Face blindness is a neurological condition that interferes with people’s ability to process and understand faces. For many people, the condition makes it challenging to recognize the faces of people they’ve already met—even their close friends, family members, and sexual and romantic partners.
People with mild cases of prosopagnosia, as the condition is known in the medical world, say that with enough time and effort, they can nail down a few distinctive facial features that help them reliably recognize a person. (Think a prominent facial beauty mark, or a uniquely shaped nose.) But others struggle to recognize any facial features at all, instead relying on distinctive “tells” like haircuts, senses of style, or manners of walking or moving to identify people—an approach with clear limitations and complications. Even with these workarounds, some may not register others they'd recognize in one environment in another, like if they run into a coworker outside of the office. Severe face blindness can also lead to trouble with recognizing emotions based on facial signals. The condition isn’t associated with any wider vision, memory, or learning disorders—just these very selective visual processing difficulties.
If this seems relatable to some degree, that makes sense: Although doctors used to believe it was incredibly rare, recent research suggests face blindness is actually somewhat common. One study suggested that as many as one in 50 people may have a degree of face blindness. However, most people have never heard of the condition, so people with face blindness often grow up thinking they're just “bad with faces.”
Prosopagnosia is well known and broadly accepted as a condition among neurologists, if not laypeople, but thanks to a lack of research, even experts don't know much about how it works. What they do know is that the vast majority of people with prosopagnosia are born with the condition, and it appears to run in families, suggesting a genetic component.
Experts also note that face blindness can have major effects on people’s social lives. Rather than dealing with constant misunderstandings, and the frustration and hurt feelings of their loved ones and casual acquaintances alike who go unrecognized, some face-blind people avoid socializing. Many people with prosopagnosia report feeling anxiety and depression resulting from these issues with socializing.
There are no established treatments for prosopagnosia. Instead, doctors focus on helping the relatively few people who get diagnoses figure out alternative ways of recognizing others, or processing facial-emotional cues. These strategies don't touch on face blindness' potential effects on intimacy though. There’s actually no solid research on how prosopagnosia can affect sex. Even in peer support groups and increasingly common public accounts of life with face blindness, it’s hard to find any insights into what the condition can mean for a person’s sexual or romantic life, or strategies for accounting for it during dating and sex.
To hear about sex with face blindness firsthand,VICE spoke to Tiffany,* a woman who recently learned that she has had face blindness all her life, and her husband, Sean, about how the condition affects their sex life.
*At their request, VICE has withheld Tiffany and Sean’s last names to protect their privacy. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Tiffany: I’ve always known that I’m bad at recognizing faces. My ability to recognize people varies from day to day. On good days, I can almost immediately recognize someone, usually based on some very distinct physical feature or things like a specific haircut. When I do quickly recognize someone, I actually come home and brag to Sean about my success. [Laughs]
But on other days, I’m just atrocious—not just with recognizing faces, but with recognizing some objects as well. I’m still trying to figure out what triggers a bad day. I don’t think it has anything to do with my mood, sleep the night before, or stress levels. On a bad day, I might have trouble finding our truck in a parking lot.
Sean: Yeah, even if she knows where we almost always park it. Even if I’m in the driver’s seat honking the horn and waving at her while she’s looking.
Tiffany: Because I can’t know that the guy waving at me from the car is Sean! I don’t know if I can trust him!
I also have trouble reading emotions on people’s faces. But I don’t know if that’s related to my facial processing issues, to the fact that I’m on the autism spectrum, or both. [Limited research suggests that the two conditions may have some degree of association.] It’s hard to say how severe my condition is, given the lack of research and the fluidity of my own experience.
To cover up that I don’t know who people are, I make small talk, asking casual questions until I gather enough information to figure it out.
Over the course of my life, I’ve come up with ways of compensating. For example, in order to cover up that I don’t know who people are, I make small talk, asking casual questions until I can gather enough information to figure it out. As a business owner, I also taught my staff to tell me who people are, because I know I’m probably not going to remember them on sight. But I know that my condition has held me back socially throughout my life. Most people think I’m either just an idiot, or a smug bitch who doesn’t care enough about others to remember them.
Until recently, though, I didn’t know all of this was connected to an actual medical condition. I just thought I might be lazier than other people when it comes to making the effort to remember faces. Then, one of my friends died of COVID. I got really angry at her funeral because I didn’t see any of our mutual friends there. But after 20 minutes, I started to put together context clues, like things people were saying, and eventually I realized, Oh, these are all of our mutual friends. I verbalized that experience to someone there, and they said, “I think you might be face-blind.” That was the first time I’d heard that term, so I looked it up and realized, Oh my god, this is me.
After looking into face blindness and seeing a doctor about it, I told my dad about it. He said, “No, that’s not a condition. That’s normal. No one can tell who someone else is until they hear their voice.”
I was like, “Um, no, you just have it, too. Congratulations—it looks like it’s genetic for us.”
I’m actually not sure how many times I met Sean before we got together.
Sean: I’d never heard of face blindness before. When Tiffany told me about it, my first reaction was, “What? That can’t be a thing. That makes no sense. You’re just not good with faces, that’s all.” But the more I learned, the more I realized it did make sense. It explained how we could see someone one day and Tiffany would be engaged with them, then, the next, if their hair was different, recognizing them was a no-go. That made more sense than Tiffany just having a blatant disregard for other people.
Tiffany: I’m actually not sure how many times I met Sean before we got together. I own a store, and he’s the district manager for a chain of stores, one of which is right next to mine. So, I know I must have seen him all the time in a work environment. We also live in a small southern town with very limited nightlife, so I know I ran into him several times when we were both out. But I never connected that the guy who worked next door was the guy I talked to at the bar the other night, and I didn’t know that I’d see that guy as often as I had. I don’t know how many times we must have talked before I actually put together who he was—which, by the way, I did by identifying the friend group he always went out with as a whole and situating him within it.
Sean: We hadn’t talked that many times, really!
Tiffany: I don’t think my face blindness held us back when we started dating. Actually, I don’t know this: Did you recognize that there was something going on with me when we were dating?
Sean: I did recognize that… it wasn’t like I’d have to reintroduce myself every time I showed up for a date, but it seemed to take Tiffany a few moments to recognize me—like she was trying to figure out what a weird sound was. It was so subtle, though, that I didn’t think much of it.
Tiffany: I can still briefly confuse other people for Sean. Like, I’ll just walk up to some guy in public and start talking to him, and then Sean walks up behind me and says, “That’s not me.” [Laughs] On bad days, I can be walking next to Sean, then look to my side, not recognize him for a minute, and be confused by who this guy walking with me is. Sean’s never taken that personally, like other people might. He’s always just gone with it.
Sean: Yeah, none of that’s ever bothered me. I just roll with it.
Tiffany: Growing up, I always heard people saying things like, “Oh, Johnny Depp is so sexy. I’m going to think about his face while I masturbate later.” I’ve never been able to understand how somebody could look at a face and be attracted to it, or to fantasize about it. Faces never played a big role for me in choosing who I’m attracted to or intimate with. I pick up more so on behaviors and personality—who a person is in their head, rather than what’s on their face. I’ve definitely been sexually attracted to a lot of guys whose faces other people found ugly.
Watching Sean’s face—his expressions of pleasure, or facial signals that he’s getting into it—just isn’t a part of sex for me like it would be for most other people. Instead of watching facial cues, I take a more full-body approach to reading how things are going during sex, paying attention to things like sound, changes in intensity, and the ways our bodies are moving.
But the fact that I can’t pick up on facial cues means that, if Sean’s staring at me from across the room, making eyes because he’s turned on, I won’t catch that. Actually, I get on Sean’s case all the time for never being the one to initiate sex, and I’m just now realizing that he might be instinctually sending signals through his facial expressions, trying to engage, and I don’t notice.
Sean: I’ve never thought about whether I send sexual signals using my face. But I am always a bit confused when Tiffany says I never initiate sex, because I feel like I send out sexual signals. So, this could be a thing. I’m usually more focused on physical flirting, like touch, though.
Tiffany: Most of the time, when we’re having sex, I actually stare at a blank white wall instead of looking at Sean. If I’m staring at his face, then I’m going to put too much focus on trying to process what’s going on there and to figure out what his expressions mean. Looking at a neutral surface quiets my mind and allows me to focus in on the sensations of sex itself.
I know that Sean does like to watch my facial expressions during sex, even if he doesn’t ask me to look at him all the time. When I do look at him, he’s clearly engaged with what’s on my face.
Sean: I mean, yeah, I do watch and appreciate your facial reactions to what’s going on. And I do appreciate eye contact during sex. But that’s not something that I need. Not getting that all the time is not a deal-breaker for me. I just appreciate it when it does happen.
Also, I appreciate knowing that I’m helping to fulfill Tiffany’s sexual needs more than I appreciate eye contact.
Tiffany: It helps me a lot, in sex and in the rest of my life, knowing that Sean is understanding about how I work in the world—and that he was even before we knew I had this condition. Whether he’s jumping in to help me fill in the gaps when I’m trying to figure out who someone is—which he often does—or going with it when I stare at the wall during sex, he helps me so much. We all have our struggles. But if you have a great partner, they will help you move through the world no matter what’s off.