A blog about universal and accessible design

Sunday, April 18, 2010


A few stories have crossed my screen/desk/whatever lately that concern blind people and sexuality that seem very weird and misplaced: first, the release of Tactile Minds, a tactile image and Braille text pornography/erotica book by a Canadian graphic designer named Lisa Murphy. This project sounds interesting enough (I really don't know anything about the availability of erotic materials for blind and visually impaired people - though it is notable that Playboy published a Braille edition from 1970-1985), though it was unfortunately mostly covered as a kind of "news of the weird" item, as if no one has ever heard of blind people having an interest in sex or sexy images or whatever [via Jezebel, Village Voice).

This wouldn't be particularly notable, but today I read in the NY Times Magazine of a study that aims to find out what men's "real" preferences in women's body types are by toting around headless mannequins of various dimensions for blind men to grope. Hmm, how many things are wrong with this study?
a) just because blind men are not exposed to the actual images in commercial culture, that somehow means their opinions/preferences are not shaped by prevailing social attitudes about body type and sexuality?
b) the goal of the study was "an attempt to gauge the force of culture, to weigh the learned and the innate, in determining sexual attraction" -- so the blind are not part of culture, and are somehow more "innate" in their sexual desires?
c) if blind people feeling up mannequins is an accurate judgment of men's "innate" preferences, then sighted people judge body shape alone, without any other contextual clues? (without heads, for example - so race, skin color, hair, and facial expression don't factor into sexual attraction?)
d) the study was careful to select only "blind from birth" subjects - but how did it define "heterosexual"? Because that's a totally static category, right?

The study - and the article about it - show the appeal of these tidy, evolutionary explanations of the roots of our desires and preferences:
...sighted and blind men both strongly favored the mannequin with the lower W.H.R. [Waist-to-Hip Ratio], but this slimmer-waisted body received especially high scores from the men with sight, maybe because a life spent amid cultural signals compounds the work of evolution. Still, the gropings of Karremans’s blind offer a glimpse into the ancestral depths of our desires.

Sure-- OR the fact that the two subject groups matched pretty closely could be because the blind men are part of the larger culture? Their slightly less strong preference - could that be because of the compounded cultural messages that de-sexualize blind people and other people with disabilities? Just a guess.