How Dating Works When You're Living with Blindness
YouTuber and motivational speaker Molly Burke gave us the ins and outs of attraction for people without sight.
[Photo description: A woman in a tank top is snuggling into a man's chest. He is wearing a long sleeve shirt. Her hand is on his heart and his hand is on top of hers. There are flowers flowing all over and around them. The background is black and the image is very colorful.]
Navigating the dating world isn’t easy, even with my guide dog.
To get it out of the way, I’m blind. I’m a 24-year-old YouTuber and motivational speaker living in Los Angeles. Not only am I super-single, I also don’t experience physical attraction the same way most people do.
I lost most of my vision due to retinitis pigmentosa back in 2008, when I was just 14 years old. Like many others my age, that was when I became interested in dating. The same year, I was told by a male classmate that “No man would ever marry a blind girl.” His explanation? “Marrying a blind girl is like buying something you know is already broken, and no man is stupid enough to do that.” You can imagine his surprise when, a few months later, I met my first boyfriend.
When we first met at a music studio, I remember staring in the direction of his voice and straining my eyes. I was willing them to see what he looked like.
Shockingly, I had no luck. But that didn’t matter: I knew he was cute. I could hear it in his voice and feel it in his confidence. I could even smell it… Yup, smell it. Although it didn’t last more than eight months before a drama and tear-filled breakup in his parents basement, I learned a lot from that relationship. He taught me that unconditional love is a very real thing that everyone deserves, that I am whole and good enough as I am, and that we all have flaws—some just aren’t as apparent as others.
Ten years later, after a handful of boyfriends and breakups, a laundry list of second and third dates with no fourths, and another relationship that lasted over two years, I’d like to think I’m a little wiser for my experiences.
So, what’s the biggest misconception about dating with blindness? That blind people can’t be as superficial as the sighted. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard people say things like, “Since you can’t see who you date, you must only date someone for who they are.” Blind people sure are placed on a pedestal when it comes to not being shallow or judgmental!
I’m like anyone: I have preferences when it comes to the physical aspects of the person I’m dating, and I don’t think that’s a bad thing. I prefer men who are between 5’6” and 5’11”, slim but muscular builds, with minimal body or facial hair, and a good sense of style. My friends refer to the men I date as fitting the “Hollister model” type. And when it comes to what I don’t like, it’s basically the opposite: man buns and long hair, shaved heads, and super tall or broad builds.
Consciously or unconsciously, we all have certain things we look for in a partner’s appearance, and I do experience physical attraction. It’s just not in the same way as sighted people. The things I am attracted to are all things you can experience with your other senses, too, not just sight. Things like skin or hair color don’t matter to me because I can’t see them, but smell and speech do.
(Of course, I definitely only date people who check all the right boxes in terms of personality, lifestyle, and all those other good things—I made a video on my YouTube channel awhile back to explain more of the things I’m attracted to.)
Before you start to picture that scene from Family Guy where the blind girl feels Rocky from Mask’s face, let me stop you and clarify that generally, most blind people do not feel faces. I myself know a lot of blind people, and not one of them does this! It’s one of the more annoying stereotypes that is perpetuated. For that, we can thank Helen Keller.
...Just kidding. But the whole face-feeling stereotype did start with her. In the case of people who have multiple disabilities, it can make sense to feel a close friend or family member’s face to understand their emotions and to help communicate more effectively. For high-functioning blind people like me, this generally isn’t something we need or even want to do. Feeling individual facial features with zero context to the rest of the face—let alone the person—doesn’t help me put together an “image” of someone’s face. (And I’ve been asked, including by my first boyfriend’s grandmother. Let me assure you, it was far worse than saying no would have been.) Basically what I’m saying is, if we ever meet or go on a date, please don’t ask me to feel your face.
I do just fine learning about someone by spending time with them. Take my last boyfriend, for instance: I learned that he didn’t have any facial hair the first time we kissed, but I knew that he was fit long beforehand. He talked all about his love for sports and his workout routine. When I grabbed his left arm for sighted guide, a.k.a., how you properly guide a blind person, my hypothesis was confirmed: He was pretty well worked-out. Of course, I can also always have my friends or family describe someone’s physical appearance to me, which can be helpful, too.
On the other hand, out of sight, out of mind? It’s a real thing—this blind girl is confirming it. Since I can’t feel an instant physical attraction to someone through their looks, see their face on Skype, or stalk their Instagram feed, I need someone in the flesh or I will lose my attraction to them. Even after being together for more than two years with my last boyfriend, I had to be in his physical presence, talking to him, holding his hand, feeling his energy, before I even felt a desire to kiss him hello. A long-distance relationship would never work for me, which is unfortunate, because I travel a lot for work… Maybe that’s why I’m single?
The guys I date don’t always understand why I don’t like to kiss on the first date, or why they might have to “take it slow.” They won’t all be happy with the fact that they’ll always have to be the designated-driver, or we’ll need to get an Uber, because I can’t drive. They may not be comfortable stepping into the role of "mirror" and telling me honestly when I don’t look good. Basically, being blind is a big filter for jerks.
However, of all the things I’ve learned in my ten years of dating with a disability, the most important is that you have to be careful. Most people don’t think about the fact that women with disabilities are three times more likely to experience sexual or physical assault in their lifetimes. Society tends to desexualize disability, but we’re more at-risk when it comes to sexual violence and being in abusive relationships.
For this reason and others, I try to take things at my own pace. But that’s just me—I face the same challenges of dating as everyone else, plus a few extras. I believe that everyone should have the freedom to do what they want with their time and body, whether it’s waiting for marriage, having casual sex, kissing on the first date, or on the tenth. Do what makes you feel comfortable, but do whatever makes you feel safe first.
I’ve learned to accept the fact that it won’t be easy. There are the right people for right times, and the right people for the wrong ones. We all have strengths and weaknesses. We all give and take. That’s why the the best relationships are partnerships. If you’ll put up with the fact that I can’t drive and take my time when it comes to the intimate things, I’ll accept your stinky feet, and maybe even your snoring.
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This article originally appeared on VICE US.