Navigating hookup culture as an autistic person

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Navigating hookup culture as an autistic person

I was part of hookup culture in college. I’m autistic.

In college, I amused myself with inhumane pursuits. As someone who hunted men for sport, I enjoyed the antics my male peers would stoop to for a chance at sex. I had undiagnosed autism, but that didn’t prevent me from being a menace to the local hookup culture for most of my undergrad years.

If you’re like me, sometimes, when you’re being hit on by a man, you have this dawning realization of ultimate power. You realize that you could say you’re a Scientologist, and he’d be like, “Ooh, sounds interesting, tell me about your thetans ;)” You could say you were in the Heaven’s Gate cult, and he’d be like “Ssoooo, can I take you out for a kool-aid sometime?” You could tell him you thought Pete Buttigieg would make a great president. Anything goes.

I have since learned that the compulsion to “test” people this way is a sign of deep insecurity, a way to prove to yourself the person really likes you. I had never dated before college, so I both internally believed myself to be unlikable, and had no idea what a person who liked me looked like.

So I took what was basically an extreme vulnerability on my part and turned it into a weapon of mass romantic destruction. Little games like that also bolstered the help I got from drugs and alcohol when it came to fitting in at parties, or seeming to fit in, anyway.

One of my favorite ways to tell if a guy was interested in me was to see how long he was willing to listen to me talk about one of my special interests. One guy voluntarily listened to my Song of Ice and Fire theories for two hours. He had never watched the show. He had never read the books—his literacy was questionable. He even asked me if Game of Thrones was sci-fi or fantasy before I started talking about it. 10/10, an amazing party experience. The guy seemed super disappointed that I wasn’t coming along to the afterparty, but I had a higher calling—the Game of Thrones subreddit.

If I were in a TV show, I think this would make me a fantastic example of autistic representation. I’m morally complicated, sexually deviant, and utterly fascinating. If you laughed at that “utterly fascinating” bit, it’s likely because of the rule of three—if you’re telling a joke and you name three things, the third one just gets a laugh. It’s funny. Like haha, third thing. I love rules like this, because I can use them to a. make people think I’m normal and b. make people like me. This is chaotic neutral autism. You may be familiar with Mark Zuckerberg’s lawful evil autism, and Elon Musk’s chaotic evil autism, but this autism is much cuter, and I have better hair!

This was all during the brief period between high school and sobriety, when 80% of all my sexual encounters occurred. Navigating hookup culture as an autistic person was one of the first times socializing came naturally to me, for the same reason I always say dating cishet men is dating on easy mode. Heteronormative pre-hookup spaces, like bars, clubs, etc., have codes for behavior that we’ve been marinating in since we started watching rom-coms and CW shows. All I had to do was imitate what I’d seen, and be hot.

"Navigating hookup culture as an autistic person was one of the first times socializing came naturally to me, for the same reason I always say dating cishet men is dating on easy mode."

When an autistic person uses a memorized set of phrases to simplify socializing, that’s known as “scripting.” This dating strategy is a little more complex, but it follows the same principle. Men in bars seem to script too! This is why their conversation can be so boring. It’s fine, though, because the comforting routine of a hookup meant I could put part of my brain on autopilot, redirecting my efforts to the main thing I was in college to do, which was having fun for the first time in my whole entire life.

You might ask, why did fun have to be cruel? First, cruelty is an exaggeration—those guys learned valuable information about such topics as: A Song of Ice and Fire, feminism, Steven Universe, Bernie Sanders, Skyrim, and others! But yes, I could be cruel. When I was romancing a non-smoker, sometimes I would gauge interest by going out for a cigarette and seeing if he would come with me. This was hilarious in February. Poor boys shoving their hands into their coat pockets, while I, a Midwesterner, have always found East Coast winters quite mild.

Hook-up culture helped me mask my autism

I was mad with power. In the course of my life, I have rarely had enough power to go mad. I was mostly an outcast before college, with the small niche exception of two years when I ruled my school’s drama club with an iron fist. The fact that it was drama club says a lot, though. Except for that, college was the first time when I talked, and people listened. Even people who weren’t trying to fuck me listened! But obviously, people who were trying to fuck me listened the best.

Before that, my special interests were only special to me. One of my best friends in high school was obsessed with Shakespeare, the other with coding, and both of them with linguistics—all very respectable pursuits. Even people who weren’t into the same things at least didn’t openly mock their interests. Meanwhile, I can read an astrology chart with a level of detail that comes from a true 10,000 hours of practice, including three years of pro astrology work—but in high school, that read as cringy in the extreme.

It all comes down to whether your special interest is considered cool, and secondly, whether you’re considered desirable along one or more metrics—hotness, money, followers, etc. Melville’s Captain Ahab gets lines like “he’s a grand, ungodly, god-like man, Captain Ahab…Ahab’s above the common, used to deeper wonders than the waves.” And Ahab isn’t even supposed to be hot. Moby Dick is all about how autistic you’re allowed to be, as long as you’re a white man.

But the tide has changed! Not only am I considered more fuckable now, but as of 2014 or so, astrology now provides hours of no-effort socialization. Ditto for tarot cards. People think they’re having a casual and human interaction with me, but really it’s all info-dumping! (Always has been.)

One thing that haunts me: what changed? My school was K-12, so everyone who didn’t want to go to prom with me senior year of high school had witnessed all my awkward phases. Was that clean slate all I needed to blend in that effectively? Or do drunk college guys just not care that much?

Rediscovering intimacy: navigating the complexities of hookup culture and self-identity as an Autistic person

Once I got sober, I stopped acting out the patterns of other people’s relationships. I actually stopped having relationships. Even with my sadistic coping mechanisms, doing almost anything social was like exercise—five minutes feels fine, but after an hour you want to go home and lay down. I saved my social hours for the people I trusted most; they were the only motherfuckers in the city who could handle me, as St. Vincent said in one of my comfort albums from that period.

But I missed it—I treasured my memories of being a heartbreaker, instead of nursing my own heart by spending most of my waking hours alone on my computer in bed. Every now and then, I would see a list of autism symptoms and be like, “huh,” but for a long time, I didn’t make the connection.

As I “reopened,” I found out that when you’re not proffering sexual pleasure, people are less endeared by eccentricities like mine. Hook-up culture helped me “mask,” or avoid seeming too out of the ordinary, but now bars were too loud, and I didn’t like to be touched by people I didn’t know. I missed the days when people wanted my attention, when I exerted gravitational force on strangers. But for years, I wasn’t ready.

Fast forward to February 2020, and I’m on Tinder for the first time in years. I’m sitting across a table from a boy, who has bought me a muffin at a Cocoa Grinder before we, um, cocoa grind. I’m the center of attention, and it feels like an old-time’s-sake cigarette at a rooftop party. 1 PM on a Wednesday, and pre-covid New York is right out the window—the assumption being that it will last forever.

I still didn’t like to be touched by strangers. I was skittish, my pain tolerance was basically gone, and it turned out my kinks and the guy’s didn’t match up as well as we’d thought. I needed more lube than usual because I wasn’t getting very wet, and there were even times when he couldn’t stay hard. After he left, I put my sheets in the wash and sat down on the bare mattress to cry. Two weeks later, New York locked down.

I don’t know if I like sex anymore, and I’m autistic

Rainier Maria Rilke wrote that sadness happens during change, when we “stand in the middle of a transition where we cannot remain standing.” I had thought I could hang up my sexuality on a coat hanger and have it stay the same basic shape in the dark of my closet, but the future set foot in me, as Rilke says, and I didn’t even notice.

Who was I, if I wasn’t the person I used to be? What did it mean for me to heal from addiction if healing meant something different than going back to “normal?” I already lived in the era of “#ThisIsNotNormal,” but it wasn’t until covid that I would really learn to laugh at the me who thought “going back to normal” was a thing. It’s not a thing.

As we are now reminded every day, the past is irrecoverable. Now that I’ve realized I’m on the spectrum, two years after the first Covid quarantine and 28 years into my life, I’m redefining who I am one more time. It’s 2022—I don’t know if I like sex anymore, and I’m autistic. I’m expecting to have all the alone time I need in the next few years, so I guess now I have space to figure out more.

"Embarking on a journey of self-discovery, I found myself navigating hookup culture as an autistic person, redefining connections beyond the ordinary."

Navigating hookup culture as an autistic person,” was published as ‘I was part of hookup culture in college. I’m autistic,’ in Word Gatherings in 2022. It is republished here under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International license