Dating, Relationship and Sexual Safety

This section contains information on threats you are most likely to encounter when attempting to enter into or remain in an intimate relationship, as well as situations where sexual activity is likely to occur. While physical risk is rather low in these situations (with the exception of sexually transmitted infections), there are many more subtle risks to your psychological and emotional well-being of which you need to be aware.

Remember the basics

No two relationships will ever develop in the same way; sometimes they may take years to fully form, while others can develop over a course of several weeks or fewer. However, there are a few issues of note that are likely to show up in all relationships of which you should be aware. The first of these is the most obvious one: When someone says they are not interested in dating you, they mean it. Asking again will not change
their response, and is likely to result in that person charging you for stalking or sexual harassment (especially if you also attempt to touch them without their consent). To put simply, no means no.

Direct sexual advances are generally frowned upon, but this may be a problem if you are unsure of whether or not your partner is willing to engage in sexual activity—or even romantic activity, such as kissing. While you should always ask for permission before “making a move,” try considering a somewhat more subtle approach rather than outright asking if they want to engage in a specific activity. If you are still not sure what they want, then ask them directly, but make sure you do so in the most polite way possible. The most important things to remember are that you should not force your partner to do anything that he/she is not comfortable doing, nor should you allow yourself to be forced into anything that you have not consented to doing.
Again, no means no.

While this guide attempts to give reasonable advice regarding dating and sexual relationships, it cannot take into account your own family and personal values. If your own values are irreconcilable with the information in this guide, then do not feel compelled to compromise them to have a safe and successful relationship.

Disclosure and privacy

The choice to disclose your condition to your partner can be a difficult one. While it may aid them in understanding the reasons why you act the way you do, there is no way to be sure that they will accept you for who you are after learning you are on the autism spectrum; many people still believe that individuals with autism are simply incapable of engaging in relationships or are unable to achieve the intimacy required for a relationship to succeed. It may be helpful to “test the waters” before making the decision by bringing up topics relating to autism and watching how they react to it. In theory, it might be possible to keep your diagnosis a secret, but the act of keeping a secret that important is itself inherently damaging to a relationship, as your partner might believe you do not trust them or are hiding something more serious from them (e.g., an affair).

Your body is only as public as you want it to be—if you don’t want to share something about your body with other people, then that decision is yours to make. Just remember that you do have an obligation to inform others if it might pose a safety threat to them. In other words, choosing not to reveal that you think part of your body is unattractive is fine, but choosing not to reveal that you have herpes is not acceptable,
and will likely cause problems in the long run if your partner is infected and realizes he or she got it from you.

The role of sex in relationships

Sex does not necessarily lead to love, nor does love automatically lead to sex. This is particularly important for women with autism to remember, as they can easily be taken advantage of by unscrupulous men who might claim to be in love with them as a way of making them agree to sex, only to break off the “relationship” after they get what they want. It is an unfortunate fact that many men still view women as sex
objects. As women with autism may lack the social skills needed to determine if a man is genuinely interested in forming a relationship with them (as opposed to simply wishing to have sexual relations with them) and may be naïve about relationships in general, they are at greater risk at being victimized in this manner. Never act under the assumption that you are obliged to engage in sexual activity simply because you are in a relationship or someone has expressed interest in you. If someone really loves and cares about you, then they will respect your wishes enough not to pressure you into doing something you don’t want to do.

Men with autism also should keep this principle in mind, albeit for somewhat different reasons. If a woman says she is not interested in sexual activity, she is not being a tease or “playing hard to get,” but really means it. Going ahead and doing it anyway without consent not only is dehumanizing and hurtful to your partner,
but also is considered rape; this is a very serious crime that can lead to harsh fines or even imprisonment. No means no. That said, it is equally possible that you may find yourself in a position in which a woman appears to be coming on too strongly. In this case, you should keep in mind that she is not obliged to do anything without your consent, regardless of your gender.

Abusive relationships

Some people will try to exploit their relationship with you as a way of benefitting from it at your expense. While it can occur in a variety of forms, some of the more common behaviors shown by abusive partners as described by the Center for Relationship Abuse Awareness are listed in the following table. Generally, if you have reason to believe that you are in an abusive relationship, you should inform the authorities at
once and/or contact the National Dating Abuse Helpline at 1–866–331–9474.

Common behaviors shown by abusive partners

Willingness to publicly embarrass and humiliate you, including via online attacksThreatens you or himself/herself if you try to leave the relationship
General disregard for your feelingsPhysical abuse (beating, restraint, etc.)
Controlling behavior (demands to know where you are at all times, forces you to cease contact with family and friends, restricts access to money, etc.)Makes excuses for his/her behavior (e.g., “I wouldn’t hurt you if you didn’t do those things” or “I was stressed”) and attempts to avoid responsibility for abuse
Criticism of behaviors resulting from your autismWithholds affection and approval as punishment
Makes statements that suggest they are the only person willing to engage in a relationship with you as a result of your supposed personality flawsExcessive criticism of not understanding social customs or failure to make eye contact when they know why it is difficult for you
An “uneven” treatment of the relationship that places you in a lower status than the abuserIrrational jealousy and a fixation on affairs (real or perceived) you might be having
Claims that they might stop the abuse if you just changed to suit their needsApologizes and promises to stop the abuse, but never actually follows through

Contraceptive measures

Numerous types of contraception (also known as birth control) exist and are capable of preventing pregnancy, but only the “barrier methods” (e.g., condoms and other forms of birth control that involve a physical barrier to keep sperm out of the uterus) have been confirmed to be effective at preventing both pregnancy and the spread of sexually transmitted infections. While most women take birth control pills as their preferred form of contraception, the use of a condom is still advised as a secondary contraceptive measure, especially if you and/or your partner have not been recently tested for sexually transmitted infections. If you are sexually active and have not been tested, then do so and recommend that your partner do the same; there are no
drawbacks to it, and it can keep you from contracting or spreading any infections further without your knowledge.

While this may sound obvious, the only form of contraception guaranteed to work is abstinence—after all, pregnancy isn’t a risk when you never actually engage in sex.

Sexually transmitted infections

Sexually transmitted infections (also known as STIs, sexually transmitted diseases, or venereal diseases) are diseases that can be passed on through sexual activity. While their symptoms may not always be apparent, many of them can lead to infertility, chronic pain, or death if not detected and treated early. The simplest way to cope with them is to use a condom during sexual activity. It can prevent infected fluid from escaping, minimizing the chances of transmitting the pathogens responsible for the infections. That said, they are not guaranteed to prevent STI transmission, so ensure that before engaging in sexual activity, your partner and you get tested for STIs, especially if either of you has engaged in sexual relations with other people in the past.

You can find more information about STIs on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Web site.

Before engaging in intimate activity, be sure to:
Get tested for STIs and inform your partner if you are diagnosed with one.
Have at least one form of contraception available to you.
Obtain consent from your partner.

Helpful Resources

  • National Dating Abuse Helpline
    This 24-hour resource is designed specifically for teens and young adults, and can offer real-time one-on-one support from peer advocates to individuals involved in abusive relationships. In addition to its Web site, it can be accessed via phone at 1-866-331-9474
  • Dating and Socialization on the Spectrum
    While somewhat outdated, the general advice provided on this site is still relevant, and it has some important points to make on the nature of relationships in general.