Nothing is taught to blind students more carefully than gender-related behaviors and signs. They must be mastered consciously, not in the same manner that we sighted individuals are taught them, allowing some room for the illusion that they are natural. For the blind, they are based in practice and mimicry, in repeated rehearsal unseen by themselves. The girls are taught to keep their legs together, to walk delicately, to stand straight and to smile a lot. The boys are taught to be rougher, to take up as much space as they can and to judge their own worth by the women they attract. With no one to imitate, these lessons are not multi-sensory or embedded in their bodies unconsciously; they do not result in imitating early caretakers, but come much as my classmates and I learned world history, by memorization.

Samantha is a sexy blind woman. She works at it. And I’m sure she would be happy to hear me say so. She had many affairs and sexual trysts before marrying, and she may be having them still when the opportunity presents itself. Which it does.

I invited her to come speak to our seminar of therapists-in-training about her practice of sex therapy (yes, she has made a career of it). Of course, the entire class was immediately fascinated and looked forward to meeting her. Hers promised to be a unique perspective and everyone was eager to hear about it. On the scheduled day and one full hour after the scheduled time, Samantha swept dramatically into the classroom alongside one bedraggled graduate student. Samantha had enlisted Lara’s aid in helping her dress for the occasion and this turned out to be a long, involved process. Samantha was eager to make just the right impression and announced flirtatiously to no one in particular that it was her prerogative as a woman to be late.

Samantha has been blind since birth, as the result of having spent her first days in an incubator, a tragic circumstance that blinded so many premature babies until the cause of this misfortune was discovered. Despite her lack of sight, Samantha has managed to learn the special skill that certain women have in making a grand entrance. Although she couldn’t see them, all eyes immediately turned toward her in any room she entered. Hers is a kind of “in-your-face” refusal to be made to feel inferior to sighted women.

Samantha is forty-two years old; her skin is one of the colors that society names white, her sexual relationships of the nature that it names heterosexual. She is tall and slender with long light brown hair. She let us know that people consider her attractive and often make a special point of telling her that she is extremely good looking “for a blind person.”

Samantha has been married for several years to a sighted man, also an accomplishment in her world. She has snagged top honors in the mating game. She was about to demonstrate to our class almost everything about femininity and gender that we had discussed in earlier classes and that all the women in the room already knew in our bones. Her way of learning it was so much more conscious and deliberate than that of any of the sighted women in the room that it was a bit startling at first. I think it is safe to say that, by the end of the class, the women in the room felt more similar to her than they did different. Although she has never seen herself or another woman, Samantha has mastered the art of femininity. Gender really matters to her.

She leads with her sexuality and with a flirtatious charm. It is a kind of pre-emptive strike. Samantha makes sure that she is the center of attention in any room that she enters, as visible as possible. One strong influence, she reports, is that she grew up, like many other girls of her generation, reading Seventeen magazine, the Braille version of course. Just as Jesse had access to Playboy as a kind of training manual in becoming a man, Samantha studied the pages of Seventeen to learn to be a girl and then a woman.

She was raised in an Irish Catholic family with three brothers, three sisters, and two mightily overworked parents. They lived in an Irish Catholic working class community in a small New England city, where there was an entire culture built around the church. This included celebrating holidays and religious festivals together, sending the children to the church schools, and holding the priests and nuns, many of whom were from their own families, in high reverence as servants of God. The little girls were taught to be pure and virtuous, to yield to the teachings of the clergy, and, most important, to safeguard their precious virginity for marriage and procreation. That is the formal teaching. There is an informal one that is much fiercer and that the world has been horrified to learn about, except for those fathers of the church who knew all along.
In that supposed sanctuary, Samantha underwent another ritual of baptism into holy femininity. She was sexually molested by her priest when she was seven years old and for several years hence, this violation of the holy sanctuary of her body and soul. Sadly, so many girls and boys undergo this cruel initiation ritual that it seems almost as ubiquitous as the official kind of baptism.

There are a variety of unsatisfactory ways to compromise with reality. Many use their bodies rather than their minds or hearts to make sense of this otherwise senseless experience. They hide their conclusions from no one but perhaps themselves. Some become asexual, but many more become hypersexual, and the females become what most of us would consider to be hyper-feminine. This version of femininity carries within itself the wound to itself. Such a sexualized approach is almost a sure sign of an early violation. It is a child’s solution to an adult problem. Such women learn to equate their value and power in any relationship with their command of sexuality. In my many years of practicing psychotherapy, I have seen it performed without words too many times not to recognize it.

She asked her parents to send her to charm school for blind girls. They are apparently not uncommon. At charm school Samantha would learn that there was a special way for a girl to walk and sit, to move and speak. This is exactly what she wanted to know. She practiced walking with a book on her head so she would stand up straight and not “bounce around.” Samantha’s mother had complained that she walked “like a football player,” but of course Samantha had never seen a football game and had no idea what this meant. Why shouldn’t she walk in a way that felt free and happy, swinging her arms and bouncing up and down? Her mother explained as best she could that girls were supposed to walk and move differently from boys. What felt natural and easy to her was the boys’ way. To become a woman took more study and more work. It did not come naturally.

In charm school, Samantha learned about makeup. Apparently, according to her, using makeup is growing more and more common among women in the blind community. Would it make her more attractive to a sighted man? Would it make her look more like a sighted woman? How could she learn to master this dubious art?

Samantha was happy to explain herself. She prepares to go out with the help of a sighted female friend. The preparation begins in her clothes closet, where they put together an outfit. It then moves on to the choice of hairstyle, and finally makeup, which is applied by this friend. Shoes are very important. Samantha has always wanted nothing more than to be admired. She has certainly accomplished that feat, but it has been a pyrrhic victory for her. We are left to ponder the multiple effects on women who can see themselves in the glass mirror and the mirror of the eyes of others.

From: Sight Unseen: Gender and Race through Blind Eyes, Columbia University Press, 2015.