I’m an autistic woman in a stable, mostly healthy marriage. I think our problems are minor compared to other people’s problems. But somebody needs to talk about autism and having sex. I guess that would be me.
Editor’s content notice: this article covers uncomfortable topics related to intimacy, masking, sex, coercion, sensory processing disorder, and difficulty communicating boundaries.
If I’m being honest, my sex life has tanked, moving from disappointing to disastrous.
I’m the one who realizes it’s disastrous, though, because I’m the one experiencing the disaster.
Originally, this was a longer article; however, after reader feedback, I’ve decided to split this into two separate articles. The second part, Sex Hacks for Sensory Avoiders, can be read by clicking here.
Words Mean Different Things to Me
My partner and I are very different when it comes to our personal needs. Our sensory profiles are polar opposite. I notice everything, feel everything, see everything, smell everything, taste everything, and all of that input is overwhelming at any time.
He notices very little external. He’s wholly consumed by what’s going on inside his head and body. For him, this is great. He can control what he senses and feels, to a degree, and is not as perpetually overwhelmed as me.
My sensory profile makes sex difficult. It doesn’t have to be, but another human is involved who is “normal” in the sexual arena. That makes this a social experience, and those don’t tend to go in my favor.
Noticing All the Things
Even if someone has brushed their teeth, I can smell the contents of their stomach churning. I can smell the inside of their nose. I can smell everything. I smell my body and yours, and the wall of scents swirl and close in on me, barricading me inside this invisible claustrophobic restraint.
When someone kisses my skin, hovers right over my face, breathes onto me, I’m awash in an empathetic intimacy overload and the fumes of bile and acid indigestion tinged with the mint of toothpaste.
They’ve left a slimy wet film of it on my forehead when they kissed it gingerly, and I panic because I want to throw them off and run away. The need to wipe it off is visceral and uncontrollable, but I’ll seem like a jerk because it’s not “normal” for me to feel this way.
But to me, for the intensity of the experience, they may as well have just emptied the juice from the bottom of a trash bag onto my face and neck.
Instead, I lie there and take it. I let that slime slick just fester on my forehead so that I can think of nothing else but that and the breath spiced with garlic, acid, and beer leading an uprising against my olfactory nerve.
I already know that my feelings are not typical– not even for someone with the sexual trauma I’ve experienced.
Eager hands grope and search, grope and search, the pressure not deep enough to keep me from feeling the insufferable intensity of electrified nerve endings burning through my fascia. Those hands travel over the spots that activate every insecurity and trauma association I have. Fingertips glide across my too-soft stomach, and I jerk and bat the offending hand away.
Every insecurity and shame I have is awakened. Like soldiers, they elbow their way to the forefront of my consciousness to report for duty. I’m supposed to be in the throes of passion, but I’m just being crushed by degradation and self-hate. The prying fingers move on and pause on a scar.
I notice everything.
My mask is so solid that I’m still appearing to be enjoying myself.
The exploration of my body graduates from fingers to mouth. Wiry beard pokes through my shirt, clings to my hair, debrides my neck. It is a million June bug legs, gripping and lifting, gripping and lifting.
I feel every micrometer of my skin like I live in five thousand bodies that are all communicating at once in screams and shrieks and languages I don’t speak.
The sensation remains even after my partner has moved on, a fire smouldering just under my skin.
The mouth sounds echo and reverberate through my head like a sadistic synesthetic ping pong ball lighting up every cortex of my short-circuiting brain. Why these noises bother me so much, I don’t know.
Wait Until Tomorrow
Always and without fail, my partner has a very obvious play when he wants to have sex. He starts by climbing in the bed and talking to me, which is not a huge part of our typical routine. It’s small talk coupled with cuddling, and those two things do not register very high on my sexual arousal meter.
I’m afraid he’s going to ask for sex, and I’m not ready for that. My day has been filled with overwhelm, I’m touched out, and I’m light years away from being in the headspace to have sex.
And almost every time, I ask him to wait until tomorrow. He doesn’t get it, and I don’t tell him. He doesn’t want to wait. He’s not mean about, and he’s willing to take the most minimal effort as a concession prize. “Give me a hand?” he pleads.
“If we do it tonight, then I’ll last longer tomorrow,” he promises. That’s not a selling point for me, at all. The conditions I need to be able to have– and enjoy– sex do not involve the promise of longer sex.
I don’t want to give a hand job. I don’t want to give a blow job. I don’t even want to watch and cheer.
What I want is a mutually-enjoyable experience, but I can’t get there this way. I mean, his drive is higher than mine, and he’s more flexible. I do try to accommodate him when it’s been a while, even if I’m not in the mood. He tries to coerce the mood, giving his best effort. This usually involves kissing, massage, licking, groping, whatever most people do when they are trying to inspire the mood.
It just doesn’t work for me, though. Maybe like two out of every five hundred attempts, but he thinks it’s worth the effort. What he doesn’t know is that it distresses me.
I try to weather the sensory tornado whipping into a welter inside me, the chaotic cacophony of sensory processing becomes sensory protesting.
He keeps begging, negotiating. He’s happy with anything and doesn’t complain, but I don’t want to do anything but to wait until tomorrow.
The unspoken truth is that I’m always the one who says no. I’m always the one who spoils it. I’m not spontaneous enough. I’m weird.
A few times, but rarely, he has expressed being hurt by my rejections. I’m terrified of that. I am very attracted to him, I love him, but sex is not casual to me like it is him, and I cannot get there quickly. I do not want to reject him, though, because that is an important part of expressing love and connection for him.
He will ask again, offer to just do it himself. He wants to kiss, but anything besides waiting until tomorrow will be too much for me. And, I won’t want it tomorrow because of tonight.
I feel like I’m not worth the wait. He never would say that, and he’s not thinking that, but that’s the message I receive in the moment. I’m feel like a slab of meat with no preferences or desires.
But it will take a long time for me to recover from my self-loathing and the unexpressed anger that I’m feeling.
Losing by Losing Harder
I start trying to explain myself, again. I’m feeling forced into explaining my autistic brain, again. There’s nothing less sexy than pathologizing my own sexual behavior and desire by detailing my rigidity, sensory sensitivities, and oddities, again. Autism and neuroscience make great pillow talk…
And now I’m that person who talks too much, again. I hate talking.
However it happens, it happens with no grace or style or excitement. I perform a duty under duress, or he takes care of himself, and I fake enthusiasm because I feel guilty for being so weird and difficult. He finishes and thanks me and tells me he loves me, then goes right to sleep.
Not me. My skin is still burning. It won’t stop. I rub and rub at those places so hard that they’re left raw. I’m trying to erase the feeling. It’s still there.
I stand up, walk around, pace. The sleep medications I had taken have passed their window of being effective. Now they’re just enough to make my restless legs jump.
I’m trying to outpace this meltdown. I rifle through the medicine cabinet, swearing at my conservative psychiatrist who sees my stress as if it is other people’s stress.
It’s not. I need elephant tranquilizers right now and he wants to give me something like Benadryl.
But this feeling won’t leave my skin. It grows roots under my flesh and spreads, a wildfire devastating my psychic ecosystem. I feel like some deranged character from Edgar Allan Poe’s discard pile.
Headphones would help, but I don’t remember them until the next day when I go to write about this disaster in an article. I can’t think of anything that will help.
He’s sleeping like a rock, and the pinnacle of my problem solving skills is the redundant refrain of contemplating dousing myself with gasoline. Tomorrow, I will wake up embattled and face the day starting with nothing to give.
Either the meltdown comes, or I’ve obliterated myself trying to externalize the sensations enough to control them… by self harming, or self medicating, or self loathing myself into a catatonic state.
If he had only waited until tomorrow…
It takes me a long time to be ready for sex. The dopamine flood of a new relationship made this easier to navigate, but that faded with time as it does with all long-term relationships.
Eventually, I had to go back to navigating my defiant neurology like a research scientist fumbling through trial-and-error or a high-stakes gambler betting the house on my ability to make it to the end without showing all my autism cards.
I am not asexual. I actually really enjoy sex, but only under the right conditions. These can be highly specific, and they always require time.
I have to have time. I have to prepare in advance, mentally. It’s takes a conscious effort to coordinate and rearrange my neural ruts so that I can be in the right gear. I can’t travel to places without first laying tracks.
It’s like I have to visualize a path to sexual desire, like a cosmic ribbon weaving itself in different directions, tying together each disparate cortex of my brain needed to make sex happen.
Then I’m ready.
If I can get there, I’m very ready. When it happens that way, I imagine what I experience is better than what most people experience.
Sex Isn’t Sex to Me
For me, it takes a lot of intellectual stimulation to want sex. Sex isn’t sex in my fantasy life, but a lot of converging energies and sensations that come from this volley of innuendo, metaphors buried deep in lyrics and poetry, and a building crescendo of anticipation.
The sex, at least, is not the fun part.
If he had waited until tomorrow, I would have started the process of preparing right then. I would have felt honored and respected and worth the wait, my feelings valued more than his physical gratification. That claustrophobic feeling of being coerced would’ve left me.
I would probably would have made it harder for him, no pun intended. Maybe that’s a little mean. Using explicit language whispered in his ear, I would’ve made a promise about the plans I had for the next day. He would’ve squirmed and groaned— and maybe it would have taken three minutes to fall asleep as opposed to his customary ten seconds.
And I would’ve spent an hour or two or three thinking about the next day and planning it, writing a script in my head.
Scripts for Sex
Yes, I’m aware that scripted sex might seem boring to most people. It’s a very autistic thing, sure.
But I’m a really good writer.
And to be frank, most of you approach sex with the finesse of an overzealous Saint Bernard. Your sloppy paw placement, profuse slobbering, aggressive panting, and lack of attention to detail is a hostile sensory assault.
Ideally, this wouldn’t be a one day event. The anticipation would build over the course of several days. There would be veiled text messages sent through the day while he was at work, thoughtfully placed and timed promises that almost seem like delicious threats, metaphors, massages without happy endings, until the anticipation grew to the point of delirium.
But, I could have made a lot of progress to that end in a day. It wouldn’t have been worthy of a chapter in some pop guru’s tantric sexual dynamics book, but it would’ve been better than a reluctant hand job– for both of us.
Prep also would mean that I did or did not do things that would kill the mood.
I could have avoided the foods and activities that cause me to feel sluggish or overwhelmed, taken time for self care, curated my playlist (songs and moves), timed my shower, worn something other than my most ragged underwear and sweatpants, tidied up the room, shaved my legs, held off on my sleep meds, and could have spent the time daydreaming about what might leave both of us reeling.
Consent is important, and sex is not something that is healthy to mask your way through as if you’re enjoying it when it’s not meeting your needs. Your whole life is probably like that, and having sex is harder every time you “put on a brave face.”
Your autistic partner might not get even your most fervent hints. They might see soft hints as an invitation to negotiate and not as a hard “no.” And you might have a hard time saying “no.”
It’s important to have these conversations first, before anything happens. Many autistic people may go mute during sex, whether it’s really good or it’s really bad sex.
Work out some signal or stop point that works for both of you, and respect that instantly. Work out a secondary “slow down” point, or a “don’t do that specific thing but keep going” signal.
Because without question, “taking one for the team” is not a good strategy. The more times you go along with it because you want to please your partner, the more you will associate sex negatively and the harder it will be to get back to a place where sex is mutually gratifying.