Why Trans People Don’t Always Have Good, Pleasurable Sex—At First
In this week's Unscrewed column, how educators and activists are helping trans folk have better, more satisfying sex
One day last October, I got a DM from a listener to my podcast, asking for some sex advice. That’s not unusual — on Unscrewed, I often answer listeners’ sexuality-related queries — but the question was a new one for me. It was from a trans woman, who wrote, “I had bottom surgery something like 7 months ago and trying to navigate the questions of pleasure and what works for me has been really difficult and frustrating (although, occasionally, rewarding), in part due to the lack of resources… Learning to navigate my body all over again has been really difficult.”
It was a great question, and I made a note to put it in the queue to answer on a future show. But before I could get to it, I got another, from a totally separate listener named Reya, who was struggling with changes not from surgery, but from hormone replacement therapy (HRT). Which gave rise to a third question: What was going on here? People of all genders suffer for lack of reliable, shame-free, pleasure-affirming sex education. But the kind of sex advice I usually give is less about the basics of physical pleasure and more about the ethics of navigating relationships under patriarchy and other oppressions. Two trans women writing me — a cis woman — to help them understand how to find pleasure in their bodies made me wonder if there was an especially large gap in reliable sex advice for trans people.
So I called up Rebecca Kling, a trans activist and educator and the author of Trans Women + Sex = Awesome, who told me it’s more than a gap: it’s a chasm. One at least partially filled by good intentions. On the podcast episode she joined me for, she told me, “There’s a temptation for cis sex educators who want to do the right thing but don’t totally have the resources to say, well if you’re a person with a penis you can do things that work for penises, and if you’re a person with vaginas, you can do things that work with vaginas. And there is truth to that… but it leaves out a bunch of language about talking about things. it leaves out how hormones can impact the body during hormone replacement therapy, and it leaves out how surgical modifications to the body can add different layers of complexity in figuring out what feels good.”
What’s more, trans people themselves are often hesitant to seek out sex education. “Even for trans folks who are interested in these conversations, it can be tricky,” says Kling. “Because there is that balancing act of, I want to know how to be sexual in my body in a way that works for me, and also there is a really problematic history (and present) of discourse about trans-ness only focusing on trans people’s genitalia.” That fixation on trans people’s private parts is even more exaggerated among those who want to take their rights away. For many trans people, knowing that expressing curiosity about their own bodies can give fodder to the people who want to erase them from the planet keeps them silent and isolated when it comes to sex.
If I’m anything to go by, well-meaning cis people can also let our fears keep us from learning as much as we should. Even after hearing from both of my listeners, it took me a while to bring Kling on to help me answer their questions, because I was afraid of accidentally making a show that was inappropriately salacious or objectifying. When I finally did talk with her, she said she understood my hesitancy, but discouraged cis allies from allowing fear of saying the wrong thing to justify complete silence. "Cis people are crucial to spreading trans-inclusive sex-ed," she told me, "because they're sure as hell already involved in spreading anti-trans sex-ed. As allies, cis people should allow trans folks to take the lead, and focus on elevating trans voices. But we need our allies to speak up, too. Cis silence only reinforces the perception that transgender people can't or shouldn't have enthusiastic, affirming, and safe sexual experiences."
So while thoughtfulness and care are called for in talking about trans people and sex, we all must find our way around our own roadblocks, because the stakes are simply too high. A 2017 GLAAD survey found that fully 2% of Americans between 18 and 35 identify as transgender -- that’s well over a million trans Americans in that age group alone. And not only do trans people suffer astonishingly high rates of sexual violence and suicidality, they are also contracting HIV at 3 times the national average.
It’s not hard to see how lack of access to sexual health information is playing a role in those numbers. If you’re cisgender, try this: imagine going through a second puberty, except it’s at a super-fast speed, no one around you is going through it at the same time, the entire health care system is biased against you, you don’t see your experience reflected anywhere in the culture, people are telling you you’re wrong and sick for doing it, and you’re already expected to be an adult. How well could you advocate for yourself? How vulnerable would you be to people who want to hurt you?
As S. Bear Bergman, a trans activist, author and sex educator, puts it, “It’s already way too easy for trans and nonbinary people to feel completely dismissed, sexually, except as fetish objects. We don’t get to see ourselves having happy hot times in media, tv and movies. And there’s already an intense current of ‘trans bodies are gross’ among certain factions. Comprehensive, pleasure-positive trans and nonbinary-centred sex ed is the antidote to that.”
Trans-centered sex education can include all kinds of things: straightforward information about how sexual response changes in response to shifts in oestrogen and testosterone levels; what to expect after gender-confirmation surgery; specific techniques you won’t get in your average sex ed class (like “muffing,” which involves tucking the testicle into the inguinal canal and fingering that new opening); possible sex positions that address trans people’s specific needs. It can also help trans folks re-examine the relationship to their bodies they’ve learned from the dominant culture, reimagining what names they want to use for their own parts, and upending their assumptions about what the “goal” of sex should be, or even what “counts” as sex.
There are a few trans people who are doing their best to get this kind of education to everyone who needs it. For trans women, in addition to Kling’s e-book (which is currently only available in this archived version) there’s the zine Fucking Trans Women, by Mira Bellwether, and Brazen, a safer sex guide for trans women, developed by the City of Toronto.
That’s because, as crucial as this kind of education can be, it’s a steep uphill climb to get it out into the world. “The further from an urban area, the harder it is to figure out how to teach it,” Bergman tells me. That’s because he wants to make the education financially accessible to trans people, who face significantly elevated rates of unemployment and poverty. And it’s hard to find wealthy institutions that prioritise trans sexual health. Bergman says that he’s continually asked to put a free version of his workshop online, but he hasn’t figured out a way to do that in a way that he can afford himself.
In the meantime, it’s the responses he gets from his students that keep Bergman going. “People say the most incredible things,” he tells me. “Many times, trans and nonbinary people have come up afterwards and said ‘I have never heard a body like mine talked about like it was sexy before. I’ve never heard anyone real sound excited about being with someone like me.’”
I heard a similar sentiment from Reya after she heard my podcast episode with Kling. “I looked into some things, such as using a vibrator on myself, and things a partner can help me with, and I have never felt better about sex. I always hated myself after I had sex or masturbated and I assumed it was Catholic guilt. After changing how I pleasure myself, not only am I giving myself way more pleasure (including multiple orgasms in a row which is brand new!!), I don’t feel shitty afterwards! What I always assumed was guilt was in fact dysphoria, which is a huge revelation to me. Although my sex drive is lower, I’m having way better sex.”
At a time when we mostly hear about trans people after they’ve been murdered or our government has taken active steps to oppress them, that’s good news we can all use.