👀 Content Warning: This article contains references that are sexual in nature. Reader's discretion is advised.
Close your eyes and think about your current partner. Picture the color of their eyes and the way their mouth turns up when they smile. Think about the feel of their skin as you run your hand along their thigh. Remember the scent of their post-coital perspiration as you lie exhausted in each other’s arms. Got it? Okay. Now imagine you are one of the two percent of people in the world who can’t do that. Not because you are spending your life in a monastery or a convent, but because you have aphantasia, and your brain is not wired to recall an image or a smell or a texture.
I lived the first fifty-five years of my life thinking that when someone said, “Picture a mountain lake,” what they were really asking was for you to recall facts that you knew about mountains and lakes. It never occurred to me that people could pull up an image of a lake in the same way I looked at a picture in a magazine. There’re plenty of aphantasia realization stories out there, so I won’t bore you with mine. What I do want to explore is how living with aphantasia impacts relationships and sex.
Having Aphantasia May Have Impacted How I Explored Sex
A few months back, my wife and I made a long overdue trip back to Australia to visit family and friends. One night we had dinner with my closest mate and his partner. Later that evening, we sat in the living room drinking and reminiscing, and after one particularly nasty memory was shared, I mentioned that there were times that I was glad I was aphantasic and couldn’t revisit that image. I got the usual blank stares that most people give when aphantasia is mentioned, so I went on to explain.
My shock came when my mate said, “I can’t visualize anything. I always assumed it was because I was color blind.” His long-time partner, of course, was incredulous and said, “What do you mean you can’t pull up a picture in your mind?” I got to rewatch the same exchanges my wife and I had had four years earlier. My closing comment to his partner was, “Look at the bright side; when you are in bed, you know he’s not picturing anyone else.”
Afterward, I started to wonder if this unknown commonality in brain function influenced our strong and immediate friendship when we met as first-year University students. While we had multiple things in common, we were both obsessed with sex. That’s not unusual for teenagers the world over, but we were fixated.
As an Aphantasic, Did I Have Subconscious Strategies In My Approach to Sex?
For example, Queensland was a puritanical state in the early 1980s, so a group of us would drive close to two hours to the Border Line Book Shop in New South Wales to pick up hard-core periodicals and pour twenty-cent pieces into personal movie players. But when my mate and I suggested frequent repeat visits, our friends piled on the derision and accused us of being sex maniacs. I now realize they had the ability to replay the juiciest scenes from the last visit in their minds while we lived with a blank screen. My mates would also joke about a night at a strip club being added to the “spank bank,” and I had no idea what that meant. I could remember facts about a hot night out, but remembering a set of data wasn’t arousing, was it?
At Uni, my mate and I went out of our way to maneuver invites to parties that included nude swimming or naked hot tubbing. In hindsight, I admit I was preoccupied with finding opportunities to interact with naked members of the opposite sex. When I think about my teenage dates, I didn’t want late-night embraces in the back of a dark car. I wanted to see. I preferred to make out with the light on or, better still, during the day. Of course, I accepted whatever was on offer, but I desperately wanted to compensate for the void when I closed my eyes.
I started to think more about my early relationships. It’s not true to say my girlfriends were “out of sight, out of mind,” but there was always a wall there, and I was never sure why. I was in committed relationships; I enjoyed the social and sexual interaction with these women, but at some level, I couldn’t fully connect, and the relationships would fizzle out.
When I was nineteen, and on a working vacation in California, I met my future wife. We had a brief holiday romance, she went back to San Francisco, and I went back to Brisbane. A month later she wrote me a letter. I wrote back. She wrote again. We were both dating other people, and we would share the highs and lows of those relationships, but we kept writing. Three years later, we were still sending ten-page missives every week, and we realized that we needed to see each other again. She came to Australia for a vacation, and we got engaged. Last month, , we celebrated our 37th wedding anniversary.
Why I Believe a Long-Distance, Text-Based Connection Helped Galvanize My Relationship
What worked in that relationship that hadn’t worked in any other? Apart from one wallet-sized high school graduation picture on my desk, I hadn’t seen this woman in three years, and I certainly couldn’t recall the sight and feel of her body. I have to believe it was the deep text-based connection we formed over that mountain of correspondence. As an aphantasic, my means of interacting with the world is a combination of what I can see, touch and smell in the present and a deep set of text-based facts that let me recall the past.
The written channel that Beth and I established gave me a connection that aligned perfectly with my means of processing the world. I’m not going to pretend that once we got together, Beth and I lived happily ever after. We’ve had lots of problems over the years, and parts of our marriage have been almost impossible to navigate. But somehow, we figured it out.
Aphantasia research is a new field, and I’m not aware of academic studies on how sex and aphantasia relate to each other, if at all, or how having aphantasia may impact relationships. Maybe it doesn’t, and maybe my romantic life would have been exactly the same if I had a mind’s eye. But I doubt it.