Late on the night that was technically no longer my birthday, two women were in bed with me. One of them I had recently fallen in love with. To say I was obsessed with her would be putting it lightly.
We were bathed in a comforting dark as I snaked my way down her taut torso, stopping briefly to pay heed to the birthmark just below her breast. I circled her hips before settling myself between her thighs.
Then, in a moment I had been dreading secretly for months, she clamped her thighs around my ears, which caused a piercing shriek to burst forth from my hearing aids.
Feedback. The not-sexy kind.
When you have hearing loss, as I do, sex is always a gamble.
For one, sex is sweaty. Moisture can damage hearing aids or break them outright. And they ain’t cheap. Mine were $2,000 and they were on the inexpensive end. A pair can cost upward of $7,000, and they are rarely covered by insurance.
But if I take mine out, I risk not being able to communicate with my partner, thus turning sex into a kind of dirty Mad Libs game: “You’d like to do what with my what?”
And then there’s the feedback element. The slightest touch or pressure — from a hand, a tongue, a thigh, a shoulder, anything really — can turn desire into a bad open-mic night.
Is this thing on?
Hearing is intimacy. It’s longing. Hope. Connection. A series of grand and momentous and pointless unities that most of us take for granted. Every interaction, from the briefest encounter with a barista to the most intimate sexual exchanges, becomes a question for me. I’m never sure I’ve gotten it right. I’m never sure I’ve understood you correctly.
These points of connection, the crucial vibrations that give the universe its rhythm — they’re missing. What’s left is a desperate chaos, a thousand daily mysteries I will never solve.
To lose something as familiar as a sense, even partially, alters everything. I tell people I’m shy, but I don’t know if that’s even true. Am I shy or have I become shy out of necessity?
I used to date men and now I don’t. Their voices are too low for me to hear. I struggle mightily to understand them, even in nonromantic contexts. Eventually I stopped trying. Was it a lack of desire or was it me? I don’t know. My hearing loss has changed my identity, my sense of self. I am not who I might have become. But isn’t that true of everyone?
Deafness is considered an “old person” problem, even though nearly half of the people with hearing loss are under the age of 55. In the US alone, 48 million people have some degree of hearing loss, according to a well-regarded Johns Hopkins study. Globally, the number of people with a “disabling hearing loss” is 380 million. People with gradual hearing loss begin to lose it as early as age 20, according to the latest research from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. And not only is that number growing, but our noisy world is affecting younger and younger people. Among 12- to 19-year-olds, researchers estimate some 17% show evidence of noise-induced hearing loss in one or both ears.
You definitely know someone who struggles to hear, probably many someones, but you may not know who. They may not know it themselves. Only 1 in 5 people who could benefit from treatment actually get it. This is due to a few reasons: Hearing loss is often gradual and slow. The stigma of deafness is so great that most people don’t want to acknowledge it, let alone treat it. And, perhaps most prevalent, people who can’t hear don’t want to be perceived as “old.”
I was loath to acknowledge my own deafness for years. In many ways, I still am. I still struggle to “come out” — to partners, to bosses, to friends, to health care providers, and to people who may be flirting with me or simply asking for directions. I have an idea of myself as an independent person, and my hearing loss forces me to confront that idea daily, to admit that I need help and that I need to ask for it.
We tend to cast off hearing loss as an inevitable byproduct of aging, so there is very little information out there about navigating sex and dating while deaf — perhaps because we’d rather not think about our grandparents doing it. (Not that older people aren’t entitled to good sex, too!)
The advice offered in the scant few articles about sex and hearing loss tends to be the same as it is for navigating hearing loss generally — hearing aids may help you, and don’t lie about your deafness to prospective partners. But, of course, sex is complex and encapsulates far more than what can be contained in platitudes.
Because there’s so little information out there for younger folks, I asked others who are deaf or hard of hearing to share their experiences with me, and this was their advice.
“My experiences with the dating game have been quite disappointing and disheartening, to be honest,” says Irena Farinacci, 45, who has profound hearing loss and who says she hasn’t dated seriously in the past four years. “The biggest challenge is how women react when I explain that I have hearing loss. Most of the time they run the opposite direction once I open up about it.”
Luke Hatter, 36, who has gradual hearing loss, also mentions feeling discomfort from dating partners who are hearing. “There’ve been times I’ve dated and I get the sense the person I’m with is not comfortable being with someone who has a disability,” he says. “I don’t enjoy going to bars because the loud noise gives me a headache, or any place that has me having to talk over the noise to the person I want to talk to.”
Sometimes struggles with dating and sex are due to simple missed cues. Jerry M., 43, also struggles with dating while being hearing-impaired. “I’m told by my friends that I get hit on all the time, but I just don't hear it. Like, a guy will walk by the table I'm sitting at with my friends and he'll say something like, ‘You're beautiful,’ or while we're walking down the street. He's about a block away by the time I realize what has happened. So many missed opportunities!”
The girl I was with on my birthday, who made my hearing aids (and me) shriek like a banshee, initially dismissed me because I accidentally ignored her. “It was like you thought you were better than me,” she told me, months later. I didn’t know. I couldn’t. It took almost a year for me to convince her that I wanted her.
Communication is still the biggest struggle for me, especially in bed. My dirty talk is aggressively one-sided or nonexistent. This is more devastating than I let on. I love the collision of words, that kaleidoscope of longing fracturing and coming together on the tongue.
Regardless of whether I wear the aids or not, I always miss a lot of things. Sometimes I guess what my partners are saying. I wonder if it’s something filthy or beautiful or instructional.
I wonder, but mostly I say nothing. Because there’s nothing like a litany of what huh pardon mes to kill the mood or take me out of my body and into my head, where anxiety, doubt, and insecurity live.
If it’s important enough, I know my partners will repeat themselves. I accept the loss of these intimacies with the same quiet resignation that I accept the loss of my hearing itself. (That is to say, not well.)
Not everyone I spoke to finds dating to be an issue, however. Marissa Muro, 45, who identifies as deaf, says: “I haven't had any major issues with dating. Everyone I've dated has been hearing. I find that people are pretty open and always willing to accommodate me.” But, she adds, “I'm also extremely assertive.”
Misunderstandings are common, even with those who have perfect hearing, but being deaf or hard of hearing complicates things further, especially in the often murky territories of communication and consent. Such misunderstandings can be occasionally awful, strange, or embarrassing.
Hatter tells a tale of accidentally agreeing to public sex in college. “I had class with this young girl who had her eyes on me the entire semester. ... The final week of school she catches me just after exiting the classroom. I exchanged greetings and she said something and I didn’t pay attention. I thought she asked me if she could email me questions about the final. I said, ‘Yeah, sure,’ and started to walk away. Then she grabs my arm and leads me to the women’s restroom. It turns out I had consented to getting it on in the women’s restroom. Imagine the initial shock on my face after entering.”
Muro mentions a time that her hearing failed her on a date in a way that made her feel “like a creep.”
She says: “I went on a date with a woman I met online. There was a lot of chemistry. At the end of the night, as we walked out [of the restaurant] we hugged and then she kissed me. It was a pretty passionate kiss. I was not expecting it. At that point, I really wanted to go home with her. I thought she was asking. Long story short, she crossed the street and I followed and she stopped and seemed a bit confused. I quickly figured out that I was not being invited back to her place. I was totally embarrassed and … apologized profusely.” Muro says they went out on several more dates, but that she now makes “a point to make sure I understand exactly what is happening by asking and checking in.”
While innocent mistakes can and do happen, even to the best and most compassionate and respectful among us, there’ve been times when my hearing loss has landed me in scary situations.
One of these situations involved a routine bar outing with a friend. A man was talking to me, but I wasn’t paying him much attention. I was also so drunk that my friend called a cab for me without even asking. As the cab pulled up, the man said something I didn’t hear. I nodded, thinking it was probably something like, “It was nice meeting you.”
That is not what he said.
It was only after the cab dropped me off that I realized this stranger had followed me home. It took 30 minutes to convince him to leave. To convince him that my one accidental yes did not outweigh the many other noes I verbalized explicitly in the dark street in front of my house at 2 a.m., as I gripped my keys hard enough to turn my knuckles white.
Saying yes to something or someone on accident, agreeing to something I haven’t agreed to, feels like the worst violation of my own boundaries. The silent weight of every false yes does something to a person. Our sense of self. Our relationships.
And yet. As others have said, our limitations aren’t what stand in our way. Or they don’t have to be. Our supposed limitations can actually give us our most creative advantages.
Beethoven’s hearing loss is part of what made him an incredible composer. In her autobiography, Helen Keller, who was blind and deaf, describes how her sense of touch was so keen that she could tell how someone was feeling just by shaking their hand. Thomas Edison said his deafness helped him concentrate, the proof of which lies in his hundreds of brilliant inventions.
“I definitely feel more tuned in to my body and my partner's,” says Muro. “And I'm extremely sensitive to touch, so orgasms are pretty awesome.” Hatter also feels more in sync with his partners. “Not wearing hearing aids during sex blocks out all distraction, which allows me to focus on her 100%. That focus allows me to pay attention to how she’s reacting to what I’m doing. She will let me know if I’m doing it wrong, and stop me, but that’s become rare as I’ve gained more experience. I’m more in tune to what my partner is feeling.”
Jerry’s perk is more wry, but no less meaningful. “[My hearing loss] has been an amazing filter for finding out who the assholes are sooner than later.”
Being hard of hearing forces me to not take anything for granted. To view sex and connection and bodies as endless opportunities, endless oceans to be fathomed, endless ways to learn from each other and grow.
Maybe we can never fully understand one each other. But maybe this frees us in some way.
And then there are the times when we can laugh with each other — at ourselves and our limitations — and something breaks open in us and light pours into our darknesses.
My girlfriend once tried to tell me something in bed. “Want me to whisper it in your ear?” she asked.
“You want to spit in my ear?”
Disability or no, some days it feels impossible to ask for what we need from our partners, from anyone. Who could possibly understand what it feels like to live this way, with this limitation, with this cluster of needs?
And maybe no one can truly know what it feels like. Maybe what matters is just that we tell one another what we need, and that we listen to one another. It’s that simple. It’s that revolutionary. ●