“You know, I think I figured out your problem. You don’t hear it when men talk to you around campus. It looks like you’re ignoring them. They must assume you’re a huge bitch.” I don’t remember which classmate said this between sips of coffee, but I will never forget how it sent me reeling. Though my college days are now behind me, this reminder of how my hearing loss intersects with my role as a woman is never far from my mind. Every one of us has multiple parts of our identity. Two components of mine are my hearing loss and my identity as a woman. The manner in which they intersect is part of a lifelong self-query.
Throughout my life, there have been many instances where my ears betrayed my social skills. I once took an Introduction to Philosophy class. I sat in front but still struggled to hear the professor. One day, we had a lecture on the ontological nature of human sensory experience and if we could ever rely on our senses to understand reality. During the lecture, the professor turned to me and asked, “Abby, is sense dangerous?” What I heard, however, was him asking me if sex was dangerous. Trying desperately to conceal my teenage intellectual insecurity in an attempt appear worldly, I replied with an all-too-confident, “Yes, Professor. Sex is dangerous when unprotected.” Needless to say, my self-satisfaction in this moment was short lived.
Today, I have two very different jobs: one as a clinical audiologist and one as an adjunct professor of sociology at a small university. Part of my week is devoted to the evaluation and treatment of hearing loss in children and adults. Throughout the rest of the week, I attempt to engage my students with the sociological nature of their reality. In particular, I am interested in their understanding of intersectionality. Often, this is the first time they have considered their myriad identities and what emerges from these conversations usually surprises them.
During a recent series of lectures on gender and social stratification, I asked my students to make a list of all the ways they self-identify. They made lengthy compositions covering everything from jobs to race to socioeconomic status and sexual orientation. This is where intersectionality exists — the place where all those different pieces of the self coalesce. We discussed the different, sometimes disparate, expectations associated with each of these characteristics. Sociologists call this “role conflict” and it occurs when the many different expectations of our identity bump up against one another. During these lectures, I am always reminded of my own sense of intersectionality, particularly the relationship between my gender and my hearing loss.
This is where intersectionality exists — the place where all those different pieces of the self coalesce.
During my own college days, there were many friends who did not know about my hearing loss because of my very tiny in-the-canal hearing aids. Although upon reflection, maybe they did know as I missed so much in casual conversation. Feigning understanding with the classic “smile and nod” is a time-honored tradition amongst those of us with hearing loss. I have a disorder called Meniere’s Disease which causes me to experience fluctuating hearing loss. This means that some days my hearing may be better or poorer than the day before.
Years later, on Christmas Eve, 2010, I was at a friend’s home in Pasadena, California. Around midnight, I left to gas up my car and then head home to my apartment in West Hollywood. I pulled into a gas station where the convenience mart was closed but the pumps were on for credit card purchases. After quickly surveying the area, noting that I seemed to be alone, I had just swiped my card and grabbed the nozzle when I felt someone approach me from behind and tap me on the shoulder. I froze for a moment.
On this night, my hearing sensitivity was much worse than usual. That, along with the tap on the shoulder while being alone in a poorly lit gas station, was enough to spook me. I was so startled that I dropped the nozzle before I could pump any fuel and scrambled into my car, driving the 20 miles back to my apartment on fumes as my adrenaline surged.
For the first time in my adult life, I felt truly unsafe because of my hearing loss. The next day, I made the decision to get a cochlear implant in an attempt to restore some of my hearing. Before my cochlear implant, folks asked me if I ever felt unsafe as a woman with a hearing loss. “Don’t you feel more vulnerable? You know, more likely to be harmed when you’re out and about? You really shouldn’t be driving late at night as a woman, but even more so since you have so little hearing.” At their core, these questions are about my basic ability to take care of myself. I still get questions and warnings of this nature on occasion. When fielding these concerns, I now realize that I am defending my very agency — my right to exist as an independent woman, hearing loss or not.
I am defending my very agency — my right to exist as an independent woman, hearing loss or not.ADVERTISEMENT
Of course, these sentiments trigger my anti-feminist and ableist defense shields. The reality is that every day, there are deaf women living safe and complete lives. I cannot and will not opine on behalf of deaf women because I do not identify as deaf, rather, I identify as someone with significant hearing loss. (Yes, there is a difference as I do hear, although via artificial means). I can only communicate my own experience. Part of my experience is that, yes, there are times when this diminished human sense makes me feel unsafe in public.
Each of these formative experiences — from the funny to the frightening — is a real-life manifestation of an intersectional identity. In my classroom, though I espouse the importance of exploring one’s own intersectionality, I sometimes struggle with self-query. As an audiologist, I counsel my patients on the importance of empowerment and self-advocacy with hearing loss, yet I sometimes become overwhelmed by my own auditory limitations.
As a result of these various psychological machinations, the seeds of anxiety can sprout. But, perhaps that is the point of the whole enterprise — to engage that anxiety. I believe that folks who are woke to intersectionality ask richer, more profound questions of life. However, this pursuit of greater social enlightenment can be exhausting. Self-examination is not for wimps.
In the final analysis, there are a few things of which I am sure. First, my hearing loss is not what makes me vulnerable. Rather, it is my attitude towards said hearing loss that determines my vulnerability and, by extension, my safety in public. Second, for me, it is a lifelong task to engage with the intersectional nature of the being a woman, a clinician, an academic, and a person living with hearing loss. This is a task I accept and a right that I defend.
And finally, yes, unprotected sex can be unsafe.
Top photo: Charles Le Brun engraving via Wikimedia Commons
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Abby Fox has 3 careers, 2 busted cochleas, and a dream. Though she currently works as both an adjunct professor of sociology and a clinical audiologist, writing is her first love. She resides in Arizona and California with her fiancé, Rob and their dog, Zoe. Find her on Twitter @DrAbbyFox and on Instagram at ProjectAudacious. Her website is www.ProjectAudacious.com.