The Invisibility of Bisexuality and Autism

After my post discussing invisible disability, I was thinking about the concept of invisibility itself, and found myself drawing parallels between two aspects of my identity: bisexual and autistic. Also, it happens to be Bisexual Health Awareness Month in March, so I feel like it would be interesting to examine that intersection.

A little about my identity as bisexual: I didn’t spend much time in the closet. There was a girl I had a crush on from a group singing class I took, but I never quite realized what I was feeling, since at the time I associated that with boys, and then she stopped showing up. Liking boys was always easy, and liking girls was simply not a thing if you already liked boys. I also repressed the feelings I developed for a girl because it would have ruined our friendship. Her response to me jokingly saying “I’m a lesbian!” to test the waters was “God forbid,” which shut me down hard enough to not want to like girls. We no longer speak. It was just easier to be boy crazy than to consider both options.

I say I didn’t spend much time in the closet, because I didn’t truly acknowledge it was possible I was bisexual until I was in college and met a girl I couldn’t deny I liked. I told my dad over ice cream. He did a double take and ultimately decided that having double options seemed like an advantage. I told my brother on a family vacation, and he jokingly asked “boobs, butt, or legs?” followed by telling me he didn’t care as long as I didn’t bring anyone to the room we were sharing. I told my mom on the couch at home and shocked her since I’d only ever discussed crushes on boys with her. But even though I’ve never really hidden it from others, there’s something invisible about being bisexual. Especially being bisexual and in a heterosexual presenting relationship.

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Image is of a closed closet

I’m not entirely aware of how I come across to people, thanks to being autistic, but there was an interesting exercise we did in a gen-ed gender, sexuality, race, and class college course. We got into groups of four and had to guess what each person was – gender, sexual orientation, race, and class – then discuss it with the class to confront assumptions. There was a semi-feminine presenting gay male and two heterosexual females. All three assumed I’m straight (and for some reason thought I was biracial, possibly part Native American or Lebanese, which confused me since I’m very European). My sexuality is invisible.

If that class had added ability/disability to the list, they would have likely assumed I have no disability at all, because that too is invisible. For example, when I first met the lovely people who would become my in-laws, I thought everything went excellently. They were wonderful, intelligent, hippy types with lots of interesting stories and beautiful art in their home. Later on, my now husband told me they were worried I didn’t like them. Being autistic, I had no idea that was the message I’d sent out with my body language or tone. I’d had a genuinely enjoyable time. He asked if it was alright to explain me being autistic to them, and I said sure. Once it was out in the open, everything was cleared up, and we get along great. But me being autistic wasn’t obvious. I just came across as perhaps grumpy or uncomfortable. On a related note, it took nineteen years for anyone to suggest that I was on the spectrum at all.

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Invisibility Cloak from Harry Potter

My body is like a permanent invisibility cloak from Harry Potter, or invisibility cap if you like classic Greek mythology. No one knows I’m bisexual or autistic unless it’s explicitly revealed. Some people think that neither of these things even exist. That autistics are just undisciplined children in need of a beating, that bisexuals are just confused or going through a phase. It is hard to convince someone that just because I’m with a guy doesn’t mean I don’t like girls. Oddly, if I’m with a girl, it’s easier for people to assume I still like guys – or even only like guys – as if the whole thing is a performance for male attention. (Hint: it’s not. Evan knows that I’d leave him for Jennifer Lawrence and has come to terms with that!)

Performance is something I’ve learned to do to get by without even realizing it, mostly in masking autism (see my very first post, I’m Acting, for details). But sometimes I wonder if I’m supposed to be performing something else. Bisexuality and autism are supposed to act a certain way, and sometimes I wonder if I’m supposed to perform them ‘properly’ for the general public to believe me when I claim those identities. Maybe I should stim more than I normally would to non-verbally tell people I’m autistic so they won’t get aggravated if something like making phone calls comes up, because they can see that there is something “up” with me. I don’t because I believe in being myself, but sometimes wonder if it would help. With being bisexual, I feel a sort of pressure to mention that I’ve dated girls before to make myself “more legitimate” if talking to someone who’s gay or lesbian. Right now, I feel a pressure to prove I have an interest in girls because all anyone can see is my interest in boys due to who I married. I feel like I’m both supposed to be highly sexual to fit a stereotype and suppress overt sexuality to avoid fitting the same stereotype. When I was still dating around, I found that the majority of the lesbians I encountered didn’t want anything to do with bisexuals, because of stereotypes. There are some who will flat out state that they refuse to date bi girls on their profiles. We’re not “real” LGBTs, despite the B literally standing for bisexual. That we’re just going to cheat on them with men because we’re greedy and can’t be satisfied. They claim we’ll move on and date boys, because we’re just straight girls experimenting. We’re not, but if lesbians won’t date us, then eventually there’s a higher chance of us ending up with men because the dating pool gets skewed. I’ve actually only ever dated straight/bi men and bi women before, as a result of this.

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Theater masks

Joining the autistic community on twitter has been a breath of fresh air. I get to hear people talk about experiences like mine, and not be undermined with talk of how I’m not a legitimate part of their circle. Online, being autistic isn’t invisible – at least in the spaces I’ve explored. But I haven’t explored much as far as the online (or offline) LGBT+ world goes. Just like I was when I was dating, I’m worried about rejection. What if I’m somehow not bisexual enough or in the right way? What about all the LGs who don’t consider the B to properly exist?

People who say that bisexuality and autism don’t exist hurt our mental health. Invalidating a person’s identity with accusations that they’re greedy or poorly behaved hurts. It makes me want to avoid speaking with people. But, despite my social anxiety, I don’t.

I’m still bisexual if I’m married to a man. I’m still autistic even if I’m masking and making eye-contact.

It’s not a greedy inability to decide. It’s not bad behavior that needs to be beaten out of me.

I’m just me. The more visibility that exists in all identities, the more understanding will be cultivated, and the more acceptance we’ll receive.

 

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Image is of my amazing husband and I just after our ceremony. He is the most wonderful husband in the world!
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Sex, Sexuality, and Being Autistic

Recently, I was asked by a woman named Violet Fenn if I could answer a few questions about sex and sexuality for an article she was writing about the subject and how autistic people relate to it. I think this is brilliant, and you can see the article here:

No, autistic people are not sexless – our sex lives are as varied as anyone’s

The reason I say this is brilliant is because so many people out there assume that anyone who’s got any sort of disability is asexual. While there are certainly asexuals out there, it’s ridiculous to think we all are. Just because I struggle socially doesn’t mean I don’t have biological urges the same as neurotypicals. And since I’m a pretty open-minded person when it comes to this stuff, I thought I’d share with you the entire article I wrote on the subject, of which there was only room for a few paragraphs in Violet Fenn’s wonderful piece. Mom and Dad, maybe stop reading here? Warning – I don’t get too explicit, but I am very blunt, and the topic is sex. Read ahead at your own peril.

So, here is a discussion on sex and sexuality from the perspective of an autistic.

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I started out being really shy and awkward about people and particularly about touching. If a stranger touches me, I still flinch. But sex itself has never been a real difficulty for me. It’s the getting to that point of having sex that is. I’m pretty sexual in nature, so I love that side of me, but I don’t know how to flirt with someone new I’ve met. I have literally sent this text message to someone before: “I didn’t know you were bi… I am too, and I think you’re really pretty. Want to do something maybe?” Apparently this took her totally by surprise and is not considered legitimate flirting, though I thought it was. Ended up working out, funny enough, and we dated for a while. That was only real relationship I’ve had with someone I didn’t meet online, but in person. My other long term in-person relationship I met online, something that is much easier for me. We bonded over books, went on a few dates, and now we’re getting married on January 13, 2018, which is fantastic and I couldn’t be happier – post upcoming on wedding stress and honeymooning in a foreign country eventually!

With sex itself, it’s like it’s in its own box. Normally, I absolutely hate hugs from most people, with exceptions for most family, some friends, children, and significant others. But once I’ve decided I’m comfortable with hugging someone, kissing them, letting them be close to me, and we’ve decided “okay, let’s have sex”, it’s in a box of ‘it’s okay to be physically close to someone right now, and this is the person I’m going to be with for this,’ so there’s a comfort level in making that decision, then acting on it. I’ve never been with someone new spontaneously though, every time I’ve talked with them through texting or instant messenger before we did anything, so it was planned and I knew what was going to happen. Open communication is super helpful. Once I got past a sort of ‘you’re not supposed to like sex because you’re a girl!’ mentality and learned terminology for things, I got pretty forward with everything. I know how to put into words what I like, don’t like, want to do, don’t want to do, and that clarity is very helpful. With most of my partners – at least, the good ones – I’ve had conversations about the sex afterwards. So, questions would be like, “What did you like the most? Was there anything you didn’t like? What do you want more of?” and things like that back and forth. It can be a bit sexy to talk like that, so it’s not super clinical, almost like reminiscing and then getting excited for the next time. Most of the time – we talk via messenger or text, which is just easier for me in any situation. It lets me get my words right.

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With sensory issues, sometimes I get easily distracted. Like, we have a metal bedframe and if it starts squeaking it can just ruin everything. Sometimes my mind wanders a bit, though I haven’t really told my fiancé about that because I don’t want him knowing that I might be thinking about a sewing project while we’re having sex. Sometimes I get too hyper focused on sex itself and tense about it, and then I can’t orgasm because I wear myself out and just don’t have the energy to try anymore. This is really frustrating, and sometimes leads to me crying and apologizing for having a malfunctioning body because I get worried I’m disappointing him in bed. My fiancé has been really supportive about it though. Whenever I get upset over it, he just tells me its fine, we cuddle a bit, and then he might suggest we watch some Netflix or something to relax together, which helps.

A sensory issue I definitely have is with the fan or air conditioning when we’re naked. I don’t like feeling cold air blowing anywhere down there, and that’s where the apparently stuck vent points. So most of the time I just try to make sure he’s between me and the vent, or we have the covers on over us. I use the heavy comforter like a weighted blanket, and having it draped over us makes me very comfortable so I can focus on what we’re doing.

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I like some eye contact during sex too, since it’s all very intimate. But there’s different positions so if I’m not in the mood to focus on eye contact, there’s a bunch of alternatives. Even if it is missionary, I can just close my eyes sometimes, which helps focus on what I’m feeling rather than things around the room. My fiancé thinks it looks sexy, so win-win.

Something that I think helped me get comfortable with the concept of having sex, before I had an in-person boyfriend, was writing about it a lot. I guess you could call it erotica. I’d write what I thought it would be like, that it would be enjoyable, things I thought I’d like or wanted to try one day. So I had it at least a little mapped out in my brain as to what the concept was, making it less foreign.

I used to be really shy and awkward about anything sexual at all (my nickname in high school was ‘virgin ears’ because I’d blush and clap my hands over my ears when people started talking about anything too intense for me), and I wasn’t always capable of saying words related to sex, like there was a block in my brain. Once I was more familiar with it, I think I’ve become pretty sex positive and much more open to talking about things than most people are – which I have to remember to reign in sometimes so I don’t make others uncomfortable. I think being autistic means that I don’t see the strict lines that the rest of society puts in place. I don’t want to be completely open about everything, since it is a private matter between my partners and me, and I don’t want to discuss that without permission, but I’ve seen a lot of “society says this is how you perform sex and relationships if you’re a girl” and I just sometimes throw that out the window and go with what feels good.

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For example, realizing I was bisexual was strange. I’d always liked guys and had crushes on them, like society’s narrative says I should, but I only ever had one real crush on a girl before I figured myself out, and I hadn’t been completely sure what it was I was feeling. I brushed it aside and didn’t think about it for years, deciding to just focus on boys because it was a lot easier. Then someone pointed out to me that they saw me looking at girls and I realized, oh, they were right. I didn’t have to just like guys or girls like the boxes society likes people to fit into. I could like whoever was attractive. Guys, girls, trans, and anyone else who happened to catch my eye.

 

Same with sex itself – it something was fun, there was no reason to feel a taboo over it once I got used to it (though that’s all the details I’m giving about that!). I guess, I just don’t understand society very well, and that gives me freedom because I realized my hang-ups didn’t make any logical sense. While being autistic makes it difficult for me to find someone to have sex with, I think it ultimately gives me more enjoyment and freedom with the sex I do have.

 

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Sexual Assault, Autism, and the case for Comprehensive Sex Education for Autistics and the Disabled

Trigger Warning: Sexual Assault discussion

I am lucky as a disabled woman in our society. I’ve never been raped or seriously sexually assaulted, unlike so many of my peers. When I say ‘seriously’, I mean that no one’s ever held me down, no one’s gone under my clothes without permission, no one’s not accepted ‘no’ for an answer. Not that other forms of sexual assault aren’t serious, but I don’t quite know what other word to use to differentiate between what I’ve experienced, which has been relatively minor, and the deeply traumatic pain that’s been inflicted on others to an extent I can’t comprehend. With that disclaimer for the limitations of the English language, let’s discuss what I have experienced and how it applies to the topics of sex education and autism.

I have had a few brushes with inappropriate men in my life. Two in particular stand out to me, since I’m going to ignore common things like catcalls for now (they’re their own nightmare for another time). The first happened in seventh grade, at twelve or thirteen years old. I was in the school musical, and we girls were backstage in our dressing room getting on costumes and make-up. Without any warning, announcement, or request for permission, the videographer the school had hired to film the production decided to barge in and record us. Most of us were at least half naked, or in only underwear. He was a grey-haired, older man. I still remember the creepy, wide, toothed smile he had on his face as he ogled us. He seemed entertained by the panicked reaction he’d gotten. I was infuriated instantly at the sight of him, at the gall he had to do such a thing, and put myself between his camera and some of the practically naked teens and pre-teens who were trying to hide their bodies from him to try and ruin his shot. I screamed at him to leave. I believe some others shouted at him too, but the details of that are fuzzy because I was hyper focused at the time. He was practically giggling with how giddy he was, but we did get him to leave.

Later, he was instructed by one of the adults to come up to me privately and apologize, as if I were the only one offended because I’d been the loudest. It was explained to me that he was simply trying to get filler backstage content, and that it wasn’t that big of a deal, that lots of films about stage shows and musicals had that sort of footage of actors getting ready, but that he was sorry he’d offended me. I don’t remember what I said, but I remember questioning myself as to whether it was a big deal or not, since none of the adults seemed to think it was to my knowledge. I never mentioned this incident to anyone until recently when talk of the appropriateness of authoritative older male figures barging into pre-teen dressing rooms came into question during an uncomfortable conversation. I realized it had happened to me, and how deeply wrong that is.

The second incident happened in tenth grade, when I was a little older. My school had a fencing team, and the coach had always been just on the edge of being possibly uncomfortable to me, but never crossing any lines – or at least not being reported for it. I do recall him grabbing one of the moms he knew was married and kissing her on the lips against her will, without being reported for it. I said nothing because I was a child and she was an adult, so I figured if she didn’t say anything then it wasn’t my place to. Other than that, he always gave me the vibe of someone I shouldn’t let myself be alone in a room with for long. He would sometimes get a little too close for comfort with me. When I asked about buying my own gear, he said I could buy the standard ‘male’ outfit, but I’d look a lot better with the female tailored outfit to show off my curves (I was fifteen). When giving awards to those participating in a competition he would shake the hands of all the male students and kiss the cheeks of and hug all the female students. Those who know me well enough know that I absolutely loath hugging people I’m not comfortable with, and kisses from people I don’t want kisses from make me want to scream for multiple reasons. But I grit my teeth and dealt with it because I didn’t know how to tell him not to without coming across as reading too much into it, or as ‘weird’ for not being okay with something everyone else felt was normal (back when I refused all hugs from non-family I’d been accused of having ‘something’ wrong with me, and for a long time I lived in fear of coming across that way). The action that went over the line was when he decided it was appropriate to lay his hand on my behind. I had a fencing sabre in hand and instinctively spun around and struck him with it, causing him to berate me for attacking a teacher while I screamed in tears that he wasn’t allowed to touch me like that. It was an embarrassing, confusing spectacle in front of the whole fencing team. I stormed out when he wouldn’t apologize and walked home early from school.

I remember thinking to myself… maybe he didn’t mean it the way I thought he did. Maybe it was appropriate in some ‘sporty’ way. Maybe my pants were too tight – he’d commented on my tight clothes before. Maybe somehow it was my fault, or I’d read the situation wrong. These thoughts shocked me because I knew they were wrong, but they wormed their way into my mind anyway. What kept me secure in the knowledge that he had done wrong and I had done nothing wrong was the education I’d received about my rights to my body, and also my right to defend myself. The confident message I’d always received from my parents that no one had the right to touch me if I didn’t want them to. I mustered my courage and went to the principle first thing the next school day. The coach was fired – which I’m grateful for considering how many schools don’t handle sexual assault well – and I never saw him again.

These are ‘minor’ things in the grand scheme of sexual assault, but I want to talk about them for a very specific reason: how I conducted myself. I didn’t put up with it. I knew consent was something I needed, and that it wasn’t okay for men I didn’t want to film me nearly naked or touch my privates. I’d been taught about consent, and had classes on comprehensive sex education. No means no, and nothing else.

Not all autistics or disabled people get that education. In fact, when it comes to mental disability, it’s sometimes not just neglected completely, but messages opposite to ‘no means no’ are taught.

Five-year-old Johnny doesn’t want to hug his parents. His therapist tells him he has to. He shakes his head, he avoids eye contact, he tries to wiggle away, he has a meltdown, he gives every signal he can to show how deeply uncomfortable and physically painful this is for him. His parents think it means he doesn’t love him because they can’t understand that physical contact and love aren’t necessarily connected. His therapist spends hours, weeks, years training him to hug on command regardless. His no does not mean no. He is not allowed to say no, because his therapists and his parents don’t believe he has a right to his own body.

When Johnny is in middle school, his parents don’t let him take sex ed because they feel it’s not something someone with his neurology needs. Then his PE coach makes inappropriate comments that go unchallenged. The coach makes him give hugs that last too long after class. The coach slides his hand between Johnny’s legs. The coach says they should shower together, that it’s okay and it’s what adults do. The coach wants to show Johnny other things adults do. Johnny obeys because he’s been taught and trained and forced to submit by his parents, his therapist, and his teachers. He’s been taught that his body isn’t his, and that he has to do what others tell him to do, even if it makes him uncomfortable, if he doesn’t want to, if it doesn’t feel right, or even if it hurts. He doesn’t know it’s wrong. He learns what sex is from his coach. Sex is a painful act forced on him for the purpose of someone else’s pleasure. He has never learned anything to tell him that’s wrong, that sex is supposed to be something else, something good. That a relationship isn’t supposed to hurt.

There are a lot of horror stories around compliance training – most I hear about come from traditional ABA therapy. Therapists forcing their young clients to hug on command, and those clients growing up not to have a concept of bodily autonomy, making them perfect victims for sexual predators. I’ve read the stories of victims and survivors, and it makes me sick to my stomach. I think of all the people out there not taught about sexuality or healthy relationships because it’s deemed inappropriate for their autistic brains, despite them potentially being sexual beings like all other teens and adults.

I think how easily that could have been me if I’d gotten an early diagnosis and my parents had sent me to a bad therapist simply because they wouldn’t have known any better.

Maybe instead of trying to keep that videographer from filming us, thirteen-year-old me would have just stood there and allowed myself to be filmed in my underwear by a man old enough to be my grandpa. Maybe he shows me that inappropriate footage and tells me that if I don’t take off the underwear in private, he’ll send the film to my classmates and parents. Maybe instead of getting my fencing coach fired, fifteen-year-old me would have remained quiet, giving him the ‘signal’ that I wouldn’t report him if he progressed to more horrific actions.

Not being labeled as autistic or disabled may have saved me from a terrible fate, but I shouldn’t need to suffer through nearly two decades without a term for my own brain to have access to the education to learn to stand up to assault, to learn about healthy sexuality. Autistic and disabled people deserve appropriate, comprehensive education. We often have mature sexual bodies. We need to learn about what that means. We need to have full knowledge of the concept of consent, and about what healthy relationships are like, what they look like with us in them. Healthy relationships are about mutual respect, friendship, love, and potentially also include pleasurable sex (including lgbt+ sex – not all autistics are straight). While this is desperately needed for everyone, I feel there’s a heightened need for those of us with social disability to have education on this because social norms are something we need to learn across the board. A relationship is a social construct, and if we aren’t taught about them in a good way, there’s the potential for someone to teach it to us in a bad way.

If you are the parent of an autistic, don’t assume that because of their difficulties (non-verbal, no eye contact, intense stimming, severe sensory disorders, or any other issues) they don’t need to learn about adult matters. Consent is not a luxury for the able-minded or able-bodied. Autistic children become autistic adults. We have adult bodies and we need to know about them, about our rights to them. I am what happens when you do things right – a strong individual capable of standing up for her right to say no and eventually finding fulfilling, happy, healthy relationships in the dating world. Your child, who will become an adult, should be too. Please, don’t neglect us.

Thank you.