Gender stereotypes, expectations, assumptions, and … the Asperger’s / Autism Spectrum

I used to be a massage therapist.  In the world of massage therapy, even in the present day, most first-time clients select their potential therapist(s) by their gender first, and their specialties/skills/training/whatever second.

Both genders did this.  (Warning: obnoxiously broad generalizations ahead…)  For the males, it was likely borne more out of an internalized, subconscious connection (of their own creation) between therapeutic massage and–ahem–“other” “services”, and no way, no how did they want another guy “rubbing” on them.  For the females, it likely stemmed more from body-image issues/concerns, and they were more than likely feeling a little apprehensive about being seen–and internally critiqued–by a male.  And even though I got the long end of the stick (I’m biologically a member of the favored gender), it annoyed the ever-lovin’ shizz out of me (although admittedly, I’m a bit more sensitive to the plight of the females then to that of the males.  (Guys–it’s THERAPY.  It’s not sex.  Get over yourselves already).

Some people (of either/both genders) also had certain expectations.  From these expectations arose assumptions.  Assumptions such as what it’s like, in their mind(s), to get a massage from a female therapist.

Side-journey: consider a mental “prototype” of an “average” female massage therapist.  My impression is pretty vague on the details – I don’t imagine a particular age, ethnicity, size, personality, or wardrobe; for me, nothing comes to mind.  It’s a silhouette, with a blank canvas.  This is likely due to the synchronization of two important and semi-unusual factors: I’ve worked around and with plenty of other massage therapists…and I’m an Aspie/autistic person.

Most (usually neurotypical) people would probably differ with me about that mental “prototype”.  They might imagine someone of a certain age, a certain appearance, a certain “vibe”, a certain frame.  They might even imagine the therapist in medical/clinical scrubs, or perhaps in more “granola” peace-loving attire such as tie-dyed layers, jeans, and sandals, sporting a toe-ring and maybe a stereotypical “gypsy” scarf about their head.

OK, back to regularly-scheduled programming (translation: end “side-journey).  When I would perform a massage on a new client (which happened often), I knew that they were satisfied with my work, but I also sensed…something else.

For the first several years, I could never quite figure it out.  It just felt like they were waiting for something–something that never came.  And that “something” was something that I was supposed to say or do.  Something that I wasn’t delivering quite as expected.

I don’t exactly remember when (it was a long time ago), but eventually it gradually dawned on me what that “something” was…

They were expecting me to act more, well, like a woman.  They had, after all (like “everyone else”), placed my perceived gender status at the top of their priority list, chosen me based on that lone criterion, and they had attached all of those pesky gender-related expectations and assumptions right along with it, assuming that, given my anatomy the rest would automatically follow as if it were all an automatic package deal.

I wasn’t as “girly” as they had expected.

I wasn’t as “nurturing”.

I didn’t wear uncomfortable clothes, makeup, or perfume.

I was a bit more–I don’t know… salty?  Earthy?  Cerebral?  Even I can’t quite define it.

When I didn’t act quite the way they had anticipated, they seemed a bit “put off” (which, to my knowledge, is much more mild than it sounds).  This held especially true for the women; the men didn’t seem to care as much (which, in turn, led my clientele to be comprised of 2/3 males, which is highly unusual in any massage therapy practice).  The “put-off-ness” wasn’t immediately obvious; if my brain hadn’t been at the typical “full attention” that it often defaults to when meeting new people and attempting to establish a connection, I might not have even noticed.  Neurotypical people and Aspie/autistic people often “hide” their true feelings, although for very different reasons.  For someone on the Asperger’s/autism spectrum, it usually has a lot more to do with not being quite sure how best to express them; for many (although not all) neurotypical people, they’re trying to be “polite”, maybe “hint around” a little, hoping we’ll eventually pick up on their subtle underlying message.

No one had ever overtly said anything about my “failure” to meet their expectations and fulfill their assumptions.  If they liked my work enough, they simply accepted it, moved on, got used to it, and scheduled their next appointment.  If not, well, then I never saw them again, and of course, I was left with the nerve-wracking scenario of endlessly wondering why–you know, the type of scenario in which your own worst enemy is none other than yourself.

But I need to register a dissenting vote here – if someone felt a little taken aback because I don’t act like their idea of a “typical” female, then who exactly is responsible for that?  Growing up, when my sister and I would become entangled in conflict and look to my mom for a final verdict, she would often pull a Switzerland-move and give us her simple, cryptic stock answer: “it takes two.”  She’s right, of course (don’t tell her I said that 😉 ), but in many situations, even if it does take two, that doesn’t necessarily mean that each party is equally responsible.

I’m not sure who to hold “responsible”, if I should hold anyone (or anything) responsible at all.  I can tell you who/what it’s not, however – it’s not me; I was simply being myself (although still masking and acting a fair amount).  I wasn’t manipulating anyone, playing any mind-games, acting unethically, bait-and-switching, behaving poorly, or any such thing.  I didn’t even have a full grasp of what these expectations and assumptions were supposed to be.

That leaves the other (NT) party; after all, they’re the one(s) who came in with those expectations and assumptions.  They’re the ones who attempted to hold me to their preconceived standard and then became subtly baffled when I didn’t meet them.  Maybe they sensed my electromagnetic field or something, and it resonated at a different frequency than theirs and their gut instincts sounded alarm bells.  Who knows?

But then, another question piggybacks on that premise, in natural progression (and in typical Aspie form) – is it really their fault that I “failed” to play into their expectations and assumptions?  After all, this dastardly and irrational society instilled these expectations and assumptions with them, after all.  They weren’t simply born knowing, believing, or adhering to these concepts; much like racism, sexism, or many other ‘-isms’, they were taught.  The only “sin” these folks arguably committed, then, was to go with the flow and follow the leader.  (Which, in itself, seems sort of silly to me.)

As ridiculous as it may seem to me for someone to base their choice of massage therapist (or almost any other provider of a product or service for that matter) by their gender, that’s not my call, and far be it from me to judge anyone (at least, not anymore–I’m older now, and hopefully a bit wiser).  Simply put, I’m not them, and no one has the “full story” on anyone else; sometimes there are indeed legitimate reasons for doing this–reasons I’m not privy to (nor should I be).

What I would applaud, however (heads-up: another NT-directed PSA ahead), is the evolution of the general mindset of the masses: a shift toward fewer (or at least, looser) expectations, fewer assumptions, more flexibility, and more fluidity.  Be prepared for anything.  Assume nothing (remember what they say about how the word “assume” is spelled, in connection to its informal definition…)

I would also applaud the letting go of stereotypical “ideals” regarding gender roles; they’re actually pretty outdated now, and this is coming from someone who doesn’t easily embrace change.  There will indeed be people in the world who are different from you and the storybook (textbook) prototype.  And, that’s OK.  In fact, that’s wonderful, and it certainly shouldn’t come as any kind of shock.  Many of these “different” people you run into, who don’t act quite like you might have expected, will indeed be adults on the Asperger’s/autism spectrum, who were once Aspergian/autistic kids, now “all growed up”.

Your default, baseline prototype of different genders might be different from mine.  But as long as acceptance reigns supreme, that doesn’t make either of us wrong (even if I might guiltily keep chuckling at the notion of pinning so much of one’s identity on one’s anatomy).  Just whatever you do, try not to act so taken aback. 🙂

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2 Comments

  1. Oh yes. I’ve had very similar experiences of people never contacting me again as a doula for probably the same reason.

    But the clients who do like me? I’m with them for baby after baby after baby! And most of them tend to be engineers (or members of other professions that typically value facts above emotions) or not terribly feminine themselves in other ways. Those kinds of clients don’t care how “feminine” I present and often contact me again practically as soon as they get a positive pregnancy test 🙂

    Liked by 3 people

    1. That’s awesome! 👏🏼👏🏼 (All of it is awesome – the fact that you’re a doula, the repeat clientele, and the fact that they don’t care how you “present” in terms of gender expression, etc.). It’s also really cool to know that I’m not the only one who thinks of and experiences stuff like this 😊 Thank you so kindly for sharing! ❤️

      Liked by 2 people

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