Autism, Sex Work and Empathy
Autism and sex work seem like they would be on opposite ends of a spectrum. Autistic people are perceived as unemphatic, reclusive, and fearful of touch, while sex work requires the ability to foster emotional connection and sometimes engage in physical contact. Because of these perceptions, the notion of an autistic sex worker seems unimaginable, paradoxical even. However, successful autistic sex workers can and do exist. As the experiences of one trans autistic writer, advocate and former sex worker Max Sparrow clearly illustrate, not only does sex work provide the much-needed structure to social interactions that autistic people can thrive in, but also, the heightened sensitivity many autistic people experience may make them particularly well suited for the job.
Socializing had always been difficult for Max Sparrow. Growing up, they struggled to make eye contact, and to build and maintain relationships. It got easier in their twenties when they started hanging out with punks and hippies, but still, the social world seemed turbulent and disorderly. Even though it was not until much later in life that Sparrow was accurately diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), its symptoms, which can include difficulties with non-verbal social cues, a preference for structure and a hypersensitivity to outside stimuli, all significantly shaped their experiences and interactions in the world long before.
Not surprisingly, these symptoms also affected Sparrow at work. In their early twenties, they sought out employment in restaurants and bars on several occasions, but couldn’t seem to keep a position where they worked directly with people for more than two weeks, even though they were enthusiastic, hard-working and punctual. However, following these attempts, Sparrow entered the sex industry, where they successfully worked in strip bars, peep shows and brothels for the next fifteen-years.
Sparrow attributes their success as a sex worker, in part, to the more structured way of socializing that these environments offered them. This rationalization makes sense given that formal settings offer structure and guidelines on how to interact, which can be beneficial to anyone with social and communication difficulties like ASD. Unlike in bars or restaurants where interactions were relatively unstructured and anything could happen, sex work was comparatively more predictable because the interactions had limits and rules. As Sparrow explained it, “I knew what I was supposed to do, how I was supposed to do it, and when I was supposed to do it. And there was great freedom in that.”
The structure provided by sex work also taught Sparrow to pick up on social cues like tone of voice or facial expressions, which helped them better respond to their customers’ emotional pain or excitement. In doing so, Sparrow found that they not only enjoyed connecting with customers in this manner, but also, were quite good at it. This discovery provided Sparrow with a boost in confidence because it was the first thing they had ever excelled in. As a result of this discovery they became more accepting, compassionate, and open-minded, which not only indicates the positive effect that sex work can have on an individual generally, but also specifically challenges the presumption that people with ASD are incapable of developing or improving these emotional qualities.
Such negative presumptions about the emotional capabilities of those with ASD are also the root cause of the perceived incongruity between individuals with autism and a successful career in the sex industry. Autistic people are generally perceived as robotic and cold, and many assume them to be incapable of feeling other’s pain or joy. Psychologist Uta Frith, for example, wrote in 1989, “the most general description of social impairment in Autism is lack of empathy. Autistic people are noted for their indifference to other people’s distress, their inability to offer comfort, [and] even to receive comfort themselves.”
However, recent research surrounding ASD has begun to acknowledge how deeply misguided this notion is. Thanks to studies such as that conducted in 2009 by researcher Adam Smith, it now seems that autistic people may actually have a stronger capacity to feel emotions than allistic (non-autistic) people, even though people with ASD are more likely to struggle with understanding, describing and responding to pain and joy, whether it be their own or someone else’s. This research suggests that much like how those on the spectrum can be hypersensitive to outside stimuli, they can also be hypersensitive to the suffering and happiness of those around them, which is an experience referred to as hyper-empathy. As one neurodivergent writer and activist Briannon Lee describes in her blog, this heightened ability of folks with ASD to feel other people’s emotions so acutely can sometimes be debilitating, exhausting, and limiting to self-expression, thereby leading autistic people to become overwhelmed and shut down, making them appear disinterested.
Sparrow’s personal experiences of hyper-empathy further affirm this analysis. According to them, they always felt too much for other people, which left them fragile and exposed: “All my life, my emotions have been so intense.” As a result, Sparrow deemed it to be too unsafe to connect with peers in everyday settings. However, in sex work, as noted above, the more highly structured environment made them feel safe to connect with people, to express themselves, to make eye-contact, and to explore the depth of their hyper-empathy.
This experience of hyper-empathy is particularly well suited for sex work because the jobs encompassed within it require workers to relate to and bond with customers for long-term success. Because Sparrow excelled in this area, connecting and empathizing with customers was their favorite part of the job. Throughout their fifteen-year career, people from all walks of life would come see them to heal their wounds. It wasn’t uncommon for Sparrow to have a client crying across their naked lap. Sparrow believed customers opened up to them because of their heightened ability to empathize with the customer’s suffering and need for connection. For the most part, due to the sex industry’s more structured environment, Sparrow was able to offer a compassionate ear and reciprocate a level of vulnerability that they were unable to show their peers in the outside world.
Sparrow also felt more comfortable connecting through sex work because they didn’t fear the same rejection they feared when trying to connect with their peers. Because many autistic people go through life experiencing frequent bullying and rejection, these individuals often become hyper-vigilant, which is another reason why people with ASD can seem closed off to strangers. But at work, Sparrow was less afraid. They knew customers had different tastes and preferences, such that they didn’t take rejection personally there.
Moreover, sex work was also beneficial to Sparrow because they were otherwise reluctant to build friendships in the outside world due to their need for alone time and the fear that it would not be understood by their peers. They did not have the energy to sustain relationships or deal with the emotional entanglements that are inevitable in long-term commitments. “It’s part of being autistic - I crave and need and want human connection but I can’t take too much of it,” they explained. Therefore, according to Sparrow, “sex work was a safe way to open my heart and body to someone. The fleetingness protected me—it allowed me to be vulnerable.”
Eventually, Sparrow left the sex industry to pursue a career in writing; however, they continue to miss the momentary sense of human connection that their experiences in it often afforded them. Although they acknowledge that sex work was not an easy job, they continue to look back on that period of their life fondly. What is evident through both their story and the recent research that has been done surrounding ASD and empathy is that their autism was not a hinderance to their success in the sex industry, but rather, it was an asset. As Sparrow describes it, a successful career in the sex industry isn’t at all incongruous with ASD, in fact, “it was a perfect fit for everything I struggled with.”