Art Kavanagh

Criticism, fiction and other writing | Aphantasia

Aphantasia, sex and gender

In the eight months or so since I found out that aphantasia exists, and that I’ve got it, my perception of many things to do with my own behaviour has changed significantly. I believe I’ve got a better understanding of why I’m so bad at planning, prioritizing and scheduling; I accept that my episodic memory isn’t nearly as good as I’d assumed it was; and I’m now aware that my self-conception differs from the self-image presumably held by people who can visualize. I feel that I’m starting to know myself better than I’d ever imagined possible and, at this late stage, finally getting an inkling of what I might want to achieve with my life.

One subject that I’m thinking very differently about is sex. Unlike some of the changes mentioned in the first paragraph, those relating to sex haven’t all crystallized yet, so I’m going to be a bit tentative in describing them. The r/Aphantasia subreddit has been the source of at least one of my insights on this topic.

This was the idea that most people (visualizers) know (i.e. are able to remember) what their exes look like naked. (Maybe not all of their exes but presumably the most recent ones.) Somewhat to my surprise, because I really don’t consider myself at all prudish, I was actually shocked by this. Surely there ought to be a law … but of course there couldn’t be: the law can’t control what people carry around inside their heads. But really?! No wonder people who’ve previously had a sexual relationship are often so awkward in each other’s company. I can’t believe I didn’t know this before — but of course I didn’t because I didn’t know until earlier this year that people could imagine a mental picture of anything, let alone of naked exes. Why does nobody seem to talk about this, except on Reddit?

A few weeks ago, I learned something else (but related) from Reddit. Ever since, as a much younger man, I first heard the expression “to undress someone with your eyes”, I’ve assumed that it was just a particularly crude and clumsy metaphor: one that aimed for maximum offence at the expense of accuracy and verisimilitude. Well, it’s definitely a metaphor, but maybe a more effective one than I’d assumed.

A question that comes up with some regularity on r/Aphantasia is the one about male arousal and masturbation. If we don’t have any mental pictures, not even dirty ones, how do we manage to get aroused? I first encountered this question in the piece which originally alerted me to the existence of aphantasia: Blake Ross’s Facebook post from 2016 — quoted here from Vox:

Here are the top 20 questions I’ve gotten from friends and family.
… 10) How do you masturbate?
Welp, I just learned a lot about how you masturbate.

This invokes the familiar idea that men need (or prefer) “visual cues”. In the 90s, I would often find myself reading articles which claimed or assumed that men’s arousal differed from women’s in that men typically responded to straightforward visual stimulation, while women needed something more detailed and complex, probably involving narrative. These claims used to make me bristle with annoyance. “Men need a story just as much as women do,” I’d insist, meaning that I did. “The visual image implies a backstory, an account of how this depicted situation came about, and it’s the implied story that’s the turn-on.” I was, I can now see, imputing my own experience to men in general. I had no reason to suppose that other men’s brains worked any differently from mine. Since I didn’t suspect that a majority of men could process mental imagery, it never crossed my mind that that’s exactly what they were doing. That famous advice about job interviews and public speaking has finally started to make sense.

I don’t, of course, mean to suggest that visualizers are going around all day imagining other people with no clothes on, but the fact that they presumably can do this at least occasionally, makes me feel uncomfortably at odds with the majority of my species. It’s only recently dawned on me that sex is more closely bound up with memory, and particularly with visual memory, than I’d ever suspected. I still haven’t thought through very many of the implications (where sex is concerned) of not being able to visualize. I expect I’ll have more to say on the subject eventually. This will have to do for now.

On a related question, I still seem to be no closer to finding out whether the fact that I don’t have a sense of gender identity is (a) perfectly normal and usual for somebody who isn’t suffering from gender dysphoria or (b) a consequence of my lack of a self image. Both possibilities seem equally plausible (which is to say, not very). This is one of those circumstances in which it’s frustrating not to understand how other people’s brains work.

Update 30-Jul-2023: I just posted something more recent on the same subject: Sex, SDAM and aphantasia.