Fine, We’ll Talk About Autism and Misogyny

[TW: Misogyny, abuse, way more swearing than usual.  I don’t recommend letting the kids read this one unless you’re confident they can handle the topic.]

I’ve been avoiding discussion of the UCSB killings ever since I checked my Feedly last weekend and discovered that ASAN had issued a statement refuting media claims linking autism and violence even before I understood why that statement had become necessary again.  Other blogs in my feed explained that six people’s lives had been claimed (seven, if you count his own) by a young man who had left a manifesto that reads like the worst kind of MRA parody (transcript at link; TW).  My understanding is that he wasn’t actually autistic at all, but media insinuation is an insidious thing.

I haven’t known what to say.  I have zero interest in insisting that I’m not a mass-murdering time bomb, because it feels futile: the more I protest, the more I reinforce the meme and imply that some autistic people, “other” autistic people, are mass-murdering time bombs.  In an uncharacteristic move, I’ve also avoided #YesAllWomen and #AutismIsNotaCrime, because right now I just don’t have the wherewithal.

I still don’t want to talk about the USCB murders.  But yes, let’s talk about autism and misogyny.  Specifically, let’s talk about how autism is not a pass for misogynist or hurtful behavior – and how using it in this way is, more often than not, sexist in itself.

When I left The Ex about four years ago, it was because he’d hit critical mass in his downward spiral into misogynistic hate.  (The link is to a recent Tumblr post by Mel Baggs discussing how hate is identified by what it does, not how it feels, which is exactly what I mean when I use the word here.)  When I began dating The Ex, he had a hefty dose of unexamined privilege but nothing I thought couldn’t be redeemed – particularly as he was, at the time, willing to learn and improve.

But not by the end.  By the end, he was an outright abuser, driven by woman-hating (in the above sense) rhetoric spewed on the MRA forums he’d started to frequent.  (To spare the Internet traffic, I won’t link to samples of said rhetoric directly, but Dave Futrelle offers this primer at We Hunted the Mammoth.)

The Ex was also autistic.  As I was reminded every single time I tried to explain why I left him.

Unlike the recent killings, however, in my situation autism was never invoked to separate the neurotypical majority from an individual’s bad behavior.  I never once heard “Well of course he hurt you, those freaky autistic loners can’t be trusted.  A normal person would never treat his girlfriend like that.”  Nobody ever tried to defend themselves from him.

On the contrary.  They tried to defend him from me.

“But he’s autistic!”  I heard every single time I tried to explain why I had issued a unilateral no-contact order after a years-long relationship.  “He doesn’t understand when he’s hurting you!  You need to explain it to him!”

Oh, he understood.  Know how I know?  Because I had explained in the past that his hurtful misogyny was hurtful and misogynistic.  Because, in the past, I had said “hey, [thing you’re doing] hurts my feelings, please stop.”  And in the past, he had said, “oh, I didn’t know,” and stopped.

What changed wasn’t that he “forgot,” or that he never understood.  I wish it were.  What changed is that, when I called him on the same behaviors at the end of our relationship, he chose not to knock it off.

Know how I know that (since I’m sure at least one well-meaning person will drop by the comments to say “well, you’re autistic so you didn’t understand that he didn’t understand”)?  Our final argument included him saying the following things (TW):

  • “Oh, I understand why you’re pissed, I just don’t give a fuck.”
  • “If you think I’m going to [change my behavior] just because you’re a whiny cunt, you’re high.”
  • “I’m not going to apologize for that.”

He said each of these about a hurtful thing he had understood and stopped doing in the past.  That was a little bit of a clue.

But here’s the thing.  It’s not that misogyny – not his misogyny, the misogyny that ended our relationship, that really bothers me here.  What bothers me the most is the misogyny inherent in the idea that an autistic man can be “too autistic” to account for his own behavior, but that an autistic woman can’t possibly be autistic enough not to know how to spare someone else’s feelings.

Abusers who are also autistic exist; I dated one.  And I maintain that the problem was never his autism.  The problem was his abuse.

But deliberate abuse isn’t the only problem.  A few months ago, I had an edifying Tumblr conversation about the “socially awkward” vs. “predator” problem – the idea that it is the duty of women who are approached creepily by dudes in public spaces to humor said dudes, because “they might be autistic!”

The idea that the woman might also be autistic (and that she has the right to tell people to buzz out of her personal space no matter what her neurotype) is, of course, never discussed.  The fact that an autistic woman might be just as awkward about telling dudes to buzz off as an autistic man is about approaching women never comes up either.  The onus is on the woman to handle the socially-awkward man’s approach gracefully (i.e., without bruising the man’s feelings in the slightest), never on the man to learn how to approach with less social awkwardness.

This – this idea that a man can be too autistic to account for his own behavior but that a woman can never be autistic enough to fail to account for both her behavior and the feelings of others – is sexist nonsense.  Logically, if he is “too autistic” to understand that inappropriate behavior is inappropriate, then so am I.  If he is “too autistic” to avoid making other people feel uncomfortable or hurt when he interacts with them, so am I.  If he is “too autistic” to start a conversation or maintain a relationship without constant concessions to his behavior and feelings, so am I.  If he is “too autistic” to cope with being rejected emotionally, then so am I.

But during my breakup, and in conversations about Creeping in Public Places, I hear it over and over again: “He’s autistic!” is a pass for his behavior, but it is never a pass for mine.  Because being autistic is too much for him to juggle, but it is not enough to permit me to drop the burden of emotional relationship maintenance.

Let’s be clear.  I don’t believe anyone, in any relationship, should get a pass for deliberately hurtful behavior, regardless of their gender or neurotype.  And I believe that after issuance and acknowledgement of a direct “hey, knock it off,” persisting in the behavior is deliberately hurtful.

But I also believe that anyone capable of initiating or participating in a relationship is capable of learning how not to hurt other people, regardless of their gender or neurotype.  I believe that autism may be a reason for gauche social behavior but that it is not an excuse.

Every time we hand out one of these passes to an autistic man because autism, but not to an autistic woman despite autism, we perpetuate not only the ableist notion that autistic people can’t care about others but also the sexist and misogynistic notion that women are responsible for emotional babysitting in a relationship – and that men need to be emotionally babysat.  It’s a lie.  Stop it.