Friday, August 22, 2014

SEX! Now That I Have Your Attention, Read this Blog Post!

If you've landed here because of the word "sex", I'm sorry to disappoint that this is not a blog post meant to titillate you. But hey, the title got your attention, right? And that's exactly the point. Sex is something that is so heavily ingrained in our society, penetrating both the conscious and unconscious bits of our brains. In fact, that is the point of this long blog post: it is a huge part of everybody's lives. 

Well, almost everybody's. Believe it or not, there are exceptions to the rule.

Only in the past ten years (or less, perhaps) has society begun to accept the notion of life being on a spectrum. There's the autism spectrum, of course, which this blog was created to address. Even more recently-- I think in 2007 specifically-- did we begin to learn that gender exists on a spectrum, well beyond the binary that humankind has believed it to be (in most cultures) for thousands of years. I identify as a tomboy, somewhere in the middle of that gender spectrum. And finally, sex is found to exist on a spectrum, and I don't mean the gay-straight spectrum (though that is another spectrum that is becoming more accepted). It's a spectrum that includes being very sexually inclined at one end to being asexual at the other end.

The funny thing is that many of the same liberal, open-minded people who accept the autism spectrum, the sexual orientation spectrum, and even the gender spectrum-- one of the most difficult ideas for people to accept-- have an enormously difficult time accepting the sexual/asexual spectrum. Some people-- including professionals-- don't accept that it's a spectrum, believing that it's unthinkable that anybody could not have an interest in sex or at least a reduced interest in sex unless they have been abused in some way or unless there is something psychologically wrong with them. Sometime in the past decade, many people have been coming out as asexual. Yes, that's right. These are people who have no interest in sex. Some of them are interested in romantic relationships without sex, but some are not even interested in romantic relationships.

Then there are the demisexuals, who are in the middle of the spectrum. They're not sexual in the conventional sense, nor are they asexual (however, some people consider demisexuality to be a subset of asexuality). What is demisexuality? Well, before I define it, let's look at how most people experience romantic infatuation. First, a woman (or a gay man) might see a man and find him attractive. "Hey, that guy is cute. I'm going to go over and say hello". They say hello. The man might be interested in the woman (or the other man) because he finds her (or him) attractive. They know nothing about each other, but they continue to talk, trying to get to know each other as lust intensifies and tension builds. Depending on their inclinations and personal beliefs, they might have sex that very night. Or they might date first and have sex a few days, weeks, or months later. If infatuation usually didn't work out that way, many of us would not have been born.

Demisexuals experience infatuation in the exact opposite way, the way that I experience it: I am a demisexual. First I meet a guy and start talking to him as a friend. Nothing else is on my mind except that we're just talking, getting to know each other as friends. After I start to get to know the guy, I might find something attractive in his personality and then develop a crush. Only after I become infatuated with the guy as a person do thoughts of, "Wow, he's really cute!" enter my mind. And only sometime after that do the lustful thoughts finally surface. For this reason, online dating would never work for me.

For years I had chalked up my experiences to part of having Asperger's Syndrome, but only a few months ago did I learn that there was a term for my sexual orientation: demisexual. I have only experienced eight crushes (the last was in 2008), and only one reciprocated, back when I was 18. We did not "officially" date, let alone have sex: he was from Germany and only in the U.S. temporarily. We were friends with (limited) benefits, meaning we "fooled around" a little and that was it. I wasn't ready for sex at the time, and he didn't push me. If we had met more recently (I'm 33), I might have felt differently.

Last week I was at a Boston-area Meetup for people who identify as asexual and demisexual. Some of these people have had sex, some haven't yet, and some never will. One guy there had Asperger's Syndrome (many people with AS are asexual or demisexual), and another was a transgender man. The group was a nice blend of people, some representing more than one spectrum. We all found it cathartic to talk about our experiences: we all grew up wondering why everybody was always obsessed with getting dates and getting laid and why our parents-- sorry, our mothers-- were so worried about us. 

All of us had eerily similar stories about invasive questions our mothers had asked us. For example, when I was fourteen, my favorite actor was Alan Arkin and I was obsessed with some of his movies. Oh, so of course I must have had a crush on the then-sixty-year-old man. At least in my mother's perception. One night we rented Catch-22. My mother said, "We're going to watch Catch-22 with Alan Arkin-- sexy Alan Arkin." Then my mother suddenly asked, "Julie, what traits do you find attractive in boys?" Years later, when I told Dad this story, he told me, "You should have said 'Mom, you have the subtlety of a hand grenade.'" Other awkward, hand grenade-subtlety questions and comments from Mom included, "Look at [insert male celebrity's name here]. He's so cute. Don't you think?"; "Have you ever had a crush? Are you sure you haven't?" which later became "Have you ever had a crush? Are you sure you have?"; and "Are you sure you're not gay?". These questions made me feel worse, like there was something wrong with me. Others in the group felt the same way.

All of us in the group had one very specific experience in common: Growing up we were very uncomfortable with the topic of sex. It has been my experience that kids on the autism spectrum (and, according to psychologist Tony Attwood), girls especially are very uncomfortable with the topic of sex. These asexual/demisexual people, on the autism spectrum or not, had also been very uncomfortable (we eventually got over it). None of us could articulate why. But I have two ideas: 

1) Parents of kids with Asperger's sometimes get very uncomfortable with the things their children are obsessed with. My mother was very uncomfortable with my obsession with The Addams Family movie when I was 11-12. This was because she didn't understand why. Isn't it natural that people for whom sex is not on their radar, if at all, feel uncomfortable that the whole world seems to be obsessed with sex? 

When our mothers had tried to figure us out, they only made things worse. Universally, our mothers told us what a beautiful thing sex is between two people who loved each other. All of us had had the same reaction: "I don't feel the same way, but I'm expected to. And Mom is practically demanding I feel this way. There must be something wrong with me. And I must be narrow-minded for not feeling this way!"

2) For girls specifically, I think the pervasive objectification of women in movies does not help. In movies, sex is often depicted as a service that women give to men. And often women in movies are love/sexual interests first, characters second. I don't believe in censorship, but I think this aspect of movies is an important issue to discuss (perhaps in another blog post) and how it affects girls with Asperger's in particular. I think as a kid I must have thought on some level that I was supposed to eventually be like these women. It's harder as a kid with Asperger's to sort out these messages. 

At the Meetup, all of us recounted dealing with misunderstandings about asexuality/demisexuality in our adult lives. The women, myself included, were tired of going to their OB/GYNs and having to explain, "No, I'm not repressed; no, I wasn't abused; no I'm not religious; it just hasn't happened yet and I'm not losing any sleep over it." Likewise, we women also expressed frustration at the inevitable, patronizing response to this comment: "Oh, that's wonderful! You're waiting for the right person," as if our not-having-yet-been-laid status is due to discipline rather than a different set of inclinations. It's like praising a skinny person for being disciplined when the reality is that she may just not be as interested in food, not because she is a hardcore athlete.

And no, we're not afraid of sex, nor are we narrow-minded about it. Narrow-minded is an educator at the LGBTQ center in Manhattan telling me that I must have some "issue" because I can count on my fingers the number of crushes I've had.

Oh, and another misunderstanding is that we have some moral agenda. No, we are just differently inclined. We respect the inclinations of others as long as consenting adults are involved. We are sex-positive people who are just not as into sex as most others.

Independent-Living Prospects

I am fed up with people asking me what I do for a living. 

It's one of those questions that begs the question. That is, people assume that because I am thirty-three I must have a career. But I don't have a career. It's just one of those aspects of life that is taken for granted. When people ask me what I do for a living, they are making a lot of unconscious assumptions: They see that I am a white, middle-class American. Most likely my life was uneventful. I finished high school, went to college, got a job that I have been working at for ten years or so and, possibly married with kids, am living happily ever after (fortunately I am living in an era when, and a city where, marriage and children isn't one of these assumptions). When they make these assumptions, they assume, too, that I am neurotypical, even if they have never heard of the word. These are some of the many assumptions that people make about every other human being on earth, and only recently have they been brought into question. 

People who know me and know my situation tell me to "think positive". It's easy for them to say, of course, since they are neurotypical people who are not stuck with the sometimes-torture chamber that is my brain. They haven't gone to school, constantly been between jobs-- dead-end jobs, that is-- realized that their degree was useless, gone back to school, gotten a Master's Degree, taken two jobs related to that degree and been fired from both of them because of issues related to interpersonal skills, and then realized that that they have yet another useless degree. They do not understand the turmoil I have had to live with practically from the dawn of my consciousness. And their suggestions to alleviate some of the problems related to living independently actually do not work for me. They take it for granted that these suggestions would work because they would work for most people. It doesn't even occur to them that there are some people for whom these suggestions would be harmful.

What suggestions are we talking about exactly? For example: 

1. Until you can get a permanent job (yes, like WHEN?), why not take a job in retail? At least it's some money!

No. I can't take a job in retail. I was just fired from two jobs that involved working with the public. I can only put a fake smile on my face and pretend to be interested in everybody's personal lives before the holes in my facade start to form. People can see right through that. Besides, it's too emotionally exhausting for me. This isn't a matter of "won't", but a matter of "can't", in the same way a person with an IQ of 75 can't do calculus. This is just not who I am, and I have tried it.

Just for the record, I do have a temporary work at home job. It does not pay well, however.

2. Get a roommate so that you can save money. It will also be less of a burden on your parents.

Yes, it's true. My parents are helping me to live in Boston, just as they helped me to live in New York City. My mother is retiring next year, so unless I find something within the coming year, I have to move back to Pennsylvania to live with my parents. In the meantime, I am downgrading from a one-bedroom to a studio apartment (fortunately in the same building) on August 31st. I sucked it up and got rid of a lot of books and some furniture so I can comfortably fit in this smaller unit. My one-bedroom is $1425 a month and is set to go up to $1500 this fall. The studio is $1200 a month. I actually did try getting a roommate. I met a fellow Aspie over the Internet. We hit it off immediately and started making arrangements to get a place together. But he and I got into an argument over something really stupid and realized it wouldn't work out. Before meeting him I met a few other potential roommates. None of them picked me. I am sure I would be difficult to live with. I have my own habits, my own way of doing things. This is very typical of people with Asperger's. Plus, when I was in college, nearly all my roommate situations ended in disaster. Even my parents agreed that they would rather sacrifice some extra money to help me rent a studio than hope that a roommate situation to which they wouldn't have to contribute financially would work out.

3. Move to a suburb. It's so much cheaper!

Yes, it is not only cheaper but also a lot less diverse and accepting. In places like New York and Boston, I feel comfortable and make friends with ease. It is hard to meet people as accepting and open-minded in a suburb, even in comparatively liberal suburbs such as the one in Pennsylvania where my parents live. Plus, think about this: If some employers in a city are uncomfortable with my personality, it would probably be much worse in a suburb. My job prospects would likely not be any better, despite the lack of competition. 

4. Why don't you try [insert job prospect here]?

I already have. I have been down so many paths that it is almost laughable when others make suggestions, thinking I actually haven't tried them. That's another assumption: People assuming that I don't have a career because there are avenues that I haven't thought to explore.

In short, I am beyond frustrated. I live in Massachusetts, a state that famously has the most resources in the U.S. for adults with Asperger's Syndrome, so that is making me hopeful that they can assist me with finding a job. I am, however, not optimistic. I like to think that my blog posts give people hope, but sometimes I have to be honest: Life with Asperger's often does not turn out the way it did for Temple Grandin, for example. Most people with Asperger's-- women especially-- struggle to make ends meet in adulthood. I've heard of brilliant people working as janitors or doing some work that doesn't reflect their intelligence because they can't get through a job interview. Or they get through the interview and can't hold the job because of conflicts with coworkers and their bosses. Right now I feel that my only hope is to get my writing published (I have already finished a book that I am shopping around and am currently working on another). But even most best-selling authors have to have day jobs to make ends meet.

To those of you who brandish big smiles while telling me to "think positive", please walk around in my shoes for a day. 

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

High School Reunion

I was too scared to make friends in high school. 

I had been bullied horribly in middle school, and the few friends I had ditched me in 9th grade (middle school in my district). So in high school I kept people at arm's length. I was so scared of opening up to other kids, even the oddballs that I suspected I could become friends with, that I was extremely quiet and introverted. People who know me well can't imagine me as quiet. This tells you how much I inhibited myself to stay off of people's radars. 

I had a few casual acquaintances in high school, but nobody I connected with let alone saw on the weekends. In fact, I asked very few people to sign my yearbook, and many who did just wanted to say "hi" to my mother, who had been their teacher in 9th grade (at a different middle school). Obviously they didn't realize how annoying it was that they were using me just to say hi to my mother! It would be as if someone contacted George Carlin's daughter or Richard Dawkins's daughter on a social media network just to say, "Your dad is cool." Yeah, I don't know you, but your dad is cool!

As far as I was concerned, my real "yearbooks" were the albums that I created with photos from my years at Camp Negev, which coincided with high school. These "yearbooks" actually had dozens of signatures with sincere messages in them, telling me what an amazing person I was. I wished I could get the same feedback from kids in high school.

Over the years, some of my high school acquaintances and I found each other on Facebook. A few expressed frustration that they could not be themselves and had to pretend in order to fit in. Some hadn't had any real relationships either. Even though they didn't have Asperger's Syndrome, a few were socially awkward and had the same concerns as I. If only we had been comfortable enough to get to know each other! Others told me that they had always thought I was an interesting person. I was surprised. I had no idea that anybody I went to school with felt this way about me. Well, they probably had to keep their mouths shut so they wouldn't get bullied themselves.

One person, Annette (not her real name), who I went to school with from 1st grade through graduation, friended me on Facebook in late 2013. We hadn't really known each other, or really talked to each other. But why not? I accepted her request. A few months later, she commented on one of my links to a blog post I had written about bullying. She said she was certain she knew who some of the bullies were that I had mentioned in the post (she was wrong-- she actually named some kids from elementary school, not middle school). We started talking. Annette said that she always felt bad for me but was too scared to step in and defend me, knowing she would be next. Water under the bridge, I told her. It was about twenty years ago, after all, and bullying was barely acknowledged back then, even by parents and teachers. I already know from a few other people I talked to that they felt the same way. I am now certain had enough of the kids who secretly liked me said something, the bullying would have stopped-- and I would have been confident enough to make friends in high school.

Annette and I continued to talk on Facebook over the next few months and got to know each other better. In July, I flew in to Pennsylvania to visit my family for a week. Annette and I met up and went out to dinner. She said something about the weekend dinners she and her group of friends often had in high school. I felt a pang of jealousy, that I had missed out on a simple pleasure of the teen years that so many people take for granted. While my peers had gone out to dinner or the movies on Saturday nights, I stayed home and found ways to entertain myself. I, of course, don't regret that much of the way that I entertained myself during that time was to work on personal projects, but I regret that going out with friends wasn't even an option for me. 

When we went back to my parents' house, Annette and I looked through my yearbooks. I realized that this was the first time I ever was anything other than indifference while looking at them, let alone having fun. For the first time, I was looking at them with someone from school who I considered a friend. I thought to myself that at last I was getting a taste of what high school was supposed to be-- at age 33.