As I was signing up to another dating site recently, I realised that I don’t actually have many photos of myself, and almost none of me being “normal”. Practically the only photos I have of myself are group shots (not recommended for dating sites), headshots (good for getting a job as an actor, less good for other things), or me in costume for a play or convention (which, unless you know the context, would make someone seeing it say, “weirdo!” and click the discard button).
And so, yet again, we enter into the realms of systemic disadvantage. “What’s systemic disadvantage?” I possibly hear you ask. Systemic disadvantage is a situation where the status quo, the prevailing attitude, or simply how something was engineered to work, is such that those who don’t fit into the “normal” box are at a disadvantage. “Normal” in most cases being defined as “white, anglo-saxon, heterosexual male with no physical or mental disabilities and a disposable income.” Now, I could go on about the vicious cycle of shittiness that the lack of the last one perpetrates, but that’s a rant I’m saving for later.
As a WASHMwnPD, I am pretty lucky in that many of my tastes, interests and needs are catered for, pretty much as-and-when. A dating site is part of those interests and needs. As someone with a mental disability that severely inhibits my capacity for going out and meeting people, a dating site is a very useful service. No matter what gimmick they use to try and help you find someone, they are a means of, at the very least, getting snapshots of lots of someones you might be interested in getting to know better. Sometimes you do the equivalent of exchanging pleasantries whilst waiting for service at the bar, and occasionally you get a phone number and/or a date. For someone like me, who has trouble talking to people I don’t know, and therefore doesn’t go out very often to places where there are lots of people I don’t know, this is a safe and easy way to do the electronic equivalent of smiling at a pretty girl across a crowded bar. And usually that’s all it amounts to. Having gone to an all-boys school, I didn’t get the chance to practice talking to girls during my formative years (the only parties I seemed to go to were variations on the theme of “let’s see how much cheap booze we can drink!”), and with my Asperger’s as well, talking to someone I fancy from a cold start is a) terrifying, and b) … terrifying. My time at uni didn’t help, what with not living in halls, and since then I’ve never seemed to have the time when I had the money, or have the money when I had the time, to go out. So, dating sites FTW? No, not really, because while a dating site profile might let you know more about the person you’re looking at than seeing them in a pub, all it really does is let you know if you’ve got things in common with each other – something to talk about. Which is fine if you’re any good at starting conversations with strange people, especially through a medium which does not give you any clue as to the other person’s reaction.
This is the first part of the systemic disadvantage – for people with Asperger’s, having a conversation with a stranger over EMail is just as bad as having a conversation with a stranger over the phone. Something like 75% of body language (which in turn comprises 80+% of communication) is derived from facial expressions. So when you can’t see the other person reacting to you, especially if you have Asperger’s, it’s like talking to a brick wall. When was the last time you felt comfortable telling a brick wall it had really nice eyes?
So – you have no practice talking to people, you are very nervous about doing so, you have no idea how they’re reacting, you’d better hope that they like the look of your profile picture: Systemic disadvantage #2.
How do you get a photo of yourself? Most of the photos I take are of other people and things. A selfie is obviously a selfie and never looks good, so how do you get a good photo of yourself? Go to a professional and get a portrait done? Expensive and rather formal. Go out with your mates and get a few taken? Er… Mates…? Go out…? Not sure I fully understand those concepts. Family then, ask a member of your family to take one. Well, it’s cheaper than a professional photographer, but they always seem to end up just as formal-looking. So, you have one, maybe two photos of yourself where you’re alone, and don’t look ridiculous or like you’ve got a stick up your backside. You put them up on the site, and they look rather lonely and dismal compared to the number and vibrancy of photos on all the other profiles.
And the profiles themselves? Systemic disadvantage #3! It’s a form to fill in (which is another, less well-known, problem for Aspies). You don’t know what will be interesting, what will be boring, what will be a complete turn-off. I’m fairly sure, what with all the things I do, my life is pretty interesting – but I can’t put half of it on a dating site profile without looking like a geek! And if I don’t put enough on, I’ll look boring, or, worse, bored! Now, I’m not saying that all Aspie’s are geeks (quite a large proportion of us are though), and there’s nothing wrong with being a geek – but saying something as innocuous as, “I like Star Trek,” can lead to, “OHMYGODHEGOESTOCONVENTIONSANDDRESSESUPASSPOCKANDHASNOSOCIALLIFE!”
Well, yes, and? I go to conventions, because that’s where there are lots of people I know I have lots in common with, with similar outlooks and senses of humour. I occasionally dress up at conventions, but I don’t put huge amounts of effort in, and I don’t do cosplay away from conventions. And, er, yes, I have Asperger’s, of course I have no social life – what’s your point? But trying to explain things like that on a dating site profile doesn’t get past, “I like Star TrekOHMYGODHEGOESTOCONVENTIONSANDDRESSESUPASSPOCKANDHASNOSOCIALLIFE!” (Spock? A blue shirt and a pair of pointy ears? That’s a geek horror-story for you? Have you never heard of Klingons? Or Hirogen? Or Xindi-Insectoids?) Honestly, trying to complete a dating site profile is almost as bad as filling in a job application form – at least with the job app I don’t feel embarrassed asking for help from my sister. And why does someone saying (for example), “I support Liverpool,” never lead to, “OHMYGODHEGOESTOMATCHESANDWEARSTHEKITANDSLEEPSINALIVERPOOLFCTHEMEDBEDROOM!”?
So why don’t I go out with the few people I do know locally, to places where I know a few people, and there’s a good chance of most people there being single (how embarrassing is it when you try and get a date with someone and their boyfriend is, unbeknownst to you until the moment they tell you, standing right next to them?), so you can actually see people as you talk to them and gauge, however erratically, how appealing you are being? Well, first there’s the problem of background noise, then there’s the problem of finding people to go with, then there’s the problem of finding somewhere to go, then there’s the problem of getting home on the shitty public transport locally, then there’s the problem of actually talking to someone in the first place, and finally there’s the problem/feature of me not wanting to ask someone out until I actually feel like I like them, which takes longer than an evening to build up. That last one in particular is a problem that I’ve experienced for some time now – on at least two occasions I’ve waited so long to ask someone out that they’ve started going out with someone else.
I mentioned something along these lines at my recent birthday party, and my sister’s response was, “I’m fairly sure you can do better than [her] anyway.” Well, yes, I expect I could – if I was normal. I’m sure if I was normal I would have no trouble meeting an attractive, talented and intelligent woman who’s biggest flaw is not quite knowing when to stop talking, and successfully ask her out before someone else does. I’m starting to doubt that I have the ability to “do better than” figments of my imagination.