Tonight I want to talk to you about staring at women's breasts. I do it all the time. I'll be standing there talking to a woman only to be stricken by the sudden and irresistible urge to stare at her breasts. She'll register her discomfort by pulling her lapels close or yanking her plunging neckline chin-high. Then she'll become intensely interested in objects in the general vicinity of her feet. But I won't let that deter me. I'll continue to stare at her breasts until she won't be able to take it anymore and informs me in tones of suppressed outrage that she had some important elsewhere to be fifteen minutes ago. Then she'll never talk to me again.
Such is the experience of the deaf man in America today. When the eyes of a hearing man break contact and wander south, the obvious conclusion is the correct one: he is staring at her breasts and she is justifiably uncomfortable. When a deaf man who relies on verbal cues and lip-reading to converse lets his eyes drift south of his conversant's, he stops at her lips. (You can tell because if he didn't—that is, if he actually stared at her breasts—he would have no clue how to answer whatever it is she would have said to him while he indulged in some "covert" sexism.)
Why mention this in the one forum this commonplace of deaf life will never make anyone uncomfortable? Because I've acquired another rude habit:
Talking to people while wearing headphones. People who know me—for example, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Barry Siegel—won't bat an eye when I talk to them with my headphones on because they'll know that I'm reading their lips and not paying attention to the music. They'll know that I'm so invested in the conversation that I've forgotten that I have the headphones on and have merely neglected to remove them. But other people—for example, the inimitable Gay Talese—will look at me horrified as I chat with Barry without removing my headphones. His eyes will rebel against the solipsistic impertinence of youth culture he detects in my actions.
I register his discomfort but, blinded by reputation and desperately trying to impress him, I won't understand what it is I've said that so offends him. I'll rifle my brain for the offensive statement the entire walk home and come up empty. Only later that night, as I force myself to stop thinking about the events of the day, will I realize what I've done. And then?