Autism Book Reviews

On Gender Essentialism and the Autistic Woman’s Experience: The Kiss Quotient by Helen Hoang

the kiss quotient cover art

The Kiss Quotient by Helen Hoang is a pretty formulaic romance novel. The premise is a reverse Pretty Woman with a neurodivergent twist: an autistic woman in her late 20s wants to learn how to date and have sex men will like, and believes the problem to be in herself, rather in the fact that she keeps choosing terrible men. She hires a male sex worker to practice sex and dating, and you can guess what happens next.

It’s a cute premise. Unfortunately, the male characters are all terrible people, and most of the women are, too. The plot holds no surprises. The sex is good for the characters but hilarious for the reader. So, on a base level, I can’t really recommend it.

But, the main character is an autistic woman, being written by an autistic woman, and y’all, I saw so much of myself in her, it was embarrassing. And heartbreaking.

The book has been rightfully critiqued for promoting a form of gender essentialism, in which women do not exist for ourselves, but for men. Thus, we women should behave and dress and function in life to please men. Obviously this is bunk, and folks are correct to call it out.

But let me talk about this view in terms of being autistic, for a moment. Part of growing up autistic, especially presenting as a woman, is masking: that is, working very hard to understand why people do the completely illogical things they do so that you can mimic them effectively and hide the fact that you’re not comprehending these illogical social norms intuitively. Failing to mimic effectively will out you as a “wrong” person and cause other people, even well-meaning people, to ostracize you.

I can say from personal experience that going through this caustic social upbringing as a young adult can make autistic women particularly prone to believing that it’s our job to mimic neurotypicality as perfectly as we can in order to become good enough for our romantic partners. We pretend to be neurotypical (not autistic) women in neurotypical relationships, rather than focusing on what we need and deserve out of romantic relationships as autistics.

In this way, in real life, we autistic women are often the ones promoting gender essentialism, because to many of us, that’s the only way we’ve been taught to be successful. Be enough like society’s image of the Perfect Neurotypical Girlfriend, and maybe we can snag a partner (and keep them) by continuing to perform femininity appropriately and successfully.

And yes, this means many of us end up attracting exactly the wrong kind of person, just like Hoang’s protagonist Stella does: the man (usually) who believes that women exist for him to enjoy and use and not give a second thought to, and who moves on from us as soon as we become too much trouble for him.

And many times, that man moving on coincides with us hitting a breakdown from masking so hard, and for so long, that we begin to fail to perform femininity “correctly.” This reinforces the necessity of performing correctly for us – if we show our autistic traits to our partner and don’t mask effectively, the man will leave. We will have failed. We have learned that being ourselves dooms the relationship.

It’s very sad, isn’t it? And you may think I’m overstating the number of us who fall into this fallacy, where showing our autistic nature causes us to be punished. Yet, every autistic person you ever speak with can offer you many, many stories, of times we “failed” to conform to social norms and were punished for it.

Especially as women, we are punished often: for not being polite enough, for not being good in social spaces, for not making the right facial expressions, for being too excited or not excited enough, for staring too hard or not looking right at you, for not pitching our voices “correctly” . . . I could list personal examples forever.

And no, society’s Perfect Neurotypical Girlfriend is not a real person! She doesn’t exist! But we are judged against her anyway. Internalizing gender essentialism is just part of the way autistic women are taught to cope.

It’s not healthy and it’s not right, and some of us manage to break away from this teaching eventually. But it’s not surprising to me to find it in a book like this, and to find it in a character like this, who so closely resembles Young Adult Me, and many other young adult autistic women in the United States today.

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