By Thomas Clements & Jonathan Mitchell
Thomas: “If a woman were flirting with me, I probably would not be aware of it.”
This isn’t a subject I particularly wanted to talk about. I never spoke about sex at home and generally shy away from the very mention of it. It’s quite strange therefore that sex and reproduction are also fundamental aspects of human identity, belonging and biology. The vast majority of us are sexual creatures with often strong and intense desires to seek out a partner for physical affection and intimacy. Autistic people are no different in this regard. Most of us in some point in our lives will have a yearning to satiate our natural biological urges and to keep on doing so over extended periods of time with a stable romantic partner. Unfortunately, many autistic men like me languish in the dark, twisted world of involuntary celibacy where opportunities for having sex with someone are slim and the chances of being able to find a long-term sexual partner are even slimmer.
In my case, I’m 29 years old and, to put it bluntly, I’m sexually frustrated. Not being one to make small-talk or to engage in flirtation, my opportunities for sex thus far have been limited to say the least. Flirting is something I still cannot grasp intuitively or intellectually as a concept due to a failure on my part to be able to read body language and to recognise more subtle non-verbal cues. If a woman were flirting with me, I probably would not be aware of it. In fact, people I’ve been with have berated me in the past for missing chances to flirt with members of the opposite sex who have apparently given indications of romantic interest. I drifted through my teens, my college years and my early twenties having had zero contact with the opposite sex. And I mean none. Not even so much as a handshake. At university, I even gained the nickname “The Monk” for my celibate lifestyle. On my part, this was certainly not driven by some puritanical religious conviction and the stigmatising label only increased my feelings of inadequacy and despair.
In 2013, I decided I needed a fresh start in life and moved to China where I taught English. Being a white European in China made me quite desirable in the eyes of many women (light skin is seen as an feature attractive across Asia) and many vied for my attention, openly asking me if I would be their boyfriend. For me, a sexually naïve young man, it was a huge confidence boost and a very erotic and exciting experience. Eventually, I went out with a colleague called Wendy and it was then that things kind of went pear-shaped. On the one hand, I had the attention of a beautiful Chinese girl and a huge boost in my overall confidence. On the other, I was abysmal at showing affection towards her in the typical way romantic partners do and had immense difficulty navigating the complex world of romance. I was a neglectful boyfriend to say the least and one who dodged phone calls, never thought to buy gifts or to engage in playful behaviour. Worst of all, while I had summoned the courage to hug her, I did so begrudgingly due to my dislike for physical contact, we never had sex. It was for that reason that we agreed mutually to terminate our very brief romance. She had apparently been hinting to go to the bedroom for a while but I’d been quite oblivious to it, and when it came to it, I couldn’t face the physical intimacy of being up close to somebody, what with my sensory sensitivities and all. I cannot tell you the frustration of simultaneously craving sexual intimacy and at the same time not being able to engage in it due to an instinctive aversion to touch.
Like many autistic men, I face the rather grim reality of remaining involuntarily celibate for life. It’s not a nice truth to have to acknowledge and it’s a subject many are squeamish about even broaching so I felt the need to do so. I’m not proffering an answer because there simply are no trite solutions to this vexed and rather unpleasant conundrum. I’m simply telling things as they are for many us, including many autistic men I’ve spoken to privately, including my friend Jonathan.
Jonathan: “My ability to relate to women is impaired”
“Why don’t you find an autistic girlfriend?” This is the usual query I get when I discuss my inability to find a successful relationship with a woman and my involuntary celibacy. Sometimes I feel I have the gift of prophecy. I know exactly what people will say when this issue comes up.
I’m a sixty-two-year-old man with autism, and I’ve never had a full-fledged girlfriend, though I have had some casual dating. My ability to relate to women is impaired. I’ve met women who seemed to like me at first blush. However, after I’d gone out with them or they got to know me better, certain behaviors of mine came to the fore. I was very loud, intense, made funny movements, discussed the same things over and over and had a scowl on my face. These behaviors caused them to lose interest. Much of the time, I’ve been too shy to ask them out or had a problem relating.
This has caused me great frustration in my life, and the loneliness bites at me. There are some things those who have suggested finding an autistic mate don’t understand. There’s a four to one ratio of autistic men to autistic women. According to some authorities, it’s more like seven to one in the more mildly impaired autistics such as myself. These numbers mean that if the autistic man is only restricted to dating their own kind, the majority of us will be left out in the cold. There’s also the question of whether or not the autistic woman would be interested. One way of expressing it is even though numerically the odds are good for the autistic woman, they might not care because the goods are odd.
Involuntary celibacy is a common problem for males on the spectrum. David Miedzianik, an autistic man from Rotherham England, detailed his problems with women in a memoir he wrote as well as numerous poems. He would write posts in various internet groups, demanding a girlfriend, not understanding why this was socially unacceptable.
Perhaps one of the best known cases is Elliot Rodger, who very possibly was autistic. He made various videos and wrote a manifesto, detailing his frustrations with his lack of sex. The frustration became so great to the mentally ill man that he went out and killed some women whom he perceived as having wronged him by denying him the loss of his virginity. He subsequently committed suicide during a police pursuit while he committed these atrocities. This is an extreme case though. Despite the fact that many autistic men are frustrated over celibacy, it’s rare they go out and commit murder.
Others have advocated prostitution for autistic men, though this is a poor substitute for the emotional ties of requited love. Sexual surrogates, a quasi-legal alternative to prostitution in which a paid sex worker, usually collaborating with a clinician, is sometimes another option recommended for autistic celibates.
Despite involuntary celibacy being commonplace among autistic males, the problem receives no publicity by the media. Some of the most widely publicized autistic males, including John Elder Robison, Ari Ne’eman, and Michael Carley are married. Most news stories about autism are of a feel-good nature, extolling alleged virtues and talents of autistic people. More often than not these stories do not jibe with reality.
Some of this journalism is driven by the high rate of unemployment among autistic people–figures as high as 80 to 85 percent are quoted for both the United States and the United Kingdom. Stories claiming that autistics have superior aptitude for the IT profession, great attention to details, are loyal employees abound. One piece in TIME magazine went as far as saying that autism is an opportunity. This is despite the fact this only trivializes the problems of autistic persons, the majority of whom have disabilities in getting along with people and performing a job well that greatly affects their employability.
The media fails to give autistic celibacy the same attention. In the same vein as with employment, they could claim that autistics, due to their superior attention to detail and abilities in the IT industry, would make great husbands and providers. Or, their loyalty to a woman would preclude adultery and make divorce less likely.
Though there are no easy answers to the problem of celibacy, I know it causes pain for myself as well as other men on the austistic spectrum. Perhaps it’s time for the media to bring attention to this.