I have been reading your column for many years and finally have something to write to you about. I, a biologically born woman, recently started dating a transgendered (M-to-F) woman and need some advice.
How do we make it work in the bedroom? I’m usually quite dominant, and she’s fairly submissive, so we have that part sorted out. However, she’s pre-op so still has the male anatomy. She doesn’t mind using it, if she knows it will please me, but it’s generally not her first choice. What do you suggest for us that will be fun, non-threatening and pleasurable?
—Stranger in a Strange Land
When people experience discordant relationships with their bodies (either that they don’t like them, they have been mistreated in them or they don’t match the gender identity or expectations that they have), agency over how sexual expression is received by that body is often a challenge.
People who feel their gender or sexual self-image differently than their physical bodies imply (or, more appropriately, what is assumed by the bodies they inhabit) naturally have divergent ideas about how they engage with and how they like other people to engage with the parts of their bodies that conflict with their true gender or desire.
This can be difficult to negotiate, especially in the heat of the moment, when you just want to hang onto something hot and, not only is it not available, it stops all sexual activity dead in its tracks when you do get your fingers on, around or in it. Our own sexual expression is often halted by or predicated on our partner’s reservations — which can be ever-shifting, depending on mood or self-esteem.
This heightened bestowal of personal trust can feel so precarious. One day you’re permitted to explore a range of activities with your partner, and the next you’re not. You experience sex as a series of breakthroughs that can be retracted at any time. What did you do wrong this time that you didn’t the last? You begin to see intimacy with your partner as something that you have to earn, not by being a skilled and sensitive lover, but by being steadfast and patient. Since many of us have our own issues with sexual communication and with being trusted, it can create a tense and uncertain environment.
If your primary goal is to navigate this relationship without injuring feelings, egos and genders, I can guarantee you will not get perfect scores. It is an admirable objective not to want to hurt someone and to respect their identity, but I think a lot of times, when people undertake monumental life changes like gender reassignment, the expectation that everything will suddenly be fucking awesome is pretty high and, by virtue, bound to some level of frustration.
In addiction-recovery programs, people talk a lot about what’s referred to as the Geographical Cure. What this means is that you move in order to erase your past — get a fresh start with the new you, basically. Let’s look at gender reassignment for a moment through this lens. For some people, transition really has the effect of really making so many things click into place. But for others, it doesn’t solve all their problems like they thought it would. This can be deeply disappointing and really difficult to discuss.
Is it fair that people who experience gender incongruence need to be constantly on top of their feelings about their body and always be prepared to articulate their needs? No. Additionally, gender incongruence is very often not the only obstacle with which they must wrestle.
Very few of us escape childhood without getting mauled in some way or another. We all have bridges to build and crosses to bear when it comes to intimacy. Unfortunately, what happens is that sometimes we get stuck in these cycles of, “You think you have it bad? Well, I have had this and that happen to me, and I’m burdened with this long and treacherous list of personal hindrances that you will actually never understand.”
We seem hell-bent on highlighting inequality rather than focusing on empowering ourselves. We fret incessantly over the ease with which some people move through the world, unlike us. We judge other people’s outsides by what we feel inside.
Here is something I have learned: we can’t approach sex with any assumptions about anyone. If we choose to bring people into our intimate lives, it is our responsibility to be voice our fears, even if it makes us writhe with discomfort and self-pity. We also need to be kind about other people’s fears, even if they don’t seem as weighty as our own.
Talk to your girlfriend about how she would like you to engage with her body, keeping in mind that she may not even want to discuss her cock or may have a word she’d prefer you both use for it, and also keeping in mind that these feelings may shift with time. Your level of understanding and consideration is important but will only be fruitful if she is willing to be open about where she’s at with her body and mind, too. ■