Sexuality in Conversation

The Unseen Sex Lives of Blind People

I was rushing up Avenue A, attempting to touch up my lipstick with my right hand while holding the harness of my guide dog with my left, when I was jostled by a passerby. I worried I'd missed my mark. I was running late for a Match.com first date, and so I enlisted a stranger. "Do I have lipstick on my chin?" I asked the approaching click-clack of heels, and the woman's voice assured me I looked fine. Then the date called, and I told him I was almost there. I thought for a second to tell him to look out for me and my guide dog, but decided against it. I'd learned my lesson. Although it wasn't an issue when I met guys through friends or in social situations, if I mentioned the blind thing to an online date before he met me, last-minute excuses spluttered from his lips followed by radio silence.

The idea of dating a blind chick scares some guys, so when you are visually impaired, you might hold off on whipping out the stigma-laden white cane. "It seemed that this cane was very, very loud," Anne, a New York City psychologist told me. The fear of not being attractive "made it hard for me to come out as a visually impaired person."

But with no central vision in the right eye, no depth perception and almost no vision in the lower part of her visual field, as well as many blind spots, all due to glaucoma that worsened over the course of her 30s, not using her cane was putting her in danger. So when a date said, "Oh you don't need to use the cane!" with some alarm, she realized that in fact she did, and that anyone who couldn't accept that was not worth dating. 

Anne's current partner of nearly seven years is an artist, and besides all the usual attractions, he enjoys describing the visible world for her. He also learned early on that blind chicks are fun. "We were on maybe our third date, just getting to know each other," Anne told me, "at one of those bars on First Avenue, and someone comes by with a tray, and I was like oh candy! I would love candy! And I reached out to touch it." Meanwhile the guy holding the tray was horrified by the woman grabbing for his condoms with such glee. "Like I've never seen a condom in my life!" Later her date (now partner) told her that he just sat back and watched the whole thing unfold with a big smile. "When you're dating somebody who's visually impaired there's a lot of comedy," Anne concluded. "Luckily, he has a good sense of humor."
But then I realize that even though you’re blind, you have a vagina, and of course you’d want sex.
George Ashiotis, a New York City actor and performer, had a refreshing take on the cane. "It bestowed on me a kind of liberation." Knowing he'd spent some time in gay clubs of the late '60's and '70's, I asked him if he brought the cane with him. "Oh my god," he said, "I used to dance with my cane, twirl it like a baton."

These days George mostly uses MegaMates when he's looking to meet someone. When I asked if he let potential dates know that he was blind, he said that he mentioned it in his voice introduction, but that some people just don't listen. A few showed up not knowing he was blind. "People have left, just turned around and walked away."

For a while he highlighted it by saying, "And that's blind, not blond," which people appreciated. But at some point, he got tired of it. "I'm a performer. I just can't do the same material over and over." But George assured me that it's mostly not been an issue, and that perhaps being a blind gay man has its perks. "Blind straight friends, and maybe just straight friends generally, are really envious about what gay guys have access to in terms of the sex." When I tittered, he elaborated in his deep cultured voice, "Pardon my crudeness, but I can get on this chat line and have someone come over in five minutes and give me a blowjob."

Traditional gender dynamics being what they are, dating can sometimes be more complicated for a straight guy who is blind. Darren Harbour is a 29-year-old actor and founding producer of Imagine Blind Players, a theater group in Louisville that defies stereotypes with its all-visually impaired and blind cast that does not shy away from such things as elaborate choreography and fight scenes. Yet in his dating life, he's run into the problem of women looking to mother him.

"I've had women approach me who only wanted to date me because I'm blind, because they need someone to take care of. And then they realize I am very independent." Darren told me that he dates a lot, always on the lookout for Mrs. Harbour. "She's out there somewhere, and I just can't wait to hold her in my arms and cover her with kisses. I'm very affectionate."

(Did I mention he's a massage therapist, too? So yeah, good hands!)

Despite his considerable appeal, Darren has found himself in the downright insulting position of being on dates with women and their boyfriends, as if he did not pose a threat. Sitting at a cozy table for three, he's heard such things as, "You should get muscles like Darren."

These women think they can use him to make their boyfriends jealous, but not too jealous, as if a blind man did not also have desires and the ability to wield them. "I'm not a puppy," Darren said with justifiable emotion. "And do you know the most messed up part about the whole thing? The boyfriends are, nine times out of 10, cool with it." 
We are often so programmed to think about sexuality as being conveyed through the eyes, that the idea of a blind or visually impaired person even having sexual thoughts seems surprising.
I won't try to tell you that being blind or visually impaired is a piece of cake or that it does not shape who we are to some extent, but, as one experience in the multifaceted prism of life, it should not be held to a higher standard of influence simply because sighted people have (thus far) ruled the world.

"I have noticed that people think I am gay because I feel more taken care of by women," said Laurie Rubin, an author, opera singer and arts educator who co-created the musical Peace on Your Wings with her wife Jenny Taira. "I once had a girl say that it made sense to her why I’d be gay. She felt that because I was blind, I’d also be gender blind."

Obviously, this is not the way it works. Our blindness is a distinct component of identity. If seeing or not seeing determined our sexual orientation, it would be as astounding as if our height or hair color did. "One particular jewel that came out of the mouth of a singer friend of mine," Laurie told me, was regarding this issue and how it might be related to procreation. “Because humans are animals, we always instinctively look for the fittest mate. But then I realize that even though you’re blind, you have a vagina, and of course you’d want sex.” We are often so programmed to think about sexuality as being conveyed through the eyes, that the idea of a blind or visually impaired person even having sexual thoughts seems surprising.

Nina Linde, a Swedish artist who created a tactile sex book that's been referred to as "Braille porn" said in an interview that she first became fascinated by the subject when she was a student in Chile. While helping a man to cross the road, he made a joke about the Nordic nations' liberal approach to sex. “This realization, that he had these thoughts even though he was blind, made me curious about how blind people's sexuality is being discussed in society,” she explained. And she concluded rightly, "Everyone needs some sexual stimulation."

Before I met my current partner—not through online dating, but in a basement theater open mic, where else?—I did have a lot of semi-successful Match.com experiences. During that time, I found that few things broke the ice faster than my date finding me reading Playboy. However, in researching this topic I learned that I almost didn't get that pleasure.

According to a 1986 New York Times article, "The Library of Congress ceased production of Braille editions of Playboy last December, after Congress withheld $103,000 in library funds, the exact amount it costs to print 1,000 copies of the magazine for the blind."

Although Playboy in Braille contained no pictures or advertisements, and was the sixth most popular publication within the Library at the time, some members of Congress felt the need to deny blind readers the adult content. Naturally, some thought of the move as "a back door method of censorship." 

Happily, the plaintiffs, including the American Council of the Blind, the Blinded Veterans Association and Playboy Enterprises, won, making it possible for me, when asked what I was reading, to hold up the tasteful cover with its iconic black bunny head on Braille-dappled paper and say, "For the articles!" 

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