41. Sex, Sexuality, and Orgasms

My First Post with a Disclaimer!

Warning: I am going to talk about sex, sexuality, orgasms, and genitals in this post. If this topic is too intimate, or if you don't want to know the personal details that I discuss, I suggest you simply not read this post. I'll place the whole post below the fold.

Metamorpho-sis_underthecovers.pngYou may, or may not, have noticed but I haven't really written much about sex or sexuality. That's mostly been on purpose: since some people who read this blog know who I am, and most of these people are my colleagues, I've been reluctant to post much on topics such as sex, sexuality, and orgasms. But the topic has been on my mind lately, and I have a few things worth saying. So here we go.

I'll start off with noting that the medicalization and pathologization (particularly along psychological/psychopathological lines) makes discussing sexuality difficult at best. The infamous Ray Blanchard — a central figure in both Toronto's CAMH (Centre for Addiction and Mental Health) gender clinic and the DSM-IV and DSM-V task forces on gender "disorders" — has been instrumental in this. His theory of autogynephilia makes it almost impossible for trans women — particularly queer and lesbian trans women — to be open about their sexuality. Here's a primer on Blanchard, his topology of transsexuality, and autogynephilia.

Are you disgusted by his theory? Good. If you need some convincing, I strongly suggest you read Julia Serano's paper, "The Case Against Autogynephilia." Here's the abstract:

Autogynephilia is a paraphilic model that states that all male-to-female (MtF) transsexuals who are not exclusively attracted toward men are instead sexually oriented toward the thought or image of themselves as a woman. The assertion that transsexual women are sexually motivated in their transitions challenges the standard model of transsexualism–that is, that transsexuals have a gender identity that is distinct from their sexual orientation and incongruent with their physical sex. This article provides a review of the evidence against autogynephilia and makes the case that the taxonomy and terminology associated with this theory are both misleading and unnecessarily stigmatizing.

I'll give you the gist of what's at stake: Blanchard, with his central role in pathologizing transsexuality has also pathologized tran women's sexuality when they aren't solely sexually attracted to men. That means that anyone who happens to be queer or — goddess forbid — lesbian is therefore autogynephilic: they're sexually attracted to the image of themselves as a woman.

Excuse me, but what the fuck?

This means that psychologists, doctors, and gender therapists "treating" trans women patients, who ask about the patient's sexuality, will be more likely to view queer and lesbian trans women with suspicion. In a sense, Blanchard has set up a hierarchy of who's "really" trans and wants to transition for the right reasons, and then the rest of us who are doing it because — in his thinking — we're perverts.

So is it any wonder that wider society views trans women as sexual predators? It's written right into the DSM and the definitions of being a trans woman. A consequence of this has been that trans women may lie to psychologists or other gatekeepers about their sexuality for fear of being viewed as autogynephilic.

Fortunately, since I have academic training and various forms of privilege arising from that, I didn't have to lie to anyone about being lesbian. But this did mean that I made sure that who were serving as gatekeepers were not followers of Blanchard and his nonsense and offensive theory of autogynephilia. I'll return to autogynephilia in a bit.

Now, you might wonder how I've identified over time, given that I transitioned well past puberty and past the point where most people figure out their sexual orientation. And, of course, we need to note that gender identity and sexual orientation are distinct: one can be any combination of trans (or cis) and any given sexual orientation. The truth is, I identified as lesbian long before I figured out, fully, my gender identity — although I wasn't able to be explicit about it or fully embrace it. I've always been pretty much exclusively attracted to women. And how I was attracted to them, though, was as a woman myself. The forms of sexual contact that I preferred didn't involve playing the "male" role.

Unfortunately, that's often what I had to do, and so I hated sex for the longest time. And the constant disconnect between how I saw myself, and the configuration of my body (and thus how I was essentially forced to interact with others) was a constant source of pain and unhappiness. One of the worst aspects was simply having what I considered the wrong genital configuration. This meant that orgasms were centered wrongly: the experience was, in an important sense, external in a way I didn't like, and carried with it feelings that I didn't enjoy. This put me at constant odds with whatever libido I had.

However, fortunately, that's all past. While I've been essentially silent — though there will now be some retrospective clues for people — on what genitals I have, I have had surgery. I eschew terms like "sex reassignment surgery" (since this inappropriately reifies biological sex as one's genitals) and "gender confirmation surgery" (since, again, my gender is not "confirmed" by changing my genitals), and the ever offensive "sex change surgery." I just call it what it is: genital surgery. And while only a minority of trans people undergo any genital surgery, and many trans people choose not to undergo it (for a variety of reasons, only some of which are financial), it was important to me. Having the wrong genitals was a daily source of frustration and often anguish. So for me, it was something I had to do for my quality of life.

Unfortunately, Blanchard's legacy has pathologized non-heterosexual trans women's desire for genital surgery. After all, according to him, we only want it because we're sexually attracted to the image of ourselves with a vagina. One question that's now become standard because of his influence is to ask a trans person — often before granting them a letter of support for surgery, which is required almost everywhere — whether they've ever been sexually aroused while thinking of themselves as a woman. And almost all of us answer "yes." But so what? Answering that way doesn't indicate fetishizing oneself: what it means is that many of us, when engaging in sex (of whatever form), try to put ourselves in a mind space where our bodies look and feel the way they're "supposed to," since their current state may be dysmorphic. It's not the thought of ourselves that may turn one on: it's that while turned on, one imagines oneself enjoying those feelings with one's body as it ought to be. There's nothing odd or pathological about that. And yet, that dysmorphia got so bad this entire past year, that I avoided all sexual contact with anyone, including my girlfriend.

But now that I'm past that barrier, things are pretty darned awesome. One of my principal worries going into surgery was whether I'd be able to orgasm afterwards. Procedures are sufficiently advanced that it's rare for someone *not* to retain that ability. However, it took me three months to manage (after a few failed attempts). Perhaps obviously, everything is different. And just as with cis women, everyone's different. The healing process is so slow (it takes 3-6 months to return to "normal" activities), that one barrier is worrying that one is going to hurt oneself in the process. Moreover, since the configuration is so different afterwards, one has to learn how to have sex (even if it's alone!), which can be a frustrating (although sometimes enjoyable) process.

And after finally succeeding in reaching my first post-operative orgasm, I'm in a place to reflect on the differences. My almost immediate response was to cry — seriously. Happy tears, to be sure, but there was a pretty big cry for two reasons. First, there was an overwhelming sense of rightness about everything — how things felt before, during, and after; and that the location of the orgasm no longer felt "external" as it did before, and it didn't carry with it a number of physiological sensations that used to be unpleasant and dysmorphic. So not only did it feel right, but it didn't carry with it any "wrong" feelings afterwards — so I got to just enjoy the whole experience.

Second, I was worried about whether I'd ever manage to orgasm again. I often had a difficult time before surgery. I'm safe, I think, in now chalking that up to the dysmorphia: I couldn't associate those feelings with pleasure (which puts a mental block on pleasure and orgasm) because of the prior genital configuration. Now that that's lifted, the feelings can be properly associated as pleasure, and I can just enjoy it without the dysmorphia. Of course, the whole process is a lot more complicated than before (true for basically all women), and takes a lot longer, but it's a lot more fun.

Finally, I've noticed an interesting physiological difference. Before, as is stereotypical, orgasms made me tired immediately afterwards. I'd often recover my energy within a few minutes, but it was noticeable. Now it's quite the opposite: I was immediately energized.

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All in all, I give the experience two…well…thumbs up.

(I'm sorry! I had to put in at least *one* pun!)

Yours truly,
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