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Autism Without Fear: Reframing Our Conversations About “Sex”

A quick thank you to Autism Spectrum News and Publisher, David Minot. I’ve known David and the publication for almost two decades, wrote for it more than once, and am thrilled to herein move my column, “Autism Without Fear,” with the hopes of many years of collaboration. Now, David also deserves a special “trooper” award, as in my first submission, I am openly disagreeing with the popular notion (celebrated by this entire issue’s theme) that sex should be taught in conjunction with relationships. I believe this is harmful (read on!), so…Thank you, David!

Reframing Our Conversations About “Sex”

It’s hard to admit when, by most people’s definitions, you might be actually sex-negative. Gasp! You thought you had a positive attitude, right? And then – doggone it – you read a little, or you listened once to Dan Savage…It’s tough, right? Well, take heart in that (I assume) you live in the US, a country that despite its relative economic and educational advances, is ridiculously sex-negative. You (and the autism world) didn’t have a chance!

Ok. So we may not be the French or Dutch who allow underage “sleepovers” or give free birth control in public schools. But because of those aforementioned economic and educational advantages, we should know better – we do know better! But we consciously give in to insecurities that turn us into inordinately draconian, and frankly, punitive people. Whether it’s…

Michael John Carley

Michael John Carley

Stop me now!

Why? Why do we do this to ourselves? Sex is about pleasure!…(and in the autism world, which I’m getting to, our messaging is even worse).

Actually, there is a reason why we do this. The answer carries more explanation than justification, but whether you live in a more sex-negative or less sex-negative place on earth, what we are always fighting with our cultures is biology. The frenulum, clitoris, and anus want what they want. We don’t have to give it to them all the time, but the degree to which we deny our bodies’ needs is often far more developmentally debilitating than we’ll ever know. Our cultures are always in conflict with our biology because we try to control said biology.

Look, autistic or not, I’m herein not that interesting either. I knowingly give in to cultural conceits because of my desire to be the best father I can be as well as to happily remain with the love of my life for as long as I can. For culturally-enforced reasons, few of us proposition fellow parents sitting next to their spouses at PTA meetings, and we don’t have sex with a co-worker, at work, on a desk, in front of everyone, even if there’s (semi) informed, mutual consent.

But my difference is that I’ve had educational opportunities to learn about certain culturally-enforced lies about sex. I know that no one needs to be “in the mood” to have sex. If the genitals are rubbed the right way, gosh dang it, almost all of us will get into that mood quite easily (Why does this come up? Why would you want to be in a relationship where you didn’t want to take care of your partner’s needs?) I also know that monogamy is not our natural way of living as a species. Uncertain paternity made life safer for children back in our hunter-gatherer days…

And again, many of us who think ourselves sex-positive are anything but. Think about it…

  • You’re straight parents. You’d be fine if your child was LGBTQ? Well how many LGBTQ events do you take them to, and what does that show (as about to tell) your child about your comfort level with all things LGBTQ?
  • Do you see people whose bodies show more pounds than usual and regard them as having less sexual potential than supermodels? Culturally-enforced depression and shaming may be a factor, but their genitals work the same.
  • Are you a vagina-owner who has used hygiene products even though you have no discernible medical problem down there? Well, there’s nothing wrong with the smell (anthropologically, it has also played a very integral role in our species’ advancement). Many books even refer to the vagina as having “its own ecosystem – such fluids, as well as the semen from penises, actually contain far fewer germs than the saliva in our mouths.
  • Are you a penis-owner who thinks of another penis-owner’s values as reflecting their religious or political beliefs, but think of “How many men has she slept with?” when the same word (“values”) is posed to you regarding women or non-binary folk?

I could go ON and on…but you get the point.

Autistics Get “Sex is wonderful, BUT!…”

As autistics, many of us may not have the great marriage. We may not have the great career or straight “A” students as kids (and that’s should we have kids at all). Sex may be the best thing we have in our lives, and that includes those of us for whom elaborate and self-loving masturbation rituals might be the ceiling.

But often because of the horrors of law enforcement encounters, the dangers are driven into us at the expense of the benefits. Many of us charged with educating the spectrum young prefer to discourage, rather than encourage. This drives many of our folks away from even wanting a great sex life (and when this decision occurs, I have seen the relieved faces of many parents. This is sick).

Unwanted pregnancies, STDs, sexual assault, sexual assault charges…we teach these imperative lessons. Good. But we teach them under the wrong umbrella. The first two are caused mostly by sex, but they are not “sex.” They should be under the umbrella of “Health.”

So teach them as “Health” lessons.

The latter two are even more heinous. They revolve around either “the law” or “violence,” not “sex.” And I’m sorry, but what kind of a society confuses violence and sex?

So teach them as lessons about “the law.”

My objection to teaching sex alongside relationships? Easy. Sex is not complicated, but relationships are. We can easily teach sex because of the biology. We can teach techniques for how to please another person using a penis, vagina, anus, hand, mouth, foot, or a toy…on a frenulum, clitoris, or anus… And usually? This is the only kind of sex education we actually want! What we all want is confidence!

But relationships are really complicated (another article, perhaps). So teaching the two together then makes sex feel much more complicated than it is. Also…“Friends first”? Baloney. No one gets aroused because someone looks friendly.

During my ten years of running the largest membership organization for adults on the spectrum in the world (at the time, GRASP), I can’t tell you how many spectrumites I talked to who physically shook as they conveyed that “Michael I don’t want to have sex because it’s too scary!”

And they usually didn’t. We did that to them. It was mean. It was an awful thing to do, perhaps to several generations.

So: Let’s teach sex as sex. It’s exciting and fun. No one suffers from low self-esteem when they’re having an orgasm.

Let’s inform our kids what their options really are. The probability of a non-speaking individual requesting to go to a “Donald Duck rules” sex club (i.e., no pants) may elicit laughter. But it is possible (and happens!). So let’s help them find that sex club – Oh, and if you’re not comfortable with that (admittedly, few are), find someone who is – Uncle Ralph, or exotic cousin Edna – otherwise you deny them as sexual beings.

Give us permission to give ourselves permission to seek physical pleasure.

Sex is wonderful. (No “BUT!…”)

That’s it.

Michael John Carley is the Facilitator of the “Connections” program at New York University for their worldwide autistic students, and he also has a private, Peer Mentoring practice. In the past, he was the Founder of GRASP, a school consultant, and the author of “Asperger’s From the Inside-Out” (Penguin/Perigee 2008), “Unemployed on the Autism Spectrum,” (Jessica Kingsley Publishers 2016), “The Book of Happy, Positive, and Confident Sex for Adults on the Autism Spectrum…and Beyond!,” (Neurodiversity Press 2021, where he recently became the Editor-in-Chief), and dozens of published articles. For more information on Michael John, or to subscribe to his free newsletter, you can go to

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