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I Don't Know What Sexy Looks Like

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I'm a 26 year-old blind female and I've been with my boyfriend, now husband, for nearly four years. He's sweet, funny, smart, and the ideal guy. But sex is a problem. We've lost a lot of the intensity we had before and I'm worried about him getting bored. He said he's also worried about that. I want to be exciting and different and keep him interested. But how do I be spontaneous and sexy at once? I feel guilty that I can't see enough to know when I look sexy, I'm not even sure how to do that. I don't know what my question is exactly but I'm writing to you as I'm afraid to bring this up with anyone around me because I feel like they wouldn't be able to separate the sex from the disability, and in some ways I think that's good, but in others not so much.

I'm glad that you felt like you could email me. I know what you mean about feeling like some people won't be able to separate the disability from the sex, and also what you mean when you say that's both a good and bad thing. I'm currently non-disabled, but my experience, both with partners who had disabilities and also as someone whose life is happily infused with Disability, is that it isn't that easy to fully separate out disability experience from life, because it's part of life. Even so, people often confuse their own stereotypes, prejudices, and expectations about disability in general with what may be happening for an individual. That's where things can get messy and people's actual experience gets lost among the well meaning assumptions and all the pity that folks with disabilities experience daily.

It's hard to talk about your experience when you can tell that what people aren't really listening to you as much as they are listening for confirmation of what they think being blind must be like. It's hard and frustrating. So I appreciate you trying here, and I'll do my best not to fall into that trap.

In answering your question I hope you don't mind, but I want to start with a sort of challenge regarding some of what you've written. By challenge I don't mean argue with what you're saying or suggest you are wrong. I mean that I want to suggest that there is more than one way to consider the situation. And I want to offer an alternative.

Let me start with a modest proposal: most people, regardless of disability, have little to no idea when they look sexy, how they are presenting themselves sexually, or what they are putting out in the world in terms of sexual energy. When they do have a sense of what they are putting out there, often what they think is happening is very different from what others are perceiving. A friend may think they are oozing sexual energy and interest while flirting with someone, but if you ask that other person they'll have no clue they were being flirted with. A person might think they are playing it completely cool, when in fact they are wearing their lust right out there, on their sleeve.

I make this point because when you write that you "can't see enough to know when [you] look sexy", it seems to me as if you are suggesting that it's your visual impairment or being blind that makes you unable to know if you're being sexy. I suppose this is possible, and it's not my place to tell you what's right and wrong for you. But I want you to consider an alternative. I think it's more likely that your experience of not knowing when you look sexy comes from not being connected to what sexy feels like for you, and not being connected to your own sexual energy and presence. My challenge to you is not that you should ignore your experience of being blind, but to ask you to think a little more broadly about what we're talking about when we talk about looking or being sexy.

[As an aside, I'm writing all this as someone who almost never knows if I'm being sexy. I think we can be ignorant of our own sexual energy and still be okay, and also still enjoy sex. I know there are all sorts of experts out there waiting to tell us how to take control of our sexual energy. And that might help. But I don't think there's one path to this, and I think there's a way for us to do it on our own terms in our own ways].

The reason I want to challenge the set up of your question is that the way you worded your worry, making it about being blind, seems to suggest that in order to fix your problem you have to be sighted. That, I can guarantee, is untrue. You can figure this out, you can be sexy and know when you're being sexy with exactly the body you have.

One way to move toward this is to acknowledge the ways that sexual socialization and learning are inherently ableist and exclude you not because of your capacity to be sexy but because of assumptions about who you are and what sexy must be.

Let's take flirting as an example. When people offer flirting advice what do they say? They tell you to make eye contact. Lean in. Gently brush up against the person you're talking to, not too much, but just a bit. On and on, the advice goes. And of course this advice only works if you're sighted. Does it mean people who are blind can't flirt? Of course not. But this point, where sexuality, disability, and ableism converge manages to exclude people from practicing and participating in ways that end up feeling like it's all about you.

So staying on the flirting theme, I'd want to ask how you feel about your flirting abilities? Do you feel like you know when you're being flirtatious and when people are flirting back? Flirting is one aspect of sexual energy, and it's something most people have to learn. You can learn it too, although you have to find a more creative teacher, one who isn't going to rely on the cookie cutter advice. Some of the better sex shops offer sex workshops and flirting is a topic regularly covered. But you'll come up against a lot of ableism in most of those. You might also check out disability groups that are interested in sexuality, as sometimes they offer workshops that are more creative, and more inclusive.

Flirting is just one aspect of exchanging sexual energy in the world. If you feel like it's one you already get, or you aren't interested in it, you may want to explore sexual energy in other ways. One of my favorite teachers, who writes and talks about sexual energy in everything she does, is Barbara Carrellas. Barbara's latest book is called Ecstasy Is Necessary (compare prices), and I highly recommend her first book as well, Urban Tantra. Much of Barbara's work is informed by tantra which is both a philosophy and practice involving the exchange of sexual energy.

If you're able to get a bit more comfortable talking about this it might be helpful to talk with your husband about it. It's always challenging to raise sexual concerns with a partner but there is a lot you could learn. Does he know when you're trying to be sexy? Since he probably finds you sexy at times when you aren't even trying, how would he describe what it is that he finds sexy about you in those moments. Is it something you're doing with your body? Something you're doing with your voice? Is it just an energy that he can't put words too? This is all useful feedback and awkward as it might sound, it's something we would all do well to know a bit more about.

There's one more thought I want to share about your comment that you are feeling guilty that you can't see enough. That comment really stuck with me. On the one hand I get it, you have a desire to be sexy for your partner, to make him want you, to feel desirable, and to participate in a mutually pleasurable sexual relationship. That all makes sense to me.

But the comment also made me think of the social expectation that gets put on most people with disabilities which is that there's something wrong with you, and it's your responsibility to fix it. The burden is on you and you alone to somehow change yourself so you fit into some idealized definition of sexuality as opposed to us all sharing responsibility to create a world where being sexual is something we all get to do on our own terms. This is one way that folks with disabilities get shut out, and shoved out of opportunities for relationships and for sexual expression. The message is; if you can't play by our rules, you can't play at all. But this attitude is based on fear and ignorance and prejudice. It doesn't make sense to me, and it certainly doesn't make for good sex.

Your husband is in a relationship with you, as you are. We all come with our odd and quirky and beautiful bodies (even if those aren't words we'd all use to describe our bodies). For some people that stuff doesn't start showing itself until they get a bit older. But it happens to all of us and we all end up having to deal with it one way or another. So while I'm not going to tell you not to feel guilty (since it's your choice and right to feel what you want to feel) I do want to encourage you to challenge those thoughts that seem to be about putting yourself down when in fact you are doing a very good job of trying to change things.

You wrote in your email that you aren't talking to anyone about this, that it feels like there's no one to talk to. I'm happy, and honored really, that you shared it with me. I do want to encourage you to think about how you might develop some relationships (online or offline) with friends that you could talk to about this. I would trust your instincts about your family and friends who can't handle the talk, but there are others out there who can. For some people connecting with folks that share some experience of otherness or difference can be helpful. Even though our experience of sexuality is unique and there isn't such a thing as "blind sexuality" there will be some experiences that other people who are blind will be able to relate to in a way that your sighted friends and family (and I) can't. Another source of learning and connection could come from disabled artists who are exploring these and similar issues. I'm thinking of people like the poet and performer Lynn Manning, and the performance group Sins Invalid. We all can connect of course, it isn't that we have to stay within certain groups, but there are different kinds of connections, and I'm just mentioning it as one possibility for finding connections that may help you navigate the sexual terrain.

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