The Golden Globe–nominated 2020 film The Sound of Metal uses sound editing, American sign language, and a mix of hearing and d/Deaf actors to tell the story of a man rediscovering how to live as he rapidly loses his hearing. In the beginning of the movie, he’s touring as a drummer in a metal duo with his longtime girlfriend. Though his romantic relationship plays a key role in Ruben’s approach to his hearing loss, the couple is separated for much of the film—while the movie shows Ruben reevaluating many aspects of everyday life, it doesn’t overtly focus on intimacy between a newly interabled, mixed-hearing couple.
Although experts estimate that around 15 percent of all adults are d/Deaf or hard of hearing, realistic depictions of sex featuring these people are rare, even in narratives focused on hearing differences. (A recent exception is Deaf U, a Netflix docu-series released last year about Deaf college students, although some Deaf critics felt the show was fixated on sex in an exoticizing way.) Beyond the cultural sphere, even medical researchers have not spent much time studying or building supportive resources about the sexual experiences of d/Deaf and hard of hearing people, and medical providers rarely proactively discuss the unique dynamics of sex and intimacy with their d/Deaf and hard of hearing patients.
The distinct sexual experiences of people who are d/Deaf or hard of hearing varies from person to person, just as the wider experience can: Some people are born deaf while others lose some or all of their hearing later in life. Some people have different levels of hearing in each ear. Some people use cochlear implants or hearing aids; others don’t. Some are part of the Deaf community, which refuses the idea of deafness as a disability and usually centers around the use of sign languages over audible speech; others don’t identify or live that way. (Lower-case “deaf” refers to not being able to hear while upper-case “Deaf” refers to this community; “d/Deaf” encompasses both meanings.)
Many d/Deaf and hard of hearing people face at least some challenges communicating with others in a world largely built by and for hearing people. Those who rely on visual cues might need to negotiate specific lighting and lines of sight before and during sex, since good sexual experiences often hinge on clear communication. Otherwise, deaf and hard of hearing people may be anxious about missing audible cues indicating consent, pleasure, pain, or needing to stop.
There are tricky sexual dynamics beyond core communication and consent. People may worry about how they sound to a hearing partner. People who use hearing aids may take them out because of feedback created through contact, or because of concerns about getting these expensive devices wet or otherwise damaging them. (This can complicate their engagement with dirty talk or moaning.) Many d/Deaf and hard of hearing people, at some point, have to contend with the dehumanizing stigmas many hearing individuals hold about them—including the belief that sex for and with them is preclusively difficult.
Though academics have called for more research into the sexual aspects of d/Deaf and hard of hearing life, d/Deaf and hard of hearing people have begun to fill the knowledge gap themselves through candor about their sexual experiences and their perspectives on sex. For a sense of how hearing loss informs one couple’s approach to doing it, VICE reached out to Shane, who has gradually been losing hearing (her preferred term) in her right ear throughout her life and uses a hearing aid, and her longtime partner, Rob. They told us about how being a mixed-hearing couple affects how they have sex.
Shane and Rob’s names have been changed to protect their privacy. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Shane: In kindergarten, I took one of those tests at the school nurse’s office where they have you put on a set of headphones and raise your hand on the side that you hear a tone. On my right side, my hand didn’t go up when they played the tone that corresponds to average adult male speech. The nurse told my mother that something might be going on, so I started seeing doctors about my hearing. I still don’t know what exactly is causing this—it might be genetic—but my hearing in my right ear has gotten progressively worse since then.
My hearing loss developed slowly at first—when I was a kid, my doctor told me I might never need a hearing aid. Around high school, it ramped up. I started asking to sit in the front of the class so that I could hear better, and I had trouble picking up what people were saying if I was someplace with a lot of background noise.
I was always loud growing up, and in high school, I realized that was partially because I can’t hear myself well when I talk, so I don’t know what my volume sounds like to other people. I got self-conscious about how loud I was being. That’s around when Rob and I started dating, too—in our freshman year of high school. We’ve been together for almost 10 years.
Rob: Back then, I wouldn’t have guessed she spoke loudly because of her hearing. Shane was just always an excitable person, and her family can get very loud, too. I did notice that she sometimes had trouble hearing people. But she didn’t ask them to repeat themselves often.
Shane: I never thought of myself as “hard of hearing” in high school, even as I made little adjustments to account for the hearing loss in my right ear. Like, during sex back then—and still now—if I’m on my side in a position, I make sure I’m on my right side so that I can have my left ear free to hear. I think I just favored those kinds of positions instinctually.
Rob: I never remember us having a conversation about that, or trying to get into those positions intentionally. Shane just organically moves one way or another to make that adjustment.
Shane: Eventually, I decided that I should get a hearing aid. In college, about two years ago, I was working at a doctor’s office, and after a while the team there confronted me and told me they felt like I wasn’t listening to them. I said, “I can’t hear you.”
The doctor, who had hearing aids in both ears, told me I might need one, too. So, I went to an audiologist to get checked and got one. When I first learned that I might need a hearing aid, I was upset because I didn’t know what it’d mean for my life. Rob was always supportive, though. So, it didn’t affect our relationship much.
At first, I wasn’t sure if I should consider myself hard of hearing, since I just have hearing loss in one ear and I grew up with hearing. But this affects my life, so I’ve started to use that term for myself.
I didn’t get any guidance on what to do with my hearing aid during sex. Actually, the audiologist I went to was not very compassionate at all. It was just like: You have a problem. Let’s fix the problem. There was no discussion of the social side of getting a hearing aid at all. We also live in a conservative area, and a lot of the d/Deaf groups here are mostly made up of middle-aged, white Christian women. I’m bisexual and I’m not conservative, so when I looked at these groups, I immediately felt like I didn’t want any part of them. It’s been hard to find a local community to talk to, especially about issues related to sex, sexuality, and hearing.
The first few times we had sex after I got my hearing aid, I tried to keep it in. When I put my head down so that my right ear was against a pillow, I’d get this painful feedback noise. I learned more about how to manage my hearing aid during sex by watching YouTube videos made by people in the Deaf community who use hearing aids or have cochlear implants.
We eventually decided I should take out my hearing aid before sex, and just make sure that we have very clear and open communication before, during, and after. That’s not a big issue for us, because I missed or misunderstood things Rob said during sex for years before I got my hearing aid, and we’ve always been good at talking with each other about anything. We developed this strong communication, which is really important, naturally over the years we’ve been together.
Rob: We’ve also always been very laugh-y and fun during sex, so if one of us misses a word and we need to repeat something or switch things up, that’s not a big problem for us. We just laugh through misunderstandings and make whatever adjustments we need to make for either of us.
Shane: Sometimes, if I miss something, like a request to change positions or to speed up or slow down, or if Rob misses something because I’m overcorrecting for volume and not being loud enough, I have to shout “stop,” and we’ll take a break to check in for a minute before we continue. Rob’s always been great at handling those situations.
Rob: We did have some dedicated conversations about how to adjust our communications after Shane got her hearing aid, though. She asked me to be more on top of telling her if she was being loud as she figured out how to adjust to and live with her new sense of hearing.
Shane: After I got the hearing aid and I could hear how loud I was, I was like, Oh, this is bad.
Rob: She didn’t want me to just say “you’re being loud,” especially in public, though. We found ways for me to say—in little signs and signals, like giving her a subtle nudge—that she might want to adjust her volume. Volume was more of an issue for us during sex before Shane got her hearing aid than after she got it, though. We’ve never woken up our upstairs neighbors, but I think we’ve come close.
Shane: We both live in our parents’ basements, so we really don’t want to wake up the people upstairs. But because I take my hearing aid out during sex, I still don’t know when I’m loud.
Rob: Even when you take it out, it seems like just having the hearing aid has made you more aware of volume. But you’re still an excitable person, so things can still get loud anyway.
Shane: [Laughs] Yeah, I think that’s right on both counts.
Rob: Should we talk about how your dog fits into this?
Shane: [Laughs] Oh, yeah. I got a dog originally as an emotional support animal. I sometimes can’t hear it when people are walking down the stairs [to my bedroom] or trying to talk to me, especially if I don’t have my hearing aid in. My dog isn’t trained as a service dog for hearing, but he does give me a warning that someone is trying to communicate with me when his ears perk up. So when we’re having sex sometimes, I’ll see his ears perk up, and we’ll stop and confirm that we haven’t woken anyone up or no one is trying to come in.
Rob: It’s all just about clear communication and patience. Some of that comes naturally and some of it needs to be hashed out. Ultimately, both sides of a relationship just need to be open about their wants and needs and talk stuff out.
Shane: You need that in any relationship, interabled or not. You need patience and understanding.