First things first – I am not an expert and I am not making any claim to be an authority in this area. I am simply an opinionated autistic trans man who has some thoughts on the topic.
CONTENT NOTE: This post will be talking about sex and body parts. If you aren’t comfortable reading that, please take care of yourself first. Read on only if you are comfortable/ok doing so.
For the purposes of this post, when I say “sex” I am going to be referring to consensual activity between two or more people that involves one’s genitals in some way, with the intent by all parties for the activity to be sexual.
I am out of communities right now, so it’s been a few years since I’ve been in group conversations around concepts of sex positivity, so I went ahead and did some googling partly to refresh myself and partly to see if the meaning behind the term has shifted at all. Looks like things are pretty much the same as they were when I was more active in communities, so cool, good starting point.
I am not intending this post to be a discussion on what sex positivity actually is, so instead I’ll just point you to the first google result that came up for me, because I honestly found it pretty good. To put it simply, “sex positivity is the idea that people should have space to embody, explore, and learn about their sexuality and gender without judgment or shame.”
Now let’s talk a little bit about how sex and autism overlap. Sex is, by its very nature, intensely tactile. It is a sensory experience. Autism is (among other things) a developmental delay and a sensory-processing disorder. Needless to say, this means that sometimes sex and autism have a little trouble mixing.
Managing our sensory experiences can be difficult and overwhelming just in general. Managing a sensory experience that is both intense and highly personal can be even more overwhelming.
So another of the google results I found had some things in their description of “sex positive” that I found bothersome. For instance: “[sex positive people] consider sex to be a healthy part of life that should be enjoyed”
Um…. so about that “should”… That really leaves a lot of people out in the cold! Many people on the asexual spectrum, people who are sex repulsed, people who have sexual trauma that is interfering with their enjoyment of sex – not everyone enjoys sex and that’s ok. I will happily use the word “should” to say that we should all respect the sexual choices of other consenting adults, and that we should only participate in as much sex as we actually want to. If a person does not enjoy sex, that does not leave them out of sex positivity.
Now, it’s true that we live in a largely sex-negative society that applies a lot of shame to sex. That doesn’t mean that it’s the only reason a person might be sex-averse, though. For instance – SENSORY DIFFICULTIES. If a person finds the sensory experience of sex to be unpleasant, then maybe that person won’t want to have sex. That’s their choice!
So what does the whole sex positive concept have to offer autistic people? Well, here are some of my thoughts on the matter.
For one – an expanded concept of what sex is or can be. I’ll be honest – I am an extremely literal person and I really like narrow, concrete definitions of words. As such, it took me a long time to really embrace the idea of “sex” meaning anything other than “intercourse.” I mean, I embraced a lot of other concepts of sex positivity and did not actually consider “sex as intercourse” to be any more real or better than any other kind of sexual activity. I really did not see any reason why I had to define sex in a broad way in order to enjoy whatever sexual activity I want to. And, well… I didn’t, really. Words are mushy things, and it’s the concepts behind the words that are ultimately important. However, the way we use words really has an impact on how we interact with those concepts. Freeing up my idea of what sex is really has made it easier for me to focus on exploring pleasure with a partner without having any part of my mind wonder if I’m “really” having sex.
Which moves me onto my next point – it allows me to explore what pleasure means to me, without outside constraints about what it “should” be. I am free to take what feels good to me and discard what doesn’t, since the only “right” way to have sex is with informed and enthusiastic consent.
Which means that it’s totally ok to not like things, up to and including any and all sexual acts. Despite living in a society that judges and condemns many forms of sex, our society ALSO judges and condemns NOT having sex. Everyone is expected to like and want and have sex, but only within the narrow confines of “proper” sex. Well, not only do we get to discard ideas of “proper” sex in favor of enthusiastically consensual pleasure, but we also get to discard the idea that we “should” have sex. Just as it’s ok to have sex without romance, it’s also ok to have romance without sex – all that is necessary is enthusiastically consenting participants. It’s also ok to pair the two, or to decide that neither one is for you.
The entire point, that I am just saying in many different ways, is to do what works for you. It is not uncommon for autistic people to have complicated relationships with our bodies and our senses. This will generally mean also having a complicated relationship with sex.
So if I manage to communicate anything in this post that I fear is entirely incoherent, it’s that IT’S OK. It’s ok to have a complicated relationship with your body. It’s ok to have a complicated relationship with sex. It’s ok to want things that are not typical or not want things that are typical, and vice versa. It’s ok to make sex and pleasure work for you, in whatever form that takes. It’s also ok to just opt out entirely.
Seriously. It’s ok.