I declared my unofficial major in the Male Gaze a week into college. It began that first Tuesday, when I saw, from the drab turret of the Crossroads residence hall, a girl with a cream bandanna threaded through her short-cropped hair. She was lounging with her friends on a green swatch of quad hedged in by brutalist brick, pliant and tan and completely naked from the waist up.
I wanted to know how often I’d encounter this sort of exhibitionism. Was the topless sunbather the exception or the rule? A local character or an unofficial landmark? I mentioned her in my first meeting with Dr. G., the school psychologist, who specialized in autism spectrum disorders. “The school paper has a ‘Naked Issue,’” she said, “but you won’t see a lot of that here.” By “that” she must have meant the human form paraded around free range (this wasn’t Bard or Oberlin).
It was an art school, though, and soon I was to learn that one of the purest, earliest and most expansively pretentious expressions of collegiate freedom is nudity in the service of art. The taboo desire to see people stripped down after borrowing their pen in the library, being served by them in the Food Co-Op, or peer-reviewing their comparative essay on The Second Sex and Seducer’s Diary was one I saw seconded everywhere. It was on view in figure drawing classes, in nude studies at thesis photo shows and, most importantly for me, a playwriting major, in the more well attended productions mounted by the student acting company. But none of these matched the demand of “The Naked Issue,” an annual survey of student bodies, so sought-after that securing a copy required setting a six o’clock alarm. My roommate did the early rising for both of us freshman year and I was very popular that morning in my Cinematic Expression class, flipping through idly before a screening of a Wong Kar-wai movie.
Between these pages the interest was anthropological, not prurient. The spreads were all staged with body positivity in mind—mostly group shots of alternative-looking kids (blue dreadlocks, full-sleeve tattoos, minor-to-major body modifications), often with props (hats, Nerf guns, plastic dinosaurs) covering the relevant parts. Skimming “The Naked Issue” brought on the sort of sideshow frisson one gets from The Guinness Book of World Records. But for me there was a just-out-of-reach tourism in the enterprise. Seeing people I recognized laid bare was like auditing all the sex I wasn’t having.
On Halloween weekend sophomore year, a girl named Alexandra contrived to sneak into my bed from my suite’s common room and nuzzle up alongside me while I slept. I didn’t know Alexandra all that well, but if I had a type at this juncture, she was it: petite and pale with those lemurish eyes suggestive of a thyroid condition and slightly kinked black hair that fell to her waist. There she was, curled into a “c” on my twin mattress. If there was intent in the maneuver, and logic indicated there was, I didn’t act on the encroachment. I contorted myself to a contour that allowed for little to no contact. Everything I mumbled, and none of it was of any consequence, prompted a searching response.
“What did you say?” she asked.
“It doesn’t matter,” I insisted, my voice softer than hers, aware of my roommate waging war with his apnea, three feet to our left.
“But didn’t you just say…?” she kept on and trailed off. But, truly, it didn’t matter; I was too afraid to say much of anything.
When I was younger, a few years after my diagnosis of Asperger’s Syndrome, I learned through role-play. Thursday nights after middle school, in an office building in the Bronx, I participated in a social-skills group, reading from stilted scripts diagramming conversations with store clerks and waiters. The idea was to hold forth a model of manners and assertiveness—things that don’t always come easy for those on the spectrum.
Me: I would like the cheeseburger with fries, please.
Waiter: I’m sorry, we’re out of fries. Is a side salad ok?
Me: That would be lovely. But could you hold the onion please?
Foot Locker Employee: We don’t have these in this color in your size. Can I get you the ones in black?
Me: I was hoping for blue, could you order them?
These scripts were a typical tool in groups like mine. They helped to lubricate transactional situations. The above examples test the need to accept compromise (the side salad) or assert oneself calmly (the blue sneakers). Like many in my cohort I was pretty rigid and inflexible when it comes to change and struggled to communicate what I needed in an appropriate way, or to conform to society’s arbitrary-seeming expectations. Sometimes service workers would bear the brunt of my frustrations—usually quite a bit of screaming. But these stock characters and scenarios were limited.
In cases that involved more regular attachments, like my parents or teachers, the rote scripts were abandoned and specific instances of tantrums stemming from a misunderstanding of my afterschool plans, my incomplete homework, or my insistent kicking of the living room TV cabinet were probed with these questions: Why are others upset? How did I make them feel? What are some ways I can tell whether people don’t like what I’m doing even if they aren’t telling me?
I was trained to look for the signs in people’s faces. An amateur student of physiognomy, I had a notebook crammed with worksheets of poorly sketched heads, each telegraphing by knit brow, downcast eye or upturned mouth an emotion to be named in a blank space below. I filled them out—upset, angry, sad, happy—and searched for how they presented in life.
Good as I became many years later at recognizing quotidian expressions, Alexandra’s was one I didn’t have programmed. I had never seen lust. Never practiced pillow talk. Never been quizzed on a telling mouth-ward glance. No one gets this training, but I couldn’t help feeling I was at a unique disadvantage. The shadowy interiorities of others were even dimmer for me. It was a scenario I couldn’t trust myself with, and my considered attempt at empathy, hard-learned, kept me lying there, scanning her features for clues.
What if the expression I took to be a come-hither gaze—or, in Alexandra’s case, stretching and yawning and interrogating my murmurs—was not what I thought it was and to act on a hunch would be to stumble my way into an assault?
So I did nothing. Alexandra may, after all, have been too tired to walk home, or just wanted a platonic cuddle. I could have asked, but how tender and tremulous are those first moments of initiation? In any case, my prospects were not truly dashed until the next morning when I awoke to find my laptop split at the hinges, evidently from the tread of someone’s foot in the night. Alexandra would confide in me later that until the moment I discovered my broken computer she was considering me romantically. I guess the accidental property damage—or maybe my frantic reaction, shining my phone light on the darkened screen—ruined the mood.
I wish I could say that the Alexandra thing was a one-off mistake. But it happened again, in the same way: the two of us lying there, no move being made. I didn’t rend my shirt over my inaction; I wasn’t interested in anything serious and, besides, I knew what was stifling me. An older kid in my social skills group got into some vague “trouble” his freshman year at a frat party. Hearing about him made me acutely aware of my own awful potential as a college-aged male, which would only be amplified by my regular misreading of social signals—cue the cop cars, the tribunals, the firing squad.
I never heard the term “Rape Culture” in college, though all other signifiers of progressivism, from routine Take Back the Night marches to forward-looking “Pardon Our Progress” construction signs pinned to scaffolding, were in place from the start. In lieu of Title IX primers, we were all made to take an “alcohol edu” course that touched only obliquely on date rape, and I was mostly a teetotaler. Sometime after Alexandra’s second night with me I discovered an article about Ohio’s Antioch College and their Affirmative Consent program.
In 1990, prompted by two on-campus rapes, the “Womyn of Antioch” launched the unfortunately acronymed SOPP, for “Sexual Offense Protection Policy.” With the goal of consent at every stage, the Womyn effectively put the congress back in sexual congress. The policy established a plodding, systematic, assent-based line of questioning specific to each intimate act from brushing a shoulder, to unbuttoning a blouse, to certified kink.
Here’s what might have been said in the Alexandra incident under SOPP:
Me: I notice you are in my bed—may I kiss you?
Alexandra: Yes, you may kiss me. / No, you may not kiss me. I am here because I am sleepy / want to cuddle platonically / would like to test out your box spring [I do not presume to know.]
In its day, affirmative consent was eviscerated by pundits in op-ed pages and skewered in a sketch on Saturday Night Live. But now it’s the law in California state schools. As our understanding of sexual politics shifts (consent is now “sexy”) the Womyn proved prophetic when they wrote in their manifesto: “Asking ‘Do you want to have sex with me?’ is not enough. The request for consent must be specific to each act.”
One can see why this procedural tack was so widely mocked: courtship, left to its own devices, speaks a language of subtext. Its dominion is in demi-expressions, and loan words like entendre and innuendo. It freights “wanna come up for coffee?” with meaning I was slow to understand—wasn’t it too late for coffee? Affirmative consent in its strictest sense has been largely ruled impractical, litigating moments and gestures whose vigor rest in the unspoken and the mutually understood—the nods, the electric glances that feel like a circuit connecting. But for someone who’s not quite wired for those connections, such a policy would have given me license to clarify the things I needed to without seeming weird.
By junior year of college, I was accustomed to a life in sexile. My roommates all had girlfriends and I woke up many mornings with the twill imprint of the living room couch on my face. But the alternative, as represented by the couples in my orbit, seemed to be relationships that were too codependent, demanding, distant or otherwise toxic. Dating in the undergrad mode held no appeal. But then I learned about Lori.
Lori was a sociology major. I didn’t, and still don’t, know how she knew of me, but according to a mutual friend, she thought I was cute. The small thrill of hearing this news was compounded by endless delays at an introduction. In my mind’s delusional timeline, informed by Syd Field’s three-act structure, I was supposed to have wooed Lori within a month of hearing about her. Instead it took months for me to meet and invite her to a party at my apartment. This was to be the set-piece part, where the music swelled and we’d fall in love. Of course, the Hollywood construction failed me, even on our first date to the movies. The stuff that gets scrapped for time—the late arrivals, the handholding dance around the armrest in a darkened theater, the anxious interpretive act of getting to know someone’s manner of texting or flirting—were what ended up featuring in our little romance. At every stage I found myself questioning her interest in me. It was no wonder really, if I couldn’t read a situation as overt as the one with Alexandra.
There would be no second date, though we kept texting and trying to hash one out. Or at least I thought we were. Hindsight indicates she may have been dissuaded by any number of things. I got lost on the way back from the movie, and almost killed us making a left turn; then when I proposed we go for dinner she told me she had other plans. My insistence that I walk her up to her room and angle for a hint of how it went with a hug or goodbye kiss might have come off as pushy. I wish I could have simply asked if she was still interested. Instead, I let things fritter away in July and avoided her when I saw her on campus that fall.
Then, in October: a text, a walk home and, somehow, I’m in her bed watching her bathroom door. I decide her choice in pajamas will determine my next move. She emerges in a white t-shirt and gray sweatpants. So we talk. There’s no space for a kiss between the lazy flow of words, I tell myself. QVC is on as white noise and she asks me about the first time I got drunk.
I think I should kiss her now. Maybe she’ll set the pace and let me know what’s too much. Only I don’t quite understand why she is back in my life. I try to figure out what happened over the summer, to assign blame in the missed connection. This line of inquiry isn’t a turn on. I sense she would probably prefer it if our mouths were otherwise occupied and the niceties discarded (maybe along with clothing). I search for a definitive signal. But then this white noise is screwing with my head—wouldn’t someone typically put on music, not infomercials?
I stare down mental snapshots of my own obliviousness in texts, in cafés, and now in bed. Her face and manner are broad and open. She has huge, frank, deep brown eyes, but their effect on me is sphinxlike. I find my way to saying, “I’m a pussy,” thinking she might then know she needs to be the one to initiate. Instead she says, “I know, I was going to hook up with you, but now I’m too tired.”
I spent a good chunk of that semester trying to do this night over to the pronounced annoyance of all those around me. The last attempt was made at a friend’s going away party where Lori ended up making out with a kid I had assumed to be her gay plus-one. Another wrong reading.
A few weeks ago I reconnected with my old neuropsychologist from the brick building in the Bronx. She continues to shepherd young adults on the autism spectrum, and is now developing an app for Android and iPhone that cues its very shy or overly insistent users in social interactions. The app acts as a kind of pocket Cyrano, feeding them ice breakers, appropriate responses and follow-up questions they can use in real time, along with a library of the small talk scripts of my youth to study solo. It maps out practice conversations by levels of intimacy—close friend, acquaintance, German tourist who I don’t wish to know better but need to tolerate for the remainder of this Uber Pool. There’s nothing in its code for something as intimate as what’s featured above, but it’s still in beta—the focus group’s a month away.
Is it possible the same facial-mapping tech that makes people into Snapchat puppies could catalog a genome of human expressions, a full taxonomy of “attracted,” “bored,” “frightened”? Just as GPS directions might have saved me from my car trouble on my date with Lori, could this new application, by prompts and nudges, have provided the words to approach her in the first place, and maybe even invite her out or to bed? Between the app and the integration of affirmative consent that followed my graduation, I could have used an assist. But it’s now obvious to me that some ambiguities are universal. Even seemingly sensitive people can find themselves wading through gray areas of consent. “No” will always mean no, but, unfortunately, factors of power and pressure mean that “yes” cannot always be guaranteed to mean yes.
Meanwhile, the #MeToo movement seems to have co-opted the language of my social-skills classroom in its dialogue. Most recently, in the account of Aziz Ansari’s alleged sexual misconduct toward a 22-year old photographer, “verbal and non-verbal cues” were cited by the victim attempting to dodge his advances. Bafflingly, Ansari missed what seemed to be explicit requests to stop. In his mea culpa he admits to having “misread things in the moment.” Maybe he did or, maybe more troublingly, thought he didn’t have to read them at all.
In all this tumult, affirmative consent seems like it may have an effect beyond curbing assault: it can serve as an equalizer for the socially inept. Should Ask First policies become the law of the land, we would all inherit its tentative language, leaning toward each encounter on the same clumsy footing. In acknowledging my own issues as simply augmented a touch above a normal, root obliviousness, I can see the utility for anyone in exercising this brand of caution. But as these instances of celebrities behaving badly seem to confirm, enforcing it is tricky. When passion strikes, not everyone is self-possessed enough to commit to the call and response.
These days I’m with a woman I met after going through the usual gauntlet of dating apps. I couldn’t hack it with the unknowns of real-life courtship and so icons of flames, bagels and Stars of David cluttered my phone screen, each containing worlds where intents and preferences are advertised and easy. I’ve done my time agonizing over cryptic texts, screencapped and sent off to friends for second opinions. I have misjudged energies and gone in for a kiss only to end up grazing a blushing cheek. I’ve made out with people on first dates that I didn’t care to see again. Once, someone I liked kissed me by a subway entrance when I didn’t take initiative; when I returned the gesture too enthusiastically I put her off indefinitely.
After my first date with my now-girlfriend, as we took our separate trains, I asked her if I could “try something.” She said “yes” and we kissed on the platform before the doors pinged shut.
The dialogue with a partner, more than with a sales clerk, a waiter, or a one-night stand, is ongoing. Being with her, I’ve learned, as all couples must, some applied lessons on how to understand another’s desires and needs. The learning curve includes when “it’s fine” means just the opposite, how she likes her eggs, the way she lowers her eyelids and how her lips flare when she’s ready to be kissed.
Things became more fluid with time. She knows my diagnosis (something no fling ever has—though once I deployed it as an excuse in an awkward breakup). We talk things out.
While by turns unenviable, my condition could be seen as a kind of asset. Though I would not advise someone on the spectrum to bring it up that first time in bed, I’ve found in the long-term that disclosure has allowed me to be more direct when I’m trying to discern my girlfriend’s feelings. I’m not expected to pick up on everything. My occasional failure to identify the cause of her anger or frustration—though sometimes more attributable to obtuseness than a DSM designation—has made communication a key tenet of our relationship. She benefits from this, too, since the misreading is generally mutual.
Most nights, together in bed, we have slipped into what must be normalcy. It’s now enough to shudder at cold hands, or guide warm ones. Our communication here is almost entirely non-verbal, but regarded with care. After being together for almost three years, verbal check-ins seem an unnecessary hindrance, like leaving the room to change our clothes. But sometimes when she’s sick or I’m tired I think our fitful kissing might stop short of sex, roll over and fall asleep. Often, she lets me know later, I was mistaken.