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.Dan Savage: Sexuality and the Neurodiverse

Also, a woman wonders if her subway antics constitute groping.

music in the park san jose

As a 36-year-old straight woman with autism, I am often misidentified as lesbian because my social signaling must read as masculine. I am not bothered by this. However, it is annoying when someone who should know better thinks I would hide it if I were LGBTQ. I’m very direct and honest — sometimes to my detriment — and the idea that I would hide something so fundamental about myself is abhorrent to me. I don’t consider myself disabled; I am different than most people but not broken. But as a person with a diagnosed “disability” that includes an inability to accurately read and display social cues, I know that a person’s perception of your sexual orientation is definitely affected by social signaling. I enjoy your podcast and I feel like I am educating myself about how neurotypical people think. But I wish there was as good a source of advice for people with autism spectrum disorder (ASD). I have been searching, but a lot of the advice for people with ASD is written by people who are not on the spectrum and focuses on passing for neurotypical.

— Not Disabled, Not Lesbian, Not Typical

I shared your letter with Steve Silberman, the award-winning author of The New York Times best-seller NeuroTribes: The Legacy of Autism and the Future of Neurodiversity, NDNLNT. I really have nothing to add to his response — your question is outside my supposed areas of quasi-expertise — so I’m going to let Steve take it from here.

“I’m not surprised to hear that NDNLNT is more annoyed by people thinking she’s in the closet than by them misidentifying her as gay. In my experience, a passionate concern for social justice — and compassion for other stigmatized and marginalized people — is so common among folks on the spectrum that it’s practically diagnostic. Furthermore, there seems to be an interesting overlap between being autistic and having a nonstandard gender identity — whether you define yourself as gay, bi, trans, straight but not cis, or nonbinary.

“My autistic friends share NDNLNT’s concern about the lack of good resources for autistic people who want to learn more about the nuances of sex, dating, and gender identity. As she points out, many of the advice books written specifically for people on the spectrum take the approach that the route to success in this arena involves acting as much like a neurotypical as possible, which just adds stress to an already stressful situation. They also tend to be tediously heteronormative and drearily vanilla-centric.

“But there are exceptions. My autistic friends recommend Life and Love: Positive Strategies for Autistic Adults by Zosia Zaks, The Aspie Girl’s Guide to Being Safe with Men by Debi Brown, and the anthology What Every Autistic Girl Wishes Her Parents Knew edited by Emily Paige Ballou, Kristina Thomas, and Sharon daVanport. While not autism-specific, The Ultimate Guide to Sex and Disability also comes highly recommended. My favorite autism blog, Thinking Person’s Guide to Autism, runs frank and fascinating pieces like ‘Autism and Orgasm.’ Another place to look for useful advice is in presentations by autistic self-advocates like Lindsey Nebeker, Stephen Mark Shore, and Amy Gravino (whose TEDx talk ‘Why Autism Is Sexier Than You Think It Is’ is on YouTube).”

Dan here: Thank you so much, Steve. And to everyone else: There’s more about Steve and his work at his website (, and I strongly recommend following him on Twitter (@stevesilberman), where he daily battles Republicanism, ignorance, and hatred. (I’m sorry, was that redundant?)

My fiancé and I are getting straight-married this summer. My fiancé’s best man is in a polyamorous relationship — which is not the problem. The issue is that we like only one of his boyfriends. Our best man moved in with the boyfriend we like two years ago. The other boyfriend is new (six months), younger, and immature. Whenever we’ve seen the three of them, his new boyfriend was fighting with one of them. I don’t want our best man to feel like we are being rude in excluding his new partner, but I don’t want there to be drama for our best man at our wedding.

— Being Rude Isn’t Dat Easy

Hmm. A new addition to a poly relationship who creates drama and makes close friends of the original pair uncomfortable? I’d put the odds of their third being in the picture six months from now at zero. So, this is a problem that will most likely solve itself. But you could always ask your friend what he would like you to do. You’re not worried about the new boyfriend ruining your wedding, BRIDE, you’re worried about him ruining the day for your best man. So, ask your best man what would be worse — the new boyfriend being excluded (and your best man incurring his wrath at home) or the new boyfriend being included (and your best man having to put up with his bullshit at the wedding). Then +1 or +2 accordingly.

I’m an attractive 30-year-old woman. Recently, I was stuck in a packed subway car. I squeezed in next to the best-looking straphanger I could find, faced him like we were slow-dancing, pressed my tits into him, and straddled his leg. We were so close, my head was over his shoulder — I could feel an electrical charge running through his body — and we stayed that way until I got to my stop. Upon parting, I whispered, “You’re very attractive.” And he whispered back, “So are you.” I’ve pulled this on crowded trains a few other times. They’re my favorite erotic memories, and it sure seemed like the guys enjoyed these experiences. But Charlie Rose thought he was “exploring shared feelings.” So I wanted to ask: Am a groper?

— Tiresome Reality Arrogates Intimate Nearness


Some people would say the obvious response — the obvious way to open your eyes to what’s so wrong about your actions — would be to ask, “If a dude did this to a woman on a public conveyance, would that be okay?” But a woman seeking out the hottest guy on the subway and pressing her tits into his chest and straddling his leg exists in an entirely different context than a man doing the same to a woman. As I wrote recently on my blog in the Savage Love Letter of the Day: “Men don’t move through their lives deflecting near-constant unwanted sexual attention, we aren’t subjected to epidemic levels of sexual violence, and consequently we don’t live with the daily fear that we could be the victims of sexual violence at any time and in any place.” So, a man on the receiving end of your behavior — even a man who felt annoyed, offended, or threatened — is going to experience your actions very differently than a woman subjected to the same actions by a man. A man is unlikely to feel threatened; a woman is unlikely to feel anything else.

While the men you’ve done this to seemed to enjoy it — and we only have your word to go on — that doesn’t make your subway perving okay. There are definitely men out there, TRAIN, who would be upset and/or angered by your actions. Me, for instance — and not (just) because I’m gay. (I don’t like being hugged by strangers. I would hate being humped by a random perv on the train.) There are also men out there who have been the victims of sexual violence — far, far fewer men than women, of course, but you can’t tell by looking at a guy whether he’d be traumatized by your opportunistic attentions. Even if your hump-dar (like gaydar, but for humping) was perfect and you never did this to a man who didn’t enjoy it, you’re normalizing sexual assault on subways and buses, TRAIN, thereby making these spaces less safe for women than they already are. Knock it the fuck off.

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