|Photo © Jan Olof Nygren | Creative Commons|
[image: Cropped photo of a shadow of two people, on grass.
A foo t in a woman's black flat shoe is visible on the lower right.]
A show that ran as long as Law And Order is, naturally, going to have some off days. I’ll admit to occasionally tuning into the show’s seemingly never-ending basic cable blocks as a guilty pleasure. One of the telltale signs you’re about to watch one of the shitty ones is when the culprit is apprehended about 20 minutes in. When it’s taken care of that early, you know the trial portion of the episode is going to revolve around the perpetrator’s lawyer arguing that their client killing people is a medical condition or something similarly absurd. So you can imagine how irritated I was, to say the least, when someone decided to pull the same trick in real life.
The Internet is vast and contains multitudes If, for some reason, you want to identify the absolute worst people on here, there are several ways you could go. There are the neo-Nazis of course, but there are also the mass-shooting truthers, the guys who call everything “free speech” and of course, whoever wrote this.
But a top contender is the “pickup artist” community, a blanket term for various oily sleazes who purport to teach men to score through tactics aimed not at genuinely being more appealing to women, but at manipulating them or wearing down their resistance. As you might imagine, obtaining consent is often neither here nor there for these people, and some of the subculture’s most famous faces, such as sex tourist Roosh Valizadeh, are admitted rapists.
Which brings us to Jason Berlin. Berlin was sentenced to prison for participating in the rape of an inebriated woman in 2013. At the time of his crime, he was paying for seminars that claimed to train men in pickup artistry, or “game,” in their parlance. Last week, Berlin’s lawyer argued in a sentence-reduction hearing that Berlin had recently been diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder and as such was not aware raping women was wrong. It’s difficult to know where to begin with something this obscene and absurd. It brings to mind theoretical physicist Wolfgang Pauli’s reaction to a poorly written paper: “That is not only not right, it is not even wrong.” Berlin’s defense claimed he was manipulated by his co-defendants, Alex Smith and Jonas Dick, and that he had the “social and emotional capacity of a 5-year-old,” according to the Daily Beast.
As an autistic man who’s been married for five years and in a relationship for nearly a decade, I have a front-row seat to the ways this argument is bullshit. First of all, while autistic people are in fact susceptible to manipulation from neurotypical people, we also have strong senses of right and wrong. This is especially true when we’re younger. For example, when I was in fourth grade I printed up a broadsheet about how my classmates were sliding into juvenile delinquency by saying things “sucked” because my parents had forbidden me to say it.
Berlin, autistic or not, actively boasted about the incident and blogged about his goal of having sex with 15 women over a three-month period. The defense’s implication that simply having autism made Berlin an incompetent child is difficult to square with the $2,000/month apartment Berlin rented for himself and his partners. Paying rent and maintaining an apartment are relatively complex life skills. Local coverage of the trial noted that while Berlin was unemotional in his apology, he “cried openly when his mother turned and faced the victim and apologized to her.” I realize our understanding of autism is constantly evolving, but what’s described here sounds less like autism and more like “not actually being sorry.”
This argument is offensive because it plays into the stereotype that autistic people as exclusively white men who have problems relating to women. This ignores the fact that not only do autistic women, exist, but they too are susceptible to manipulation and are at high risk of sexual abuse as a result. By treating autism as some kind of brain parasite that removes men’s capacity to know rape is wrong, Berlin and his defense have reinforced those stereotypes and actively made these women’s lives harder.
Like a lot of people on the autism spectrum, I struggled with modern dating rituals until I found a partner who clicked. It’s true that dating is an environment that can be particularly fraught for autistic people. But—and I didn’t expect to have to clarify this, yet here we are—there’s a difference between “getting a date is confusing” and “I don’t know not to have sex with someone without their permission.” In trying to blur these lines, Berlin is infantilizing himself and all autistic people and playing into misconceptions that allow non-autistic people, often with ill intent, to step in and presume to speak for us. It also plays into the insidious, well-established tradition of connecting violent crime with autism as in the cases of Sandy Hook shooter Adam Lanza, misogynistic spree killer Elliot Rodger, and, not a week after he murdered 58 people in Las Vegas, Stephen Paddock.
A spotlight is currently shining on just how easy it is to prey on women in our society in general. To blame what Berlin did on autism is not only ableist and scientifically unsound, it ignores our disturbing tolerance for this kind of behavior. Something makes men like Berlin decide not that what they do is wrong, necessarily, but that the wrongness of what they do is irrelevant. If we focus on autism, rather than whatever that thought process, is, we won’t do anything to prevent future Jason Berlins. All we’ll do is continue to stigmatize autistic people.
This article was previously published at NOS Magazine.