“The erotic is a resource within each of us that lies in a deeply female and spiritual plane, firmly rooted in the power of our unexpressed or unrecognized feeling. In order to perpetuate itself, every oppression must corrupt or distort those various sources of power within the culture of the oppressed that can provide energy for change. For women, this has meant a suppression of the erotic as a considered source of power and information within our lives.” —Audre Lorde, “The Uses of the Erotic”
A couple years ago, when I finally took the steps to start hormone replacement therapy in order to “feminize” my body, I found a pamphlet on the internet about the effects of ingesting testosterone blockers and estrogen. In a nutshell, they included redistribution of fat, breast tissue development, decrease in muscle mass and body hair, decrease in sex drive and sexual function, decrease or loss of erectile function, decreased ability to make sperm and ejaculatory fluid, and sterility.
There were a lot of things I didn’t like about my body at the time (and to this day), but my sex drive wasn’t one of them. And while I wanted — needed — to start hormones, I was scared of losing my ability to feel sexual pleasure. So the next time I had an appointment with my doctor to talk about hormones, I asked her if I would still be able to have orgasms.
She made a disgusted sound from the back of her throat, as though I’d just said something distasteful and completely inappropriate. “Most transsexuals find,” she said, refusing to meet my gaze, “that their masculine sexual...urges are very disturbing to them. So that when they become women, they don’t need orgasms.”
It wasn’t until after I went home, feeling humiliated and crushed, that I really began to think about the implication of what she’d said: When they become women, they don’t need orgasms. What the hell did that mean? That I had to choose between my sexuality and my gender identity as a woman? That trans women aren’t supposed to have a sexuality?
One would hope that trans-friendly, trans-knowledgeable medical professionals would help transitioning patients through hormone- and surgery-related changes in libido and orgasmic experience. But the truth is, most doctors and health care providers have little to no education in this area — even trans health specialists. As a clinical social worker, I’ve worked on several medical teams specializing in gender transition and trans mental and sexual health, and none of the doctors there could answer my questions much better than my personal physician.
A scan of medical literature on trans sexuality brings up similar (meager) results: The few papers that exist are hopelessly outdated, use a very narrow definition of sexual intercourse, and usually end by concluding that there is a massive lack of knowledge about trans women’s sexual satisfaction in the medical community.
Yet the information exists within the trans women community itself: time-tested information gathered by kinksters, sex workers, writers, and zinesters like Mira Bellwether, author of the underground-famous zine Fucking Trans Women. They agree: Medical transition, whether hormonal or surgical, doesn’t make either sexual pleasure or orgasm impossible. Rather, the way in which orgasm can be achieved and experienced changes. Each trans woman — like every woman — is unique.
For young trans girls of color growing up and just trying to survive a world that marks us for rape and violence from the moment we show who we really are, finding accurate and helpful sexual information about our own bodies can be all but impossible. Trans girls learn early on that the realm of our sexuality is a difficult, painful, even dangerous place. But there is also beauty there, and power, and pleasure — if you know where to look. It wasn’t until I finally started to ask other trans women about their stories of sexuality and self-discovery that I was able to find what I was looking for.
A note to trans women in search of answers: Your sisters are the answer. They are always the answer.
Growing up and absorbing all of the mainstream social stereotypes about trans women, I learned to think of my body as disgusting and wrong, and my own sexual urges as something dirty. If anyone wanted me, I believed, it could only be for a fetish, something deviant and sick. So when I started hormone replacement therapy and my libido did diminish somewhat, I experienced this as a relief, at first. Without the pangs of erotic desire, I didn’t have to think as much about all of the shame I felt around my sexuality.
But the more time passed, the more I started to miss my eroticism — the more I began to wonder if the physical transformation that was happening to me had to mean the end of my sexual life. I began to feel angry that, for me and so many of my trans feminine friends, sex was this source of unending pain, when for others, it was a source of joy.
Being the incorrigible geek that I am, I decided to do some research. It turned out that a lot of other trans women I knew who were just starting or considering starting hormone replacement therapy had the same worries and questions as me. And just like me, none of them had heard anything useful from their doctors or health care workers about it. Even more disturbingly, some had gotten the message from their doctors and psychologists that they really weren’t supposed to desire sexuality or sexual pleasure. This would mean, they were told, that they “weren’t really transsexual.”
This idea comes from an outdated psychological theory, developed by (white, cisgender male) psychologist Ray Blanchard in the 1980s, that there two kinds of trans women: “true transsexuals” and “fake transsexuals.” According to this theory, “fake transsexuals,” or autogynephiles, are really men who fetishize the idea of playing a female role, wearing female clothing, or having a female body. This philosophy posits that both kinds of transsexuals are afflicted by mental illness.
While current psychological and sociological literature has thoroughly refuted this idea — with “transsexualism” having been removed from the most recent edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders — many misguided health professionals and members of the public remain deeply influenced by it.
What I find both disturbing and intriguing about so-called autogynephiles is that, according to Blanchard, “true” trans women wouldn’t be disturbed by lacking a sex drive or sexual pleasure — which seems to imply that “real” women shouldn’t have or desire sexuality.
This, to me, is the place where transphobia and misogyny meet, where the repression and rejection of trans women’s sexuality speaks to the rejection of all women’s sexuality. The punishing idea that in order to “become real women,” trans women should give up their erotic potential comes from the same place that the orgasm gap between men and women does: the hatred of the concept that women — any women — could and should actually enjoy having sex.
There is a nearly impenetrable layer of glamour and mystery that surrounds the question of trans women’s sexuality: How do we fuck? Whom do we fuck? Who wants to fuck us? What do our genitals look like, and how do they work? Do we orgasm? How? Are we straight/gay/bisexual/lesbian? Does fucking us make you gay/straight/bisexual/lesbian?
We’re like the Bermuda Triangle of sexuality: We’ve got a rep for being freaky and possibly dangerous. People go in, but they don’t come out.
And you better believe that none of this stuff is ever, ever covered in middle or high school sex ed. As my friend Lily, a trans femme social psychology student and writer at Stanford University, tells me: “Making the sex ed I learned relevant to me after coming out as trans felt like reinventing the wheel — I had to take what I knew about my body and what I knew about sex/pregnancy/biology/STIs/health/the medical industry/etc. and make all the necessary connections myself.”
Sure, there’s a whole lot of “chick with a dick” and “she-male” porn out there if you know where to look, but what you have to understand is that very, very little of that is really about trans women’s sexuality. It’s a fantasy, meant to cater to cisgender men. Our pleasure, our desires, our selves have nothing to do with it.
And that makes me angry. It pisses me off. Because where does that leave us trans women? Where does that leave the people who love us and want to have sex with us? (And yes, there are quite a few, thank you very much.)
What does it mean for young trans girls, just discovering themselves — or old trans girls, just discovering themselves — if the only way that society ever talks about us as sexual beings is with confusion and sensationalism, topped off with a healthy serving of disgust? If the only erotic images of ourselves available to us is pornography that’s all about using our bodies as a kind of sex toy for cis men?
How do we learn to be loved and make love (or, at least, how to get it on) for our own pleasure? Trans women deserve pleasure just as much as anybody else.
So what’s a trans woman who wants to get down and dirty with her partners (or herself) to do? It doesn’t make matters any easier that trans people are at heightened risk for experiences of sexual violence — some studies place our likelihood of being sexually assaulted at some point in our lifetimes at 50% — which can make any kind of sexual contact terrifying on a psychological level.
(As a survivor of multiple sexual assaults in adolescence and young adulthood, I can attest to this — no matter how many years pass, no matter how many wonderful and consensual sex partners I meet, I can still remember the sensation of bone-crunching fear, of flying up and out of my body into a place beyond terror, as fresh as if the attack were happening now.)
And yet, there are trans women — whole communities of them — who not only enjoy sex, but take their eroticism to entirely new places, far beyond the mainstream assumptions and stereotypes about what sexuality is supposed to be.
It was only in the process of doing research for this article that I discovered the secret of trans woman–centered sexuality. Somehow, in all my time writing about and doing activism with trans women, I had missed it: a whole world full of new ways to fuck, get fucked, and pour sweet, sweet loving all over myself.
It began with a conversation in my kitchen with my friend Estelle, a community support worker and glamorous trans lady-about-town. Over a home-cooked meal of sautéed prawns and coconut rice, she graciously let me in on her perspective on trans women’s sexuality. “All that stuff about trans women not being sexual is totally not true,” she said. “I think we need to start thinking about trans women’s bodies differently. Like, just because some trans women can’t get an erection or whatever doesn’t mean anything. For one thing, flaccid penises can be totally erotic. For another, we need to stop thinking about sex in terms of cis men’s orgasms.”
Yes, girl. Yes.
Estelle also told me about muffing — a kind of sexual penetration popular in some circles of trans women that I had never heard about before. Basically, muffing is the act of using the inguinal canals — the two canals just above the scrotum, on either side of the pubic bone, from which testicles originally descend or “drop” — to achieve penetration with fingers, a sex toy, or a penis. Because there are a lot of nerve endings in that region of the body, muffing can allow enormous amounts of sexual pleasure.
(I suggest that the curious experiment with muffing gently and slowly at first, perhaps consulting this beautiful online zine created by trans artist and writer merritt kopas.)
Mind-blowing, isn’t it? How many people are even aware that the human body is capable of such a thing? Or perhaps a better question is why aren’t more of us aware of it? Why does our society keep us totally in the dark about all of the vast multiplicity of ways that pleasure and intimacy are possible?
Once I got started, I couldn’t stop: I fell down the rabbit hole of researching all the incredible ways that trans women practice sex and masturbation. Believe me, there is a lot that’s possible. To give but a few examples:
There’s rooing, or stimulating the base of the penis, just behind the scrotum, above the perineum. The skin of the scrotum can be inverted in order to penetrate a cavity called the deep perineal pouch. Much like with muffing, the density of nerve endings in this part of the body can lead to sexual stimulation and, yes, orgasm.
There’s telescoping, which is used to stimulate a non-erect penis (this can be particularly enjoyable for trans women who like getting off, but find erections triggering or unpleasant). The penis is sort of pushed back into the scrotum, which is then folded back into the pubis to resemble a labia and clitoris, which can then be stroked or penetrated.
In general, the glans of the penis can be stimulated in all kinds of ways, whether or not the penis itself is erect: stroking, licking, and using a vibrator, for example.
And then, of course, there are the nipples, breasts, and anus...
As I read on, and on, and on about all the kinds of sex I wasn’t yet having, I couldn’t stop thinking: I can’t believe I didn’t know.
After talking to Lily, Estelle, and other trans women whom I love and admire deeply, I began to get more and more curious about what my “new” body might be capable of.
So one night, I locked myself in the shower and took a long, hot soak. Then I wrapped myself in my biggest, softest towels and went to lie down in my bedroom. There, I started to explore myself.
With nervous hands, I tried to locate my inguinal canals. It took a lot of searching, and I felt first frustrated, then disappointed, then angry. Angry at the world. Angry at myself. Angry at — I don’t know.
But then, my finger slid into a hollow cavity that I hadn’t known was there before. I found one on the opposite side. I pushed, gently at first, and then harder. My fingers slipped inside, up to the first knuckle. A breath I didn’t know I was holding rushed out of my lungs in a long, single burst.
And unexpectedly, inexplicably, I began to cry. A few tears at first, and then huge, gut-wrenching sobs that seemed to come from some hidden place deep inside my body where all of that fear and self-hatred and longing had been hiding — as though my questing, nervous fingers had turned a secret lock and all of the tears could finally come pouring out.
When it comes to the mystery of trans women’s sexuality, here’s what I’ve learned: We fuck in all kinds of ways, some of which you may have to look up on the internet. We fuck all kinds of people, for all kinds of reasons. Fucking us doesn’t necessarily make you gay/straight/lesbian/bisexual, and it doesn’t make you a fetishist either. It may make you nervous, sad, embarrassed, ashamed, terrified, anticipatory, curious, delighted, wondrous, awestruck. It definitely makes you human. Just like us.
Then, of course, there are the orgasms: apparently not so impossible to achieve after all. While sex certainly doesn’t need to focus on orgasm as the be-all and end-all goal, many trans women (like yours truly) are certainly interested in having them in one way or another.
And the thing is — we deserve orgasms. Hormonal and postsurgical side effects shouldn’t change that. For one thing, some trans women don’t want or need hormones or surgery. Those who do should have access to accurate, sex-positive information about how to adjust to — how to love — our changing bodies.
Because transitioning should be about loving one’s body: loving it in the sense of seeing ourselves as beautiful and pleasurable, and also in the sense of making love. We deserve to know how to give ourselves orgasms, and how to teach others to give us orgasms.
There are many kinds of loving, and we deserve them all.
Mira Bellwether is the author of Fucking Trans Women. A previous version of this story stated her name as Miranda Bellwether.