This article originally appeared on VICE US
In the 15 or so years I have been trying and failing and trying again to live my life with hearing aids, I’ve seen about a dozen doctors, ENTs, and audiologists. In all of these encounters, zero percent have ever addressed how to have sex while wearing hearing aids. As I got bolder and explicitly asked these hearing aid professionals, the answer I always received seemed overly simple and not that satisfying: Just take them out.
Outside of the doctor's office, the one reference I’ve found in regard to sex and hearing aids comes from an otherwise excellent book called Living Better with Hearing Loss: A Guide to Health, Happiness, Love, Sex, Work, Friends…and Hearing Aids by Katherine Bouton. Despite the “sex” in the title, the section on sex is about 100 words long. “Do you keep [hearing aids] in?” Bouton writes. “In general, the answer seems to be ‘take them out.’ If you take them out, how do you communicate—especially in the dark? There are ways, as we all know.”
Well, what are they? The chapter ends there, along with a one-sentence reminder to disclose your hearing loss to partners and work on your communication. Certainly we could all be communicating more and better about our limitations in bed, but concrete advice on navigating the wild world of sex with hearing loss is largely lacking.
As a sex writer and enthusiast, I’ve spent years experimenting with different ways to manage sex, consent, and communication with hearing aids. Here are my main tips, whether you use in the ear (ITE) aids, surgically implanted aids, or behind the ear (BTE) aids like me. Though they all have external components that can be removed, different devices come with different levels of comfort and require different positioning and needs.
Should You Take Out Hearing Aids During Sex?
You totally can take out aids for sex, and plenty of people do. Based on previous interviews I’ve conducted with people with hearing loss, some love to have aid-free sex because the lack of auditory distraction allows them to focus better and more easily on physical sensations and to be more attentive to their partners.
Taking out one’s hearing devices protects them from getting wet, which can damage them. Aids typically cost between $3,000–$7,000 a pair (and that skyrockets to $30–$50K for a cochlear implant) and are rarely covered by insurance, so ruining them is not an especially sound financial move, no matter how much you love facials.
Taking out the aids during sex also ensures that a lover will not accidentally rip one or both off your head in a heated, face-grabby moment, when you might then lose it or step on it. To this end, Suzanne Baptiste, a hearing instrument specialist in the Bay Area, recommends getting a proper fit so they’re less likely to fall off or get lost in the sheets. And taking them out guarantees that no horrid, shrieking feedback will occur should a partner, for instance, clamp their thighs around your ears while you are going down on them.
The downsides to not wearing one’s hearing aids however, are many. The biggest and most obvious is that you won’t be able to hear as well, which impacts your ability to communicate, give and receive informed consent, and take in auditory cues from your partner. Baptiste advises people to leave their aids in during sexual activity because of the importance of communication. “Modern hearing aids are a lot more moisture-resistant than they used to be," she said. "I can’t speak for every hearing aid, but if they’re less than two or three years old, you can probably sweat in them.”
Taking my hearing aids out during sex has never been a good option for me. I find it much more anxiety-inducing to accidentally agree to something I didn’t want to do, or do something a partner didn’t want to do, because I’ve misheard them. Also, there is nothing hotter to me than hearing a partner moan. Though my sex tends to be extremely sweaty, I’ve found that a little common sense goes a long way when it comes to wearing my aids during wetter activities. (No shower sex, obviously, and no water sports!) I’ve yet to damage them in the slightest. Choose whatever works for you—you can always take them out or put them back in again if you need to.
Find Alternate Ways to Communicate and Give Consent
Consent and communication during sex can be thorny for everyone, not just people with hearing loss. Boundaries are sometimes accidentally crossed, even with the best-intentioned and most respectful partners. The upside to sex with hearing aids is that it forces a couple to be that much more explicit, intentional, and direct with each other, particularly when navigating a first-time experience.
To that end, you should always always always tell your partner(s) you struggle to hear. Disclosing your hearing loss will never be as awkward as violating a partner's consent. On top of that, being upfront and honest about your hearing loss takes some of the stigma out of it. If you don’t tell a partner that you wear hearing aids, then they can’t accommodate your needs.
When and how to disclose your hearing loss to a partner is up to you, but I’d recommend you do it before you start making out. If you don’t, you run the risk that a partner might grab your face in a movie theater and kiss you intensely, thus knocking your aid out and forcing you to scramble around on the floor looking for it with your smartphone flashlight. (Hypothetically.)
In terms of communicating during sex when one is hard of hearing, I’ve found it helpful to borrow from kink, which uses safe words, signals, and gestures to check in with partners. If one is gagged, for instance, you can’t very well use your words. But you can squeeze a partner’s hand, nod three times, or otherwise employ a tactile or visual signal. The same line of thinking can apply to hearing-aid sex, regardless of how vanilla it might be. Nodding and eye contact are great, and if you need to physically slow or change a movement, you can often do so with your body alone. I’m also fond of the basic thumbs-up/thumbs-down, assuming your hands are not bound. (I’ve also been known to give high-fives during sex, so it's clear I love a visual gesture.)
Embrace Awkward Moments—And That You Might Have to Ask People to Repeat Themselves
The first tip, though most relevant to having sex with hearing loss, applies to any sex, and it involves lightening up. Sex is awkward. If you haven’t nearly concussed yourself on a headboard or accidentally elbowed someone in the genitals, then you probably haven’t had very much good sex yet.
No matter your gender, the biggest boner-killer is anxiety. If you’re constantly interrogating every little move so your lover doesn’t accidentally touch your hearing aid, you’re not going to be enjoying the sex you’re actually having. You can either acknowledge that a weird thing happened, laugh, and move on—or, you can ignore it and still move on. It’s up to you how you wanna roll with it, but I prefer to laugh, like a partner and I did together the time I thought she asked, “Do you want me to spit in your ear?” when she actually said, “Do you want me to whisper it in your ear?” The moment helped us bond—meaning it improved the sex we had.
How to Avoid Feedback from Your Hearing Aids if You Wear Them During Sex
Feedback is a bitch. For me, at least, it happens at totally random moments. Sometimes a light hug will set my aids screeching, but vigorous sex won't. Sometimes taking my sunglasses off will do it, and other times, it happens while I'm simply listening to Jewel on my headphones. (Stop judging my taste in music, hearing aids!!)
That said, there are certain positions to be mindful of when one is trying to avoid feedback. Be conscious of ones that might put pressure on or near your ears, like the thigh-clamp oral sex position mentioned above, and the lazy 69, where your head rests on your partner’s thigh. Missionary could be a gamble if your lover likes to press their face and neck against yours while on top. Generally speaking, positions where the hearing-aid wearer is on top are great because they let you control more aspects of the sex, and thus lead to fewer faux pas. Experimentation is key in figuring out what works and what doesn’t for individual bodies.
If feedback does occur despite your maneuvering, you can always take one or both aids out, or switch to a different activity for a while. Most of all, remember to cut yourself and your partners a lot of slack. You are bionic! No technological enhancement comes without technical difficulties.
Incorporate Hearing Limitations Into Sensation Play
Embracing my limitations has come, somewhat counterintuitively, from eroticizing them. Intentionally playing with something I've been told to feel bad about taught me that I am not “broken” or “deficient” or “missing something.” That the loss doesn’t have to always be a loss. When I bring my hearing loss explicitly and intentionally into sex by turning it into play, it makes me feel understood and appreciated in a way that very little else does. This is in part because it’s taboo, and many taboos are erotic. If a lover nibbles or sucks on my ears, (which we negotiate beforehand, because consent!)—even if the hearing aid is there, even if it might shriek—the act alone makes me feel acknowledged, as if they are saying, "I see your limitation, and I don’t desire you less for it."
I like to play with my partners’ sense of hearing (those who have normal hearing, that is) because it evens the playing field a little and gives them a brief glimpse into what sex is like for me. Taking away any sense—with a blindfold, ear plugs, or earbuds playing white noise— heightens our other senses and allows us to experience sex in entirely new ways, too. Playing with smell and taste are harder, but you can mute surrounding smells by putting a little menthol under their nose or having them wear a gag or scented hankie over their mouths. For touch, people can tape or bind their hands so they no longer function. You can also wrap a partner in a particular fabric like satin (pleasant) or jute (unpleasant).
When you train your senses to notice different things, to feel different sensations, and to communicate in new ways, you become curious and attuned to your body and the bodies of others.
Manage Potential Shame About Hearing Difficulty
A less immediately apparent barrier to hearing-aid sex is navigating shame, which is an unfortunate byproduct of living in an ableist, and often unaccommodating world. There's stigma surrounding hearing loss and deafness, particularly if you are young. Shame, like anxiety, is a huge deterrent to sex, happiness, and our self-esteem.
Learning how to not give a fuck helps, but that takes time, patience, and sometimes, therapy. While you’re working on that, defang shame by practicing vulnerability. If you don’t know what words or actions trigger shame feelings in you, then you can’t avoid them.
My shame triggers tend to be around dirty talk, which I love—and which I cannot engage in anymore. A woman once suggested we have phone sex, and I avoided her calls for an entire year because my anxiety around it was so high. Maybe live-captioning technology will enable me to try this again in the future, but, for now, I mostly tell my partners to use fewer words and more visual gestures if they don’t want me saying, “What?” a thousand times.
Once you realize certain cues trigger shame feelings in you, you can talk about it with partners so they can avoid upsetting you in the future. Accidents happen, and even the most respectful partner screws up sometimes. But this is how we learn.
Avoiding or hiding what we find shameful in ourselves only gives it more power. Don’t let that happen. Shame is an asshole that does not deserve to be in bed with you.
Follow Anna Pulley on Twitter.