The ability to hear and understand without the physical ability to communicate verbally is exceptionally rare. (There isn’t even any broad agreement on the most accurate or sensitive language to use for this condition, which can make it difficult to discuss or describe to begin with.) When this condition does occur, it's usually the result of highly specific issues that affect the speech center of a person’s brain, their control over the organs and muscles used in verbal speech, or those body parts’ development and functionality. These issues stem from a wide variety of congenital and acquired conditions, many of which usually cause only temporary or partial loss of verbal speech, or hearing and language comprehension difficulties alongside the physical inability to communicate verbally.
Researchers spend more time studying psychological, or selective, vocal communication challenges, much more common conditions in which people are unable to verbally speak, or choose not to, despite being physically able to do so. Given the general lack of research on solely physical conditions, it's also hard to find information about how the physical inability to communicate verbally can affect people’s sexual lives. A recent review of studies on the effects of strokes, a common cause of damage to the speech center of the brain, on sexuality found that most of them excluded people with communications issues, in part because they believed that working with them would involve too many logistical complexities.
Given the importance of communication within sex, any condition that affects the way one can talk to others will certainly affect their sex life. The underlying causes of a physical inability to speak verbally can also lead to a host of other issues in bed, like limited dexterity due to widespread muscular control issues, or reduced sensation in body parts connected to damaged nerves.
VICE spoke with Wade, who physically can't communicate verbally, and his partner, Mina, about their sex life. Wade has never been able to speak verbally. In 2010, an X-ray revealed that this is likely due to a curve in his neck, possibly a result of complications during childbirth, that damaged the nerves that control his jaw, lips, and tongue, as well as his fine motor skills. (As he does not know his birth family, he’s not sure exactly what happened.) He learned sign language while growing up.
Wade’s perspective isn't necessarily representative of everyone with such a condition—like those who develop their conditions later in life, who have progressive conditions, or who don’t learn sign language. But his and Mina’s story still sheds light on the often neglected topic of how not being able to communicate through verbal speech can affect sex and relationships.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity. Mina and Wade’s names have been changed for privacy reasons.
Wade: It didn’t really hit me until high school that my inability to speak might affect my relationships with people. Even with people who can’t sign, I could always just write things down in a notepad. When I got a cell phone, I could just type things into my phone—that’s easier on smartphones now than it was on flip phones back when I was growing up.
When I started to realize people might see me as different, I took a humorous approach to my condition, like using the nickname Silent Bob. I didn’t have many intimate relationships in high school. The ones I did have were mostly long-distance online relationships. So, I couldn’t call and talk to those people, but texting dirty on messenger systems was no problem. Sometimes, a girl would want to hear what I sound like. I can make some sounds from my throat. But I’m not always comfortable hearing my own vocalizations, so that was a challenge.
In college, in-person relationships became a more important part of my life, as I started to have more one-on-one time with my peers. I had my first big relationships in my early 20s.
During sex, a lot of people don’t like to make eye contact. Or they like to have sex entirely in the dark. But if they can’t see me—even if we’re just both facing in the same direction, like in doggy-style—then it’s hard for me to communicate with them using nonverbal cues. So, I often have to do things like tap them and get them to look at me just to ask, “Is this OK? Does this feel good?”
A lot of my early relationships were flings with people who couldn’t use sign language, so I was usually doing a lot of thumbs-up, thumbs-down, basic hand gestures, because it is not easy to write out more complex ideas during sex. But even that can really break the rhythm of sex.
Mina: In 2008, Wade messaged me on VampireFreaks [which was a goth-culture social networking site that operated from 1999 until earlier this year]. He said something like, “Your profile is really cool.” I responded to him and we started chatting. Eventually, I decided he was a cool guy and that I wanted to meet up with him in person. He told me from the start that he couldn’t speak.
When he was driving out to meet me for the first time, I wanted to give him directions. I didn’t want him texting while driving, so I figured I’d call him and he could just listen to me. His phone went to voicemail and I heard, “Hi, this is Wade. I can’t come to the phone right now.” I hung up and was like, This motherfucker can talk! Oh my god! He called me back and I didn’t know if I was going to pick up at first, but I did and he just managed to make a sound and then I realized, I’m such an asshole. When we met, I told him what I’d thought, and he just laughed it off and explained that his best friend made that message for him for job interview calls and stuff.
Wade: There was a learning curve for us when it came to communicating during sex. Things are more fluid now than they were early on. But it was a smooth learning curve—almost seamless.
Mina: I’m a take-charge kind of person. With sex, I just go for things and work them out as I go.
Wade: The best relationships I’ve had are with people who see me for who I am, not what I can do, and just go with it. Even when we’ve had communication issues, we laugh afterwards.
Mina: Wade started to teach me some sign language. I can actually translate for him now, and do some signing myself. But he has no patience for me signing back to him. He’s just like… “Talk!” He was always really good about reading my body language, but at first, he’d have to sign things out fully during sex, which could take a while. But now we’ve learned each other’s shorthand.
When we first met, he didn’t make a lot of sounds. So, I did tell him, “Let’s do more vocalizing, too,” because that can communicate a lot. He vocalizes more now.
Wade: The longer a relationship lasts, the easier it is to communicate a lot with simple gestures, and for both of us to know what to look for. The response time in interpreting things goes down.
Mina: Still, sometimes he’ll tap me on the leg or something and try to signal, “Move over here.” But I might miss what he’s saying or take a while to interpret the sign out because I’m distracted.
Wade: I’m not really sure how else my inability to speak has affected things for us. I think that Mina’s able-bodied perspective on that may be more interesting. Mina, what else do you notice?
Mina: Well, Wade always jokes that, because he’s good at signing, he’s good at fingering, too. He doesn’t really have the motor control for that. He lacks complete control of his tongue, too. That’s OK, though. Everybody’s different, but I don’t need that in my life.
Wade: Because of my lack of control over my mouth muscles, I do drool more often than most people. Now that I think about it, I try to keep my head tilted back during sex, and I avoid doing a lot of kissing, because I need to concentrate to be able to hold back and swallow my spit. Sex is messy. But there’s sexy-messy and then there’s gross-messy—like saliva drooling everywhere.
Mina: Initially, the drool was a slight turnoff. But I was more turned on by taking charge in our kissing. We’ve also worked on being conscious of and controlling the drooling, because I do sometimes get tired of wiping his drool out of my butt crack during or after sex. But sometimes, in the heat of the moment, when we’re already hot and sweaty, if he drools all over my belly or my chest and tries to apologize and wipe it off, I’ll just say, “Don’t worry about it. Leave it.” So, I guess I do go back and forth on how much I care about the drool.
We’ve also dabbled in kink scenes, and not many people in the community here know sign.
Wade: I’ve had rope riggers who’ve worried that, if they suspend me, they won’t be able to see or know if I’m uncomfortable, or when it’s time to take me down, even though I can negotiate beforehand to leave a hand or an arm free to tap out or make other agreed-upon hand signals. People often tiptoe around me because they feel unsure about how to communicate with me.
Mina: People in the community will talk to him—but they’re looking at me. It’s the same when we’re out at restaurants. He writes on his phone, “I want a burger with cheese, no onions,” and shows it to the waitress. Then she’ll look past him at me and ask, “Does he want cheese?”
Wade: Mina also has to communicate for me over the phone when people call me or when I need to set up doctor’s appointments or deal with my bank. That’s not necessarily about intimacy, but it takes a lot of patience. Patience is important to our relationship.
Mina: Also, speaking of communication, we had a poly relationship for a while where we both had another girlfriend. I’m bi. But Wade couldn’t handle two women at once—and that’s OK.
Wade: It’s hard not being able to speak when you’re having sex with three people. You have to get both of their attention, one after the other. And when only one of them knows sign language… Mina would have to interpret for me to her. That would slow down the action.
It’s hard to get on the right level; to find the right vibe with someone; to be able to communicate well and quickly. But Mina and I work well together. We complement each other in many ways.
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