men really can't read nonverbal signals, no man should be expected to***."

IMVHO, no man, woman, or person of any other gender should be expected to read nonverbal signals unless it has been specifically verbally negotiated beforehand.

Also, in my understanding, models of consent such as the Antioch model were designed specifically to get away from the whole culture of "nonverbal over verbal" and "explicitly talking about consent isn't sexy", which culture is IMO a product both of male privilege and of neurotypical privilege. So those objections to them just... don't make sense to me.

I think the BDSM culture has standards of explicit discussion that are (or would be, if many BDSM-phobic feminists were more willing to accept it) an excellently accessible model for "vanilla" sexual culture to follow to become less oppressive and more egalitarian (and have applications for a lot of impairment-related communication issues too).

There's also a whole lot of stuff coded into the word "creepy" (not just to do with disability, but class, race and gender expression/identity as well) that i think needs deconstruction. But, again, not the time/place for expanding here...

Anonymous said...

"...If you tell the aspie guy, "Excuse me, but I'd really like to go back to reading this book," or you pointedly ignore him and turn up your music after his greeting to you, he is more likely to get the hint that you are not interested in talking to him. It's not likely he will continue to slobber all over you after that, whereas most of us have experienced NT guys who have done exactly that, and worse, even after a direct declaration of disinterest..."

Do you recommend telling the guy "Excuse me, but I'd really like to go back to reading this book," or pointedly ignoring him and turning up your music after his greeting to you, when the woman he's making uncomfortable *doesn't know* and *can't tell* whether he's aspie or NT?

Anonymous said...

Lindsay, are you aware that women are FAR MORE LIKELY to be raped by someone they already know or are acquainted with than a stranger out in a public place? You cannot tell if a man is a rapist simply by how they *appear* to you from a distance or even what vibe you might pick up from them. Many rapists are extremely suave and know how to fool women into trusting them...And in turn, the woman goes home with him or gets in a car with him and is then sexually assaulted. Then again, since aspies aren't a politically approved group it's okay to take aim at aspie men who don't belong to other politically approved groups like people of color or lower class men. You say that there's no guarantee that autistic men won't rape you? Well there's also no guarantee that NT men won't rape you! And yet, you imply that autistic men are somehow more inclined to rape you because they can't perceive social cues.

Anonymous said...

Hey Anonymous at October 3, 2012 at 12:54 PM:

"And in turn, the woman goes home with him or gets in a car with him and is then sexually assaulted."

boils down to

"I won't hurt you because you won't let me get close to you! It's the guys who you do let get close to you who will hurt you! So let me get that close to you too!"

Of course it's the unthreatening-seeming ones who are far more likely to *get close enough* to hurt someone. No wonder they're far more likely to hurt someone!

Letting down one's guard and inviting the already-threatening-seeming ones to get just as close...

...merely lets the already-threatening-seeming ones who *do* mean one harm, the ones who actually mean the threatening social cues they send one, to get close enough to hurt one too.

Anonymous said...

"And yet, you imply that autistic men are somehow more inclined to rape you because they can't perceive social cues."

Getting raped is painful!

Getting raped is painful when the rapist knows that you don't want sex and doesn't care.

Getting raped *is just as painful* when the rapist can't tell that you don't want sex.

So, if someone's already not reading your social cues to back off, which makes you unable to trust him to read your social cues that you don't want sex, then of course you shouldn't have to give him a chance to get even closer...

Anonymous said...

>>Getting raped *is just as painful* when the rapist can't tell that you don't want sex.<<

The motivation for rape is the desire for POWER over someone else and NOT the desire for sexual gratification!

If you are out in public and a man starts following you but not trying to talk to you, then you DO have cause for alarm.

Trying to conflate an unattractive, socially awkward stranger approaching you with a sexual predator wanting to rape you is astoundingly ignorant.

If you get approached by a guy you're not interested in or who's making you uncomfortable, then be very clear and direct and tell him to LEAVE YOU ALONE.

Anonymous said...

"Trying to conflate an unattractive, socially awkward stranger approaching you with a sexual predator wanting to rape you is astoundingly ignorant."

What do you expect the rest of us to do, magically read your mind to tell that you're not a sexual predator when you approach us doing and saying the exact same things a sexual predator does and says when approaching?

"If you get approached by a guy you're not interested in or who's making you uncomfortable, then be very clear and direct and tell him to LEAVE YOU ALONE."

Lots of people approaching us that way get *even more aggressive* when told so bluntly to leave us alone, that's why we drop hints instead in our attempts to get away.

Anonymous said...

">>Getting raped *is just as painful* when the rapist can't tell that you don't want sex.<<

"The motivation for rape is the desire for POWER over someone else and NOT the desire for sexual gratification!"

What on Earth does that have to do with the fact that getting raped is *just as painful* no matter what the motivations of the rapist are?

Anonymous said...

"...If you are out in public and a man starts following you but not trying to talk to you, then you DO have cause for alarm..."

Exactly.

"...Trying to conflate an unattractive, socially awkward stranger approaching you with a sexual predator wanting to rape you is astoundingly ignorant..."

If a man - or woman - starts following you but not trying to talk to you, then you DO have cause for alarm and you STILL DO have cause for alarm even though that man or woman might BE an unattractive, socially awkward stranger approaching you!

Anonymous said...

>>If a man - or woman - starts following you but not trying to talk to you, then you DO have cause for alarm and you STILL DO have cause for alarm even though that man or woman might BE an unattractive, socially awkward stranger approaching you!<<

Like I said: FOLLOWING someone is a warning sign, no matter who does it. But a socially awkward person who tries to talk to you in public where there are plenty of other people around who can see and here is NOT equivalent to being followed.

That is the point I was trying to get across. The "Schrodingers Rapist" blog post linked to in this blog post is nothing more than trying to demonize socially inept man by insinuating that they are rapists.

Anonymous said...

"Like I said: FOLLOWING someone is a warning sign, no matter who does it. But a socially awkward person who tries to talk to you in public where there are plenty of other people around who can see and here is NOT equivalent to being followed."

Not even if he or she is trying to talk to you in public *by following you*?

Being followed is being followed, no matter who else is around and no matter what the follower is thinking.

"The "Schrodingers Rapist" blog post linked to in this blog post is nothing more than trying to demonize socially inept man by insinuating that they are rapists."

Absolutely not. The blogger clearly stated that a woman being followed by a stranger *cannot yet tell* if he does or doesn't intend to rape her.

Many autistic women, who have a harder time learning the warning signs, end up suffering rapes and other sexual abuses more often than non-autistic women as a horrible result that is not their fault at all. :(

The solution to this problem is to help autistic women learn the warning signs more, *not* to deny them knowledge of the warning signs and ask the rest of us to forget what knowledge we already have of the warning signs.

By asking the rest of us to pretend we don't know the warning signs, you're asking us to pretend we are autistic too. You're asking us to make ourselves as vulnerable to rape and other sexual abuse as autistic women already are.

Anonymous said...

"...Earlier in this post, I mentioned the snap decisions most women make every day to try to minimize their chances of being raped by a stranger. Such snap decisions are often going to rest on evidence of the type that's completely invisible to many autistic women..."

Some jerks want us to instead make those decisions on evidence of the type that's completely invisible to *all* women (that is, "evidence" such as whether or not he told his family back home that he's Aspie).