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Sex & Relationships

I Thought I’d Never Enjoy Sex. Then I Had Gender-Affirming Surgery

As a trans woman who experienced gender dysphoria growing up, the body I was born with was a barrier to a healthy sex life. Correcting it made all the difference.
A person's hand grazes their partner's thigh (Photo: The Gender Spectrum Collection)

The day before my vaginoplasty just over two years ago, I paced outside my Montreal hotel with a combination of excitement and nerves. I’d waited my entire life—since I was nine years old and realized I was a trans girl—for this moment. My male genitalia had been an object of loathing and self-hatred since those early years. In my childhood I’d prayed for God to correct the matter. Now the life-saving wonders of modern medical science were about to oblige.

But no surgery comes without questions. The night before the procedure, I had a heart-to-heart with my ex-partner, who travelled with me from St. John’s, N.L., to Montreal. My biggest fear, I confessed, was the risk of never being able to feel sexual pleasure again. In the lead-up to the surgery—two years on hormones, multiple meetings with doctors and a sexologist, dozens of pages of disclaimers and warnings I had to sign—all the professionals echoed a familiar script: Outcomes are not guaranteed. Patients could recover some, most or no sexual sensation following surgery. I’d searched the internet and textbooks, and it was difficult to find clear answers or firsthand accounts of what sexual pleasure might or might not feel like after surgery; I didn’t know what the odds of experiencing pleasure or orgasm once again might actually be. Off the record, doctors were vaguely optimistic, but all those disclaimers gave me the jitters.

Not getting the surgery wasn’t an option: My gender dysphoria was so bad it was a matter of life or death for me. But that doesn’t mean I didn’t have fears. And just because I hated my male genitalia and knew they shouldn’t be there doesn’t mean I’d never experienced sexual pleasure. It was always a fraught experience. On one hand, your body instinctively responds to the situation of intimacy, the feeling of sexual desire aroused and reciprocated. But on the other hand, it’s hard to experience pleasure when the body parts generating pleasure are also your biggest turn-off. Achieving pleasure and orgasm became a matter of dissociation, having to shut off an awareness of my body and avoid feeling, seeing and touching the very parts of myself that were supposed to give me pleasure. It meant focusing on the other person, giving them pleasure so we could enjoy the intimacy and closeness, and then awkwardly avoiding or suffering through their attempt to reciprocate on a body that I despised.

Would I ever experience orgasm again? That’s what I wondered as I drifted off to sleep the night before the procedure.

The next day, the surgery went smoothly. Recovery is a longer process, including a year of slowly diminishing half-hour dilations (four a day to start). That too went smoothly. It wasn’t even that painful. I’d had my wisdom teeth removed a couple of months before my vaginoplasty, and that hurt a whole lot more.

Gradually, I felt my new, corrected genitals come back to life. During the first few weeks after surgery, the nerves reactivated, tiny electrical tingles and sparks in and around the surgical area as each one reawakened. I’d be sitting with friends and suddenly jerk or jump as I felt it—not painful, but a visceral reminder that my body was getting used to its revised layout.

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I’d expected to feel regret or doubt at some point; who doesn’t after a decision of any great magnitude? But that never happened. I explored my new genitals with delight as they healed. I was finally no longer ashamed of what lay between my legs. I was enthralled, delighted; the knowledge that I was finally complete after so many years of struggling with gender dysphoria brought me to tears. Even my scars felt like something to be proud of (they’ve mostly vanished now, or disappeared beneath my regrown pubic hair).

About three months after surgery, I noticed a strange sensation. It happened sometimes in the mornings, sometimes in the evenings. At first I was nervous it was a sign of infection. But it didn’t actually feel bad. In fact, it felt rather nice.

It took me a few days of nervous self-exploration before I realized what I was feeling was sexual pleasure. My doctor had readjusted my hormone regime slightly (a different dose and frequency of estrogen) and that, combined with the absence of testosterone, likely contributed to the sudden surge of sexual energy I felt. It grew with every passing day.

I’d come to think of my recovery in such clinical terms that I hadn’t expected to feel any sexual sensation until that full first year was over. Was I ever wrong.

The sensation I felt wasn’t restricted to a single spot, but varied from day to day. My inner labia were especially sensitive. And in the right mood and with the right touch, my clitoris could spring to life in a way my former penis never, ever had.

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I was happy, but the new feeling also scared me. I had never felt such a sustained experience of sexual pleasure as those mornings of recovery and gentle exploration. I just couldn’t get enough of it. I was reminded of my early teenage years, of learning about masturbation and the sense that there was some yet-to-be-discovered purpose to all that exploration. The pleasure I felt was different from what I’d felt before. This was more diffused; but once aroused, it was a sensation in which I could become more fully absorbed, a slowly building series of waves bringing me to ever higher states of bliss.

To further explore the newness of the experience, and as my exploratory confidence grew, I bought a sex toy about six months after the surgery. I’d purchased vibrators before, but only as gifts for a partner. Now I was buying one for me. It was a birthday gift to myself, to celebrate my first year of renewed life. My vaginaversary, if you will.

The day it arrived I was almost giddy with excitement—as giddy as the day before my surgery. I still didn’t really know what I liked, or how to experience this end of the vibrator. But I didn’t need to think too hard. My hands, my vagina, my body took over. I followed my instincts, followed the guidance of this body I was finally, deliriously in love with. I don’t know for certain what orgasm would feel like if I’d been born a cis woman, but I do know that what I discovered that day—and have rediscovered many days since—was a pleasure far superior to anything I’d felt before. It was a delicious, full-body pleasure that radiated out from my vagina and enveloped me in waves of euphoria. After an hour I was literally breathless, and turned off the toy to catch my breath. I thought back to the fears I’d had the night of my surgery—fuelled in part by fear-mongering from transphobes who say you’ll never feel pleasure again—and I giggled a little to myself.

And then I turned the vibrator back on.

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