Perseverative Attraction

There’s a lot of stereotypes about autistic people, and, indeed, people who are not neurotypical in general. One of those stereotypes is that we are dangerous people that need to be kept away from others, particularly when it comes to sex and relationships. I’ve written about some of this before, such as Temple Grandin’s mother saying we’re more likely to be pedophiles (hint: we’re not). Or that autistic mate-selection should work like many assume neurotypical mate-selection works (through flirting at bars, for instance – which isn’t actually how neurotypical mate-selection works either).

One of the things that concerns me is that as we fight bad information, the tendency is to not want to talk about problems we do have.

Now, I’m not a researcher, and I don’t have any great data. I do have a survey I’ve done, which shows some interesting data. Among the most interesting, it showed (all results rounded to the nearest 5% to not imply precision that doesn’t exist in my survey):

Most people, autistic or not, have been pursued by someone that the person being pursued didn’t want a relationship with:

  • 65% of non-autistic people indicated they had unwanted pursuit (I didn’t break it into men/women due to small sample size)
  • 65% of autistic women indicated they had unwanted pursuit
  • 75% of autistic men indicated they had unwanted pursuit
  • 100% of non-binary autistic people indicated they had unwanted pursuit

When I asked if the pursuit continued without stopping, even after the object of affection indicated they weren’t interested:

  • 65% of non-autistic people said they’ve been pursued by someone that didn’t stop (thus, everyone that had unwanted pursuit also had unwanted pursuit that continued after the pursuer was informed the pursuit wasn’t wanted)
  • 45% of autistic women said they’ve been pursued by someone that didn’t stop
  • 60% of autistic men said they’ve been pursued by someone that didn’t stop
  • 85% of non-binary autistic people said they’ve been pursued by someone who didn’t stop

I found some of this interesting, although I’ll caution that drawing too many conclusions beyond order-of-magnitude-level conclusions – there are a lot of methodological issues and sampling bias in my survey. It’s also important to realize that the first category – someone pursuing you that you aren’t interested in – is not a problem in itself. For instance, if someone saw me, didn’t know I was married and monogamous, and thus indicated they are interested in a romantic relationship, I shouldn’t be angry about this if it’s done in a respectful and appropriate way. I wouldn’t want that relationship, thus it’s unwanted, but it’s not inappropriate pursuit at this point (assuming, again, the pursuit was respectful). Or, if someone is gay and an opposite sex person pursued them, that’s not inappropriate if done respectfully until the person doesn’t stop the pursuit when told it’s unwanted (hopefully most of us are respectful when doing this too). Hopefully one day if a same-sex person pursued a straight person, that too could be seen as acceptable, so long as it was respectful and the person pursuing accepted that not everyone is going to be interested in them. Likewise, you can be pursued by someone in a category you are interested in (such as a straight man being pursued by a woman), but still not be interested in that particular person – I’ve seen some people get this wrong and think, “I’m an attractive man, she is straight and interested in men, she should be interested in me.” But it doesn’t work this way – people can and should be free to choose their romantic partners for whatever reason they want – and that’s not wrong. Likewise, it’s not wrong to pursue up until the point where it becomes either disrespectful or the pursuit signals aren’t returned (it shouldn’t take an explicit “QUIT BUGGING ME! NO!” to get you to stop – simply not having reciprocation should be enough).

The first thing that struck my attention was that non-autistics, autistic men, and autistic women have roughly the same experience with unwanted pursuit. I’m not sure why less autistic women have had people not stop when they’ve asked them to stop, but in general, it looks like autistic experience is remarkably similar to non-autsitic experience. But what did stand out was non-binary people seem to deal with this stuff a lot more than the rest of us. I’m not sure what to make of that, but I do find it potentially interesting.

The other part of this is that it’s interesting is that there is a myth that autistic men are not pursued – clearly they are. Now I recognize that not everyone is, nor is the world fair. So some decent guys don’t have anyone express interest in them romantically. But it’s still not appropriate to respond to that “unfairness” with inappropriate behavior, and certainly not with violence or stalking or disregard for people’s boundaries.

All of this was to get to another point – people who do the pursuing. I asked a question about whether the person doing the survey pursued someone they knew wasn’t interested in them. In other words, did they do this behavior which may be inappropriate and unwanted:

  • 65% of non-autistic people said they pursued someone who they knew didn’t want to be pursued (FWIW, most of the non-autistic respondents were women, so this wasn’t a man-only thing).  100% of the non-autistic people indicated they’ve asked someone for a relationship (65% also indicate they’ve been turned down).
  • 15% of autistic women said they did this, while 55% of autistic women indicate they’ve asked someone for a relationship (75% of this 55% indicate they’ve been turned down) – so about 25% of autistic women who have asked someone out have also pursued someone they knew wasn’t interested.
  • 25% of autistic men said they did this, while 50% of autistic men indicate they’ve asked someone for a relationship (80% of this 50% indicate they’ve been turned down) – so about 50% of autistic men who have asked someone out have also pursued someone they knew wasn’t interested.
  • 0% of non-binary autistic people said they did this, but 85% of non-binary autistic people said they’ve asked someone for a relationship (100% of this 85% have indicated they’ve been turned down at some point)

I found the non-autistic number remarkable, and would love to investigate to see if that’s accurate or not. If it is, it seems that any given non-autistic person is more likely than any given autistic person to pursue someone they know isn’t interested. This may be the most remarkable thing I found in this survey. I have theories about this, but I think it would be premature to explain them.

I also point out that plenty of autistic women have asked someone out and been turned down – the majority of women who have asked at least one person out have been turned down at least once. Less women have faced rejection, but of course it’s likely they’ve asked less people out and thus had less chance of being rejected at least once.

All that is to say, basically, that autistic people aren’t all pursuing people with no respect for the other person’s feelings, at least not to a greater degree than non-autistic people, and I don’t want that point to be lost.

But some are. Just as some non-autistic people are.

And I want to talk about that in very brief terms. There’s different types of stalking and pursuit of uninterested people. None of it is particularly pleasant to the object of desire – if you’re not interested in someone, you’re not interested in them, and you wish you didn’t have to keep telling them no, for all sorts of reasons – you want to be respected, but you also probably don’t like rejecting someone (it’s not a fun thing to do to another person, if you have any empathy at all). There’s all sorts of extremes – and due to the way I asked the questions, the extremes could show up all sorts of ways in my survey. They guy that thinks shooting the president will get the girl (that link goes to a really chilling letter) likely would show up the same as the guy that asks a girl out once, waits 5 years, and then asks her one more time. John Hinkley Jr. was violent and willing to do great evil in his pursuit – I suspect Jodie Foster is glad that he was locked up. The guy who asks twice in 5 years (and doesn’t hang around someone’s dorm evesdroping on conversations or similarly creepy stuff) is something different, albeit still IMHO disrespectful at the least (no person should have to turn you down more than once – if you’ve been turned down, whether explicitly or through lack of reciprocation, you need to end hope for a relationship). Both guys are in the wrong, but there are difference between them.

There’s a form of autistic unwanted attraction that is somewhat unique, I believe. Now, I’m moving past anything I have anything even as decent as the soft data I described above – I’m going to talk about personal experience and some theories I have. So take this with a grain of salt.

Just as an autistic person might perseverate on trains, an autistic person can perseverate on a person. Of course we can’t always control our attractions, and it’s very possible to feel an attraction for someone who doesn’t reciprocate. It’s common enough to have thousands of movies, plays, literature, and other art (often which gives this idea that if a man sticks through it, they’ll eventually win the girl – which is dangerous if you actually believe life works this way). Having an attraction isn’t a problem. Not accepting a “no” (even in the form of non-reciprocation) is a problem. You can desire whoever you want, but you must call of both the pursuit of the relationship and the hope that you’ll have it when you hear “no” (or non-reciprocation). Seriously, I don’t care that your cousin-in-law or someone kept pestering someone until they got married. You need to stop. And if you can’t be around the person without wanting to make the relationship something more than it is (such as friendship), you’re being dishonest. It’s not ethical to do that to someone, and it causes real harm.

Not only does it cause harm (which is the reason you shouldn’t do it), but it also puts you at risk. I know a man, likely autistic, who perseverated on a girl who used him mightily. She did a pretty ugly thing back to him (she also may have been autistic, not that it matters, but I want to show that people of any neurology can take advantage of people of any neurology). The man asked and asked her to have a romantic relationship, and she bluntly, repeatedly, told him no. At the same time, she managed to lead him on just enough to where he thought she was getting interested, so he gave gifts, trips, meals, etc, to this woman over the course of more than a year – at thousands of dollars of expense. From where I could see, both people were violating the others’ boundaries, and both people were trying to manipulate the other (she was succeeding a bit more than him, however). I do not believe that she was innocent, but rather I believe she was intentionally manipulating. I’m not in any way saying this is the normal response of a victim of unwanted pursuit. Any sort of obsessive focus on someone, to the point where you stop respecting their “no” can equally be used against you by a clever manipulator.

But again the main reason to listen to a “no” (or non-reciprocation) isn’t to avoid being a victim – it’s to avoid being an ass, a creep, and a stalker. That should be enough reason.

All this said, I think it is important to recognize that this type of perseveration is something that can be somewhat different than other types of stalking behavior. That’s not a justification or acceptance or excuse for creepy behavior – nor is it a lack of recognition that even the guy that persists in trying to turn friendship into something more isn’t hurting the woman. They are hurting the woman. But the response is different. This is not necessarily a guy which will benefit from jail time (although I’m not saying autistic people can’t commit acts that should put them in jail). It could be a guy that needs a strong role model or mentor to make it clear, in no uncertain terms, that persisting on this path will have severe consequences, and is inappropriate, wrong, and harmful to the victim. People do have to learn to deal with perseveration properly, even when it involves a person.

I’ll also note that I’ve seen and heard about autistic women doing the same thing – this is not just an autistic guy thing, although more guys than women may be doing it.

In some cases a person can change. And when a person can change, they should be expected to do so. We should recognize that this is something that may be a somewhat unique problem in the autistic world. It may be that we’re actually less likely to refuse to call off our pursuit than a non-autistic person is, but we need to recognize some autistic traits can cause us to engage in dangerous, destructive behavior that harms a victim. We need to acknowledge that autistic excessive pursuit may look a bit different than non-autistic excessive pursuit.

And one more thing is certain: People need to learn, both autistic and non-autistic, that “no” and non-reciprocation means to STOP PURSUIT! How can we work in our community – autistic people – to present this message in a way that is best likely to be heard and followed?

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2 Responses to Perseverative Attraction

  1. Jupiter says:

    This is interesting. I gave a “pursuit after rejection” response. When I was younger, maybe 18, I liked a guy that I sort of built this “friendship” with, but he wasn’t interested in having a relationship with me. Yet, mysteriously he would claim to be attracted to me; I was very confused about that. Essentially, I continued to pursue a relationship by just hanging around with the guy as friends, but I hoped he would change his mind. I still referred to it in your survey as pursuing a relationship because he could tell I liked him the whole time and often for women “just being nice and hoping” is the same thing as pursuing a relationship.
    I think this is a difficult concept for young people because there is a lot of pressure to still be friends. So I guess I would say that it’s not a good idea to offer friendship as a “consolation prize” for not wanting a relationship. I know that’s not really answering your request, but it’s not bad advice either. Maybe it would help for people to role-play being pursued even after rejection.
    I stopped pursuing the guy (i.e. hanging out with him or even just talking to him) once I decided I didn’t like him as a friend at all. Anyway, it wasn’t a mistake I made again. I went back to just directly asking guys out, then leaving them alone forever when they said no.

  2. Jackie says:

    TW: sexual assault

    I was thinking about this earlier, how there is stigma against saying no to Autistic people mostly due to the angel Autism stereotype. People react the same way they would if you made a child cry. I’ve found it virtually impossible to reason with parents of Autistic people because of this, but also because I’m female.

    I have a history of being sexually harassed at Autism groups by parents and their children. They thought they could pressure me into being their child’s friend or girlfriend. If I said no I’m sure they’d stomp their feet and scream at me for not desiring their son. In fact these types of parents have been some of the most emotionally abusive people I know. They are so set on their child presenting normally they don’t care who they hurt to make it happen, including their own child they keep setting up to be rejected. Why? Because no one can say no to them, no one wants to be friends with someone like that.

    I used to hear stories about Autistic men harassing women and thought it was just more anti-Autistic nonsense. It unfortunately is true, because no one wants to be the bad guy who has to tell them no. The parents who believe their son having Autism means their child should be understood and exempt from social rules only ensures their child’s loneliness. There is just a few times people will put up with, “But he’s just curious!” after a man with Autism touches their breast. Many women are put in a lose lose situation regarding Autistic men who have not been told the meaning of no. They face public humiliation for picking on the poor Autistic man who just can’t understand, or they sit back and let themselves be molested. This is why there is such stigma against males with Autism from women. They are fed the notion Autism will excuse them always.

    I have a story about a woman who was molested by an Autistic young man in her college class. He was excused because he kept saying he was sorry. It’s as if his parents taught him putting your hand up a woman’s skirt without consent, and stealing a cookie from the cookie jar were at the same level of wrongness.

    I also want to mention women can have trouble understanding this too, but since society at least in the U.S treats male sexuality as a good thing, and female sexuality as something that must be hidden it’s less likely females on the Autism spectrum would act out as directly as men.

    Speaking as a female on the Autism spectrum I’ve done things I now know were pushing others boundaries. Like stalking my crush in high school. If you watch The Amazing World of Gumball, it was sort of like The Fan where Sarah the ice cream cone kept trying to be friends with Gumball & Darwin.

    I know not all Autistic men act like this, but this is one of the bigger problems I find with not teaching people on the Autism spectrum no. People fear Autistic people because they don’t know what behavior to expect when they are told no. Or worse, they’ll run crying to their parents and you’ll be regarded as some horrible bully picking on an Autistic child. I can’t blame someone for saying no to being put in that situation.

    We need to disconnect ourselves from the notion that having Autism means no one can tell us no. I think only then will things change for the better.