Content warning for abuse.
In the UK this week, newspaper headlines have detailed the life of a young autistic woman. She is reported to have a very low IQ. A Court had decided that she was free to consent to have sex. It soon became known that she was indeed consenting to sex, and a wide variety of men would turn up to have sex with her. Some she barely knew, others she didn't seem to know at all.
Allegedly, she was 'consenting' to this horrific abusive circumstance. Understandably, concern has been raised and this whole matter is, as I understand it, being reviewed.
This was not consent. This was shameless exploitation of a young adult who was extremely vulnerable. The capacity for her to have been deeply harmed by this succession of 'opportunists' was there for all to see. Given her vulnerability, one could argue that stronger words could be used for them. I shall leave that to the Courts.
I am grateful for the wisdom of Peter T Hughes QC, writing to The Times, 19th October 2018. I have highlighted part of it in bold.
"Sir, further to your investigation the question should not be whether an individual has the capacity to consent to sexual intercourse but whether that individual has the capacity not to consent. Only with such capacity does the individual have the freedom of choice."
The capacity not to consent. That's exactly right.
In my work as an autism specialist, advising nationally and internationally, I see much planning, thinking and training around 'consent' to all manner of things, and nearly all of it is based around teaching autistic people to say yes. 'Say yes, or you are being defiant. Say yes, or you are being 'challenging'. Say yes, or you are not respecting those who know better than you. Say yes, or people won't like you.' Paraphrased.
We have a problematic behavioural protocol in place in far too many of our centres where autistic people live or are educated. One saying that any non-compliance can be marked as a 'challenging behaviour' which is to be 'extinguished'. The individual is taught to say yes to whatever is planned as an 'enrichment activity', otherwise they are not 'accessing the community'. Often this is framed as 'positive behaviour support'. In reality, if the individual doesn't comply, they are the not allowed access to things of meaning for them, whether it's hobbies, much needed rituals that are part of autistic life, treats, trips out, anything but basic food, or even access to fresh air and exercise. I've viewed some of the list of punishments (not phrased that way of course) and been shocked.
Saying yes becomes an absolute imperative, to survive 'life inside' in such establishments.
I watched one such 'trainer' online, talking to autistic women. They had to agree with him. He was absolutely relentless. If they disagreed, they were argued with until they left. If they stood up to him and shouted at him for his bullying behaviour, he'd report them to the social media platform to get them banned for a time. No-one was allowed to disagree. He was having a fantastic time. Less so the autistic women. Such 'trainers' can get £500,000 an individual a year off the commissioners for services, to train autistic people to comply. I wish I was joking. I'm not.
I also wish this situation regarding the young woman was one case. I fear it is not. We've done this to a generation of autistic people in too many care settings. We've never taught them that it is OK to say no. That saying no is vital. And, as a key part of this, that it is always OK to refuse to consent to sex, or to any other form of intimacy.
This is a t-shirt logo that I value. On it, the words, "Noncompliance is a social skill".
Arguably, it's the most important social skill of all.
Some autistic people are unable to speak, at times. Mostly when under stress or afraid. In the very situations when it may be the most important time to be able to say 'no'. Are we considering that ability to speak clearly and articulately if someone pressures them into compliance?Plenty are able to communicate clearly and to decide for themselves. We're not discussing autistic people who clearly have capacity to make their own decisions in this blog.
To those placed 'in charge' of those autistic lives in care home or other institutional settings, I would say that we need to move away from compliance-training, as if autistic people are dogs. I cannot think of a worse starting point for humanity. We need to move to a culture of integrity, courtesy, respect and thoughtfulness. A culture where safeguarding and planning means sensible safety, and where Peter Hughes's statement is uppermost in our minds. A culture where there is access to joy, to beauty, to music, to art, to all that makes life worthwhile - in safe and responsible ways. And a culture that enables an autistic person to explore relationships and friendships in happiness and respect. Yes, some can be free to make an occasional error. That's part of life. But never, ever to be left exploited by every passer-by on the street.
Is this person able to say no, and have 'no' respected? If not, there is no consent.