Consent and Neurodivergence

Trigger warning: discussion of rape and sexual assault

Cross posted from We Got So Far To Go

Consent is at the heart of sexual ethics for many feminists and other progressive individuals. There’s talk of enthusiastic consent, and impaired consent, and power dynamics, and all sorts of things that might impair someone’s ability to consent. Those who promote consent can come down pretty hard on someone who has violated another’s consent (with good reason). More often than not, these conversations seem to give the message that consent is simple and anyone can figure it out. People can read body language, so clearly we can all tell when someone is not interested.

Unfortunately, what this type of attitude obscures is that for many people, consent is not easy or simple. Conversations that look to have some sympathy for those who are more than simply “socially awkward” but who are actually neurodivergent get shut down as rape apologism. Some people repeat over and over that we can’t have any tolerance for those who violate consent, that nothing is an excuse, that we need to get serious about consent. And yes, it’s true that we can’t excuse bad behavior based on neurodivergence, but navigating consent and body language when you’re neurodivergent is simply different and far more difficult than doing so when you’re neurotypical and it’s time we talked about it.

For individuals who understand body language with relative ease and can communicate well, consent is just as easy as navigating any other social interaction. For those with autism or other forms of neurodivergence, it just doesn’t always make sense. There are two important sides to this question: one is those who have a mental illness that leaves them with cripplingly low self-esteem or other problems that mean they feel incapable of saying no. The other is those who need things to be phrased in a literal, clear way in order to understand them and who subsequently hurt the people they care for but don’t understand why or how.

Let’s start with the first. I have more experience here and I believe that these questions are a little more clear cut. The concept of consent assumes that all parties understand what they want and are comfortable with, and have the confidence to express those wants and needs. Unfortunately, many people (women in particular) have been conditioned to repress their desires, to hide them. It’s no secret that low self-esteem is a serious problem for many women. When someone doesn’t have a mental illness it’s hard enough to internalize the ideas of consent and to be open about what you’d like. Sometimes even learning to use your body language is difficult.

But what about those of us with mental illnesses? Say those who have learned that their emotions are always wrong and must be shut down, or that they can’t trust their emotions? What about those who dissociate and simply stop doing much when they become uncomfortable? What about those who have pathological fears of abandonment? We may be fully convinced of the importance of consent and still feel incapable of standing up for ourselves or expressing our wants and needs and boundaries because somewhere in the back of our mind there is a terrifying tape playing over and over that tells us we must follow the script or we will be alone forever. When an individual feels pressured to consent simply because their mind requires them to appease others, or they’ve got an unrealistic image of what might drive away their partner, consent becomes complicated.

To some extent, I question whether individuals who feel so enmeshed in a disease are capable of consent. If someone is incapable of seeing a situation realistically, can they ever be properly informed? I say this as someone who has been in these situations, thought that they were consenting, and realized later that I felt there was no other option. I am unsure whether anything can be considered consent if there is no possibility of saying no.

This is not to say that the mentally ill should never be allowed to have sex, but rather that consent is far more complex when one has to fight against a mental illness to get a clear picture of what one is consenting to and what the consequences of saying no are. It means that both parties who are consenting need to be fully aware of the situation. I also hope that the partner who is not mentally ill would take extra care to ensure that their partner knows they’re allowed to say no and will be valued regardless of sexual activity. In addition, I’m not suggesting that someone who is mentally ill is responsible for recovering or overcoming their mental illness in order to prevent sexual assault. That’s victim blaming nonsense. I am suggesting that they should be aware that their mental illness might obscure what they actually want and need, and that there should be an active and open conversation with partners (or at the very least with oneself and trusted support people) to determine what you actually want and need, and how to obtain it.

This points towards the fact that we can say someone did something wrong (misinterpreted the cues of consent and did something without another’s consent) without deciding that the individual is a horrible, miserable excuse for a human being. Thanks to my own choices to obscure my desire and boundaries, I have had partners violate them without being aware that they had done so. Often these were people who deeply loved me and wanted to never hurt me. I have begun to label their actions as inappropriate without then needing to decide that they were bad, hurtful people.

So what about the other side, those who may try to value and respect consent but find it difficult to identify when it’s present or absent? Consent is even muddier when someone has difficulty with reading body language or difficulty understanding social cues or difficulty when requests aren’t phrased in a completely literal fashion. If, for example, if someone has autism. I know that many people like to pretend that those with disabilities, including mental disabilities have no sex life, but that’s patently false. I personally have experienced some of the pitfalls of trying to navigate consent with an individual who has difficulty with social boundaries and social cues. This puts the partner in a difficult situation: how do you respect someone’s needs as a neurodivergent individual while still asserting your own boundaries?

I have never experienced it from the other side, but I’m sure it’s just as frustrating trying to understand how and why you appear to be hurting your partner. If you don’t understand that certain eye movements or body movements mean “no”, it can be extremely confusing to realize that your partner was trying to tell you no all along and you continued to push. You likely will blame yourself, right along with the other person, for something you have no control over: your ability or inability to read body language.

Particularly difficult is the fact that the community often has zero tolerance: if someone screws up one time they are officially a rapist and cannot be trusted. For those with autism, this means that they might misinterpret something and then lose much of their support system, even if they want to change, fix, or improve themselves so that it doesn’t happen again. Few people will take the time to adjust their communication habits, explain ways to read body language, or give the neurodivergent individual new tools to make sure things are better next time.

Part of the frustration here is that we don’t entirely know how to put the label “hurtful” or “unacceptable” on something without then imputing blame on the person who did it. We don’t know how to validate that someone is a survivor or was traumatized while also working to give positive options to the person who hurt them. While most rapists probably don’t need helpful hints about how not to rape, it’s straight out ableist to assume that the sex education that neurotypical people receive (which isn’t even sufficient for them) will be enough to help someone who is neurodivergent navigate the extremely tricky waters of sex.

Perhaps some of this is about the EXTREME need to find new scripts: I know that many autistic people work from scripts because that’s easiest for them. The scripts we have right now that surround sexuality suck. Providing new scripts might be the more useful way to take on these cases rather than shaming and cutting those people out of our lives. If we don’t create any new scripts, people will continue to behave in the same way. If we take the time to help them with a new script, they may have healthier relationships in future. This probably means putting more emphasis on verbal consent and making it ok to ask things like “do you like this?” or “do you want me to keep going?”

None of this is to say that neurodivergence is an excuse for sexual assault or harassment. I have seen people say “I’m autistic so it didn’t count” when told their behavior was unacceptable. That is deeply screwed up: you can still rape someone if you’re autistic. When someone does not show a strong desire to rectify what they’ve done, then by all means, blame away. These criticisms are pointed towards those who would vilify an autistic individual who deeply wants to make amends and improve their behavior for the future.

The important distinction here is excuse vs. explain. Explanations may be a plea for help to fix the root cause of a problem, while excuses seek to push away the responsibility. Different explanations for the same behavior require different actions to fix the problem. In the case of the neurodivergent, I wish there were more sympathy, more help, and more ways for the offender to demonstrate that they can learn and grow. Part of teaching consent is teaching people ways to say “no” and ways to navigate their relationship in a way that works for them. I am all for consent-based sexuality, but consent can’t be from one perspective. We need to open our movement up to those people for whom our current definition of consent isn’t working and doesn’t make sense.

I don’t necessarily have answers for how to balance these types of situations or how to improve them, but they are conversations that need to happen, and we need to recognize that one person’s version of consent may not work for everyone.


Olivia is a giant pile of nerd who tends to freak out about linguistic prescriptivism, gender roles, and discrimination against the mentally ill. By day she writes things for the Autism Society of Minnesota, and by night she writes things everywhere else. Check out her ongoing screeds against jerkbrains at www.taikonenfea.wordpress.com

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  1. For the first group, the people who don’t know how/don’t feel like they can say no, I think that would partially resolve itself if we pushed the meme that it is OK to say no. If we showed media that depicted women saying no, and it’s no big deal. If people could see other people saying no, and their (prospective) partners accepting that and either waiting for another time, or just moving on, depending on the relationship. That saying no is not the end of the universe, or an end to sex, or the end to a social life. If we showed the various ways that one can say no, verbally or non-verbally, we would not only teach people what consent looks like, but also how to refuse consent.

    This would not =completely= resolve the problem, because adverse socialization is not everyone’s issue. But it is the issue for a lot of people (especially a lot of women), and changing the way we treat consent publicly would filter down to how people handle consent privately.

    For the second group, the script is, “Do you want to …?” “Would you mind if I …?” “I don’t want to push you into anything, it’s okay for you to say no.”

  2. If the ‘neurodivergent’ run afoul of consent policy by not reading smoke signals and hearing dog-whistles, where was the actual ‘consent?’

    The language of consent assumes all sexual behavior is modeled on commerce. The female ‘gives’ or ‘sells’ access to her commodified body, having no desire or intention of her own. The very existence of male ‘consent’ is denied, male sexuality is treated like water-pressure. If ‘consent’ is to have such practical meaning, it would have to include both partners.

    Participation, Autonomy, Self-possession, Agency. These are the aspects that are suppressed or overridden in rape culture, and unfortunately in ‘normal’ dating culture as well.

    Refusal; the expression of non-consent, the declaration of disinterest. Is, I suspect, what the ‘consent’ talk is about. NO is a complete sentence, absolutely necessary in many social circumstances. Everyone has the right to opt out, to decline, to set a new boundary. I think this is a stronger expression than the ‘consent’ talk.

    1. I don’t agree with any of this. “The very existence of male consent is denied” … while this can be true and often is, it is not =invariably= true, and is not an inevitable consequence of the consent model. The consent model does not presuppose consent on the part of anyone. “The female ‘gives’ or ‘sells’ access to her commodified body, having no desire or intention of her own.” No, that’s not the consent model, that’s the rape model. That’s the woman-as-sexual-gatekeeper model.

      “Participation, Autonomy, Self-possession, Agency. These are the aspects that are suppressed or overridden in rape culture, and unfortunately in ‘normal’ dating culture as well.” Yes, but I don’t see how suppressing the consent model of sexual interaction is going to resolve that.

      Your last paragraph is confusing and your first one makes no sense to me at all.

      You clearly have a lot of disdain for the consent model of sexual interaction, but you don’t say at all what your ideal model looks like, especially if it doesn’t involve consent.

  3. First off, I would like to thank you for writing this, Olivia. This is something that has been frustratingly absent from discussions of sexual assault and sexual harassment.

    Having had first-hand experience with autism spectrum disorders (both my own and those of friends and family members), I know that much of what I read regarding consent on this and other blogs, as well as what I hear when talking with people, assumes that all people are good at understanding social cues and body language. When I have attempted to point out that, in fact, many people cannot understand these forms of communication, I find that I am at best brushed off, and at worst labelled an apologist, when I am simply pointing out a reality with which many people live.

    You are correct that people with autism spectrum disorders may inadvertently hurt someone because they don’t understand the forms of communication that someone might use to try to get them to stop (and you are also correct that we should differentiate between explanation and excuse). But this can also manifest in another way: many autistic people, knowing that they may inadvertently hurt someone, withdraw and deny their own needs and desires out of fear of causing harm. This has certainly been the case for me – insofar as I know, I have never done anyone any harm, but I have spent a lot of my life feeling lonely and isolated because I was aware that I might cause harm due to not understanding a situation, and so I have always withdrawn when I was not absolutely certain that my advances were or might be welcome (and often, after the fact, I have learned that they were not only welcome, but anticipated).

    Anyway, I am pleased that you have written this, and I hope that people will keep this in mind as they think about and discuss consent.

    1. This really resonates for me. I’m at the end where people often mistake me for just being outspoken and idiosyncratic, but I regularly misread social cues. Usually in ways that offend people, but I’ve also hurt people without meaning to. And really annoyed people who couldn’t bring themselves to make their desires explicit. The problem there is that autistic brains don’t work with our sexual scripts. Most of the time explicit consent is either banned from the script or strongly discouraged.

      I had one brief relationship with a woman who when asked “do you want to have sex” (mid-relationship, in bed together, not out of the blue. IMO it was an appropriate question), literally replied “don’t spoil it”, then got out of bed and went home. She was explicit that her issue was that nice girls don’t want sex, and must always resist it. I only asked explicitly once…

      There’s some interesting thinking going on in evolutionary biology/sexual selection theory about whether the human brain is a sexual symbol, like the peacock’s tail. I think the latest New Scientist has a quick summary of it. The question is whether our social behaviour is deliberately subtle and complex as a way of weeding out the socially inept, or a side effect of something else. Viz, are the big brain and related advanced social skills merely side effects of a different selection pressure (brains = ability to find and eat a wider variety of stuff, say), or were social skills a major selection pressure (social skills = can survive in greater population densities, say).

      1. Sorry, that last paragraph is wrong. The idea is that “big brains” are a sexual selection feature, unrelated to any utility. Like big tails or big horns. Or possibly even with disutility, way of saying “I’m so good I can have this giant liability attached and still beat you losers”.

  4. Skeith:
    The ‘consent model’ as described IS the rape model, with rape magically subtracted by ‘consent.’

    I don’t think i can restate my objections any more clearly or using smaller words. ‘Consent’ is gate-keeping, it includes no space for the ‘consenter’ to have desires or intentions of her own. It reduces the woman to a vending machine requiring exact change. She is robbed of her own wishes and her own capacity to make decisions and act upon them.

    In sex which is actually between equal partners, initiation-cooperation-suggestion-agreement are two-way streets. Bidding/consenting is the same model as coercing/submitting.

    The ability to withdraw participation, to ‘dis-initiate,’ to ‘un’-consent, is absolutely vital. But to make that the ideal is to stop far, far, short of any fair and egalitarian ‘model.’

    1. // She is robbed of her own wishes and her own capacity to make decisions and act upon them.//

      Hear that? Consent robs you of your power. Shutting your mouth sets you free.

      Dude, you’re an idiot.

    2. “The ability to withdraw participation, to ‘dis-initiate,’ to ‘un’-consent, is absolutely vital. But to make that the ideal is to stop far, far, short of any fair and egalitarian ‘model.’”

      Yep, an idiot, spewing rape apologist word salad.

    3. “I don’t think i can restate my objections any more clearly or using smaller words.”

      What you need to do is use words with their conventional English definitions, unless you explicitly and clearly re-define them (and explain why you feel a need to re-define them). You are not doing that. You are using “consent” in an unconventional and undefined way, although the context makes it seem as though your definition is, or at least incorporates, “lack of agency.” The word consent does not natively include this meaning. The word consent natively includes, to some degree, the opposite of that, as a person can only consent when refusal to consent is an option, which requires agency. Outside of that exercise of agency, the word consent has no comment whatsoever. You’re writing in a new definition for the word, without stating clearly that you’re doing so, what your new definition is, and why the common definition isn’t good enough for you.

      The problem isn’t me, in other words, it’s you.

    4. John, consent is a two way street. You consent to discuss this on the internet, so do I. That means we can share a discussion, but only until one (or both) of us withdraws our consent.

      I agree that you could see that as “John gets to spew words onto a site and Moz can only read them, or not read them”, which would indeed be a broken model of consent. But it would also be an unusual use of the idea of “consent” – you’d have to twist the situation so that only one of us had the ability to consent. Sure, I can’t stop you posting things, but you can’t make me read them, either. And you can’t stop me posting things in reply…

    5. You know, this almost seems like a distorted interpretation of Thomas MacAulay Millar’s performance model of sexual interaction (which is a problematic name for it, should probably be collaborative model but I don’t know that he ever got around to changing it). If so you are not understanding it, or maybe not conveying your understanding of it, because I assure you that consent is an integral part of that model.

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