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Can Sex Sell Autism Awareness? Should It?

July 3, 2009

Rethinking Autism has released a series of videos that feature a young woman in provocative attire and poses along with snippets of important messages about autism. The one to the right references neurodiversity and self-advocacy, though it fails to explain what these words mean. You may be wondering what a sexually objectified woman has to do with the intent of these videos: the answer is nothing. This is just another example of women being reduced to objects of sexual desire in order to sell an idea or product. Ironically, then, these videos end up hurting some of the very same people it is supposed to help: while the majority of people on the autistic spectrum are male (at least according to diagnostic rates), there are autistic women.

Now, if these videos featured an autistic woman, I could almost support them. Women on the spectrum are often made invisible not just in general discussions of autism but even by major psychological theories of autism such as Simon Baron-Cohen‘s notion of extreme male-brainedness. Even when they are seen, autistic women may be viewed as lacking in sexual and romantic desires; as an Aspie, I have experienced this attitude directly.

Note, however, that I said almost. At Sociological Images, Lisa writes that “women’s sexual objectivity and men’s sexual subjectivity sells”. Indeed, while autistic women may be viewed as asexual in the sense of lacking desire, this does not stop their bodies from being viewed as objects for the expression of another’s sexuality and power.  As I’ve noted before, people with disabilities are often especially vulnerable to sexual abuse; autistics are no exception.

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  1. July 3, 2009 10:34 pm

    This is less ridiculous than bimbos posing in the nude for PETA.

    When you say ‘another example of women being reduced to objects of sexual desire’, I detect an implied hint that this is being done by someone other than women themselves. That is what intrigues me – in this case, the model herself agreed ‘when asked’. Who asked is one question. But as long as women agree to sell themselves as sexual objects, will anything really change?

    • July 3, 2009 11:00 pm

      It seems likely that the person in charge of the site, “the mother of an autistic boy” according to the “about me” page, did the asking or at least approved the videos. The thing is that women are exposed to the exact same sexist media that men are: if you are told often enough that you are primarily a sexual object then you will begin to believe it. If you are shown often enough that female sexual passivity and objectification is the way to sell something then when you are trying to get an important point across, you are very likely to consider using it.

      Of course, women do have a responsibility to each to try to change this, but it seems to me that your concluding question and the use of the gendered slur “bimbo” in the first sentence suggests that women have a greater responsibility not to “sell themselves as sexual objects” than men have not to consume such images and mediamakers of any gender have not to create them. Why is that exactly?

      • July 5, 2009 8:19 am

        The first para of your comment is enlightening to some extent. I agree and thank you for providing some insight.

        A clarification regarding the use of the word ‘bimbo’: I was not aware that it can be construed as a slur. I meant it as the dictionary definition: “A woman regarded as vacuous or as having an exaggerated interest in her sexual appeal.”

        Your question regarding responsibility: You cannot buy something unless it is offered to be sold. If you buy what is being sold, it is a free transaction, an exchange of the buyer’s time/money/interest in return for the seller’s value proposition/product. If some people want to bring about change in what is being sold and bought in this market, whom should they target?

        My focus was not on moral responsibility but on questioning what will work and what will not in order to bring about change. Moral responsibility lies equally on both men and women. But if the world is acting immorally and unjustly with some people, it is up to those people whether to take the burden of responsibility to bring about change in the world, or continue to hope that the world will realize its mistake.

      • July 5, 2009 2:50 pm

        Thank you for the clarification (on all points). The thing with terms like bimbo is that I think it’s important to be suspicious of words that only apply to one gender. (It’s a bit like the sluts vs. studs issue.) Bimbo is often used to shame women for being sexual and/or attractive without regard to their actual substance and intelligence, so it has a lot of baggage.

        Really, I think the buying-selling issue is something that can most effectively be addressed from both ends. You can’t sell what no one is buying, after all. Positive, powerful images of female sexuality rather than passive ones, for example, are less likely to be used because advertisers believe that they will not appeal to those they’re trying to reach, so we don’t see those images in the media as often.

      • thomasmurphymusic permalink
        July 6, 2009 7:09 am

        Also, asking that the oppressed group “take the burden of responsibility” suggests that this group has equal power; that they can force the world to stop acting immorally, when in fact they are often unable to leverage this. I am not claiming that women have no power to enact change, but that it is necessary to consider the power relations in play before blaming women for not acting.

  2. thomasmurphymusic permalink
    July 4, 2009 8:57 am

    I have never detected much sexuality in marketing using images of arousal. The implication to me has always been that in purchasing the said item/behaving in the prescribed way, you gain power over the image of arousal. This requires the commodification of the image, as a purchasing situation sets up a master-slave relation.

    @ekswitaj~ Well said. Also, I did not know of the term “neurodiversity” prior to this post. Thank you for posting!

    • July 5, 2009 4:19 pm

      “The implication to me has always been that in purchasing the said item/behaving in the prescribed way, you gain power over the image of arousal. This requires the commodification of the image, as a purchasing situation sets up a master-slave relation.”


      Now, imagine an alternative ad in which the woman, still dresses provocatively said something like “I choose who to love and who to kiss. Autistic people know what they want, too. Support self-advocacy.” The agency of everyone involved would be preserved and promoted, bu there would still be the implication that this can be a sexy issue so-to-speak.

  3. July 18, 2009 3:45 am

    Just because sex sells doesn’t mean that sex should sell everything.

    Just because someone can do something doesn’t mean they should do it.

    Just because celebrity shock works for anti-vaccine and quack therapy supporters doesn’t mean that everyone should go for the same celebrity shock value to get their message across.

    These videos do not make for good marketing. The messages are obscured by the images and leaves the audience confused as to what is being ‘sold’ to the public.

  4. Linda permalink
    August 10, 2009 7:22 pm

    The originator of these videos is making a sexy, tongue in cheek response to Jenny McCarthy’s opinions on autism (including her insistance that a special diet “cured” her son of autism). Jenny McCarthy gets a huge amount of publicity as she is invited to talk shows (usually to plug a new book or new product). Other members of the community who do not share her views (e.g. are aware the there is no actual evidence that vaccinations cause autism or that special diets, such as Gluten/Casein Free Diets “cure” autism), cannot get the airtime that Ms. McCarthy gets. The “sexy” images is poking fun at the fact that Ms. McCarthy is a very attractive model/actress (she got her start as a Playboy Playmate).

    The videos are saying “Hey, I am a sexy mom of an autistic child too. I believe in neurodiversity and don’t believe in the junk science of special diets.” (the opposite to what Ms. McCarthy believes).

    Again, the sexualized images are meant to poke fun at at the fact that media is giving waaaayyyy to much attention to Jenny McCarthyand her opinions (because of her celebrity status) and ignoring other experts, parents and people who actually have autism.

    • August 11, 2009 8:36 pm

      Linda, I am thoroughly aware of the problem with the media attention Jenny McCarthy gets. It would be difficult as a socially and politically aware Aspie not to be (and frankly I find it rather patronizing that you assumed I wasn’t). That has absolutely nothing to do with the issue with these ads.

      Doesn’t sending the message that “I am a sexy mom of an autistic child too” actually reify the idea that a woman should be sexy in order to be heard? You claim these videos were intended to be tongue in cheek, but there is nothing in the videos themselves to indicate that (imitation =/= satire).

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