Womanhood Without Instruction: Getting To The Clit For Trans Women

Photo: Courtesy of Adriana Varella.
I had sex reassignment surgery, a vaginoplasty, on February 18, 2020 in New York City. I was confined to bed rest for a month. I ate and greeted friends from my mattress, spending my mornings admiring how the sunlight hit the flowers in their vases on the windowsill, creating a dance of color across the room. When I was physically able to walk outside for the first time, with the help of a cane, the world had changed.
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“Have you orgasmed yet?” my surgeon asks, perched by the computer, typing her notes.
I sit across from her in a surgical gown. It has been eight months since my surgery, and three since I was cleared to have sex.
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My surgeon is young and dresses casually. Moments before my surgery, I’d glimpsed her standing in the hallway outside the operating room talking with a RN, wearing a Pink Floyd T-shirt and jeans, with her phone in her back pocket. When the haze of anesthesia had worn off and my consciousness resurfaced from a lucid dream, her head had appeared above mine, the dark blue of her scrubs contrasting with the bright light. “Your surgery went great,” she’d said.
“No,” I answered. “Honestly, I haven’t really explored in there yet. I guess it’s nerves, and I’m afraid it’s going to hurt. My vagina didn’t come with instructions.” 
“It may be extra sensitive because you haven’t touched it,” she says. “You have to get in there and rub it.”
She put on her examination gloves, I put my legs up in the stirrups. My clitoral hood, clitoris, labia majora, labia minora, vestibule, and vaginal opening, with a self-lubricating vaginal lining that makes penetration pleasurable — everything is healing well. One night during bed rest, I had woken up with blood flowing out of me. It pooled on the hardwood floor as I stumbled to the bathroom, afraid and disoriented. I called an ambulance that took me to the emergency room.  My incision scars have faded.
“You can get dressed now,” she tells me.
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I was closeted and a virgin well into my twenties. It was always awkward telling women that I didn’t enjoy the idea of penetrating, so I avoided the conversation altogether. As a result, most of my sexual experiences have been bottoming with men. I have little knowledge about pleasuring another vagina, let alone my own. Standing in front of a mirror nude, my face, my breasts, my curves, my vagina, my body, are new to me at age 32.
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Before I’d even considered I was trans or knew what that meant, I used to put on a dress, makeup, and patent leather shoes and head to queer dungeons, clubs, and sex parties. You hand some money to the person at the front door, go down the steps, get naked, and have as much anonymous sex as you could cruise for. Sometimes, I’d casually say hello to friends I was surprised to see amongst the naked bodies. At one of these parties, I had sex for the first time with a trans man; of course I bottomed.
Many trans women are murdered during sexual encounters, so when dating men and even lesbians, you have to screen them well before meeting up. From men and women, I’ve heard every slur, degrading comment, and demeaning question you can think of in about four years of transitioning (and that includes a physical assault, my face left beaten, swollen, and bloody).
Walking down the street, I’m hit on frequently. I’m 5’4” and I don’t pass, but I do have an earthy, sexual, Patti Smith femme-butch realness. One night I was at a warehouse art show, and at 2:00 a.m., drunk, I decided it was somehow a good idea to walk 20 minutes to the closest subway in a secluded, industrial part of town. It was cold out, and a man in his car kept pulling over, trying to get my attention. I stared straight forward, trying to walk faster.  
Another day, I was sitting on the steps outside of my Park Avenue high-rise office building, my lunch in my lap, when a man began calling to me: “Can I get your number? Are you a man? Can I give you a kiss?” My face in the sun, I was cornered by the railing, and the man kept moving closer. Ten minutes later I went back to work. No one else heard or said anything.
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Even in the era of #metoo, though, trans women are often told they’re just complaining when trying to talk through experiences of sexual harassment and dangerous sexual encounters. I’ve had cisgender women say to me, “You’re a woman now, isn’t this what you wanted?” It’s immediately made clear to you that you’re not invited to the table of women’s rights. 
Despite what I’ve experienced, I’ve never been asked what it is like to now have breasts. The answer is: Every morning I put my hand on my chest, feel my breath, and wake up smiling, hugging myself — knowing they’re still there.  The breasts and skin and curves that now form my body give me a shape in life, my hands  tracing over, feeling soft as cream and the petals of flowers, absent of grains of hair, since disappeared. If I were to reincarnate, the only imaginable improvement would be if I were to come back as a bed of marigolds dancing in the wind.
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And how about the orgasm?” my surgeon asks, typing at the computer. I’m one-year post-op, and back at her office.
“I haven’t orgasmed yet, but I am masturbating more. And that’s officially the weirdest thing I’ve ever said to a doctor.”
Masturbating with a vagina instead of a penis — I find — is less instantly satisfying. You can get off in five minutes with a penis, a pit stop during the day to clear the mental fog. Now it takes the right headspace, and one distraction can derail the whole mood. When a trans woman goes on hormones, her orgasm changes as well. It goes from a short burst of energy in the crotch lasting, oh, a couple of seconds, to waves of vibrating warmth that clench the whole body. Multiple orgasms? Yep. The wonders of science. 
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I close my eyes. What was once an absence of what should be there is now a presence — of my labia, silky, sensitive, folding and unfolding. I move my fingers up and down with the hesitation of discovery, through the woman-made canals of its smooth surface that was released and set free from inside of me. My clitoris was made from my penis, not destroyed but formed and corrected. It feels like smooth flesh, and then there it is, a sudden jolt runs through my body.   
Transgender bodies exist simultaneously in the sacred and the profane. A cisgender person’s gaze in a single moment can encompass curiosity, lust, fetish, and disgust — eroticism and fear. We are a reminder that within all of us is both the masculine and the feminine. It’s taken me over a quarter of my life to come to the realization that I’ve never allowed myself to be the woman I am. I’m still learning the stories my body is able to share.
My breasts are held, my clit is swollen, my body spasms.

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