How to Do It is Slate’s sex advice column. Have a question? Send it to Stoya and Rich here. It’s anonymous!

Dear How to Do It,

I’m a queer woman in my mid-20s. I’m also autistic. My whole life I feel like I’ve missed an instruction manual for human interaction, especially dating and sex. I grew up and went to college in a conservative area, so I didn’t date until after, and have only been on a few dates in the years since.

I’ve only had sex once, with a girl I picked up in a bar whose name I never even got (with a couple of drinks, it turns out my autistic forthrightness looks like charm). All the other dates I’ve been on could be mistaken for friend hangs—no kissing, making out, etc, whether it was a first or third date. Even dates that have been heavy on flirting end without so much as lesbian-period-piece, homoerotic hand-holding.

So that’s my question: How do you hit a setting between 0 and 100? I listen to my friends talk about maybe kissing on the first date, making out on the second, etc., and I have no clue how to move things from chatting in a coffee shop to physical contact. Is there a cue here? A signal? A way to ask without sounding like a robot? (I am told “Should we kiss now?” is both weird and too blunt.) I sort of thought I was starting to get it pre-pandemic, but whatever skills I was picking up definitely atrophied, and as frustrated as I am (emotionally and sexually!) I’m also nervous about coming on too strong to someone who doesn’t want that. Please tell me how to move past the ambiguous friend-hang stage of queer dating.

—Missed the Intro Class

Dear Missed the Intro Class,

Dating is hard, and even people who excel in picking on social cues can initially struggle to read the room when it comes to sexual interactions. So, first, give yourself a break. Here at How to Do It, we’re proponents of active consent, which requires direct and clear communication. Whether we’re neurodiverse or neurotypical, most of us were raised in a culture that discouraged direct discussion of sex, and so many sexually active people still struggle to engage in it—which can lead to misunderstandings about comfort and desire, and result in harm. I get the sense that you’d like to avoid getting anywhere close to harm. “Direct and clear” is pretty close to “blunt,” and I suggest we all err on the side of bluntness.

The specific line you mention—”Should we kiss now?”—is worth unpacking. “Should” implies obligation or correctness, centering these concepts over your desire and the desire of the other person. Depending on who you’re flirting with, asking, “Would it be appropriate to kiss now?” might go over well, but it’s still passive. Instead, you might try, “I would like to kiss you,” which is a statement of desire, or “May I kiss you?” which is a request for permission. “Would you like me to kiss you right now?” is a direct inquiry about their desire. When you say any of these, you’ll likely receive some kind of response. This could be anything from “Yes,” in which case you can proceed with kissing, to “No,” which, as we all know, means no, and all sorts of responses in between, which require follow-up questions. You might even start by asking about hand-holding, rather than kissing.

I’m wondering whether you may be trying to fit yourself into an idea of what other people like. Dating, though, is a process of finding out who you match well with, and you can’t really find out whether you match with someone if you aren’t being yourself. In addition to looking for someone who you enjoy, you’re looking for someone who enjoys you as you are—whether that’s someone who is blunt, forward, or nervous about exploring a new facet of life. You also might find Michael John Carley’s The Book of Happy, Positive, and Confident Sex for Adults on the Autism Spectrum… and Beyond useful.

—Jessica Stoya

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My girlfriend has decided we’re no longer kissing. We’re in our 30s, we’re both women, we have been together for about 18 months and lived together for about a year of that, and we have been having problems with our relationship since we moved in. Most of it was mental health–related on her part, and she didn’t have a sex drive. She says that has changed, but whenever I try—and I am always the one to initiate—it is awkward and stops right away.