Trans sex

My new book with Jules Scheele – Sexuality: A Graphic Guide – is out now, following up on our previous book Gender: A Graphic Guide. So it seemed a good time to bring the two topics of sexuality and gender together in one place, and write up the workshop I did for Glasgow LGBT Health & Wellbeing a couple of years back on trans sex. Thanks so much to the participants in the workshop for agreeing that I could share some of their answers here. 

This post is mostly aimed at trans people – and those who have sex with us – who want to think more about sex. Using both ‘trans’ and ‘sex’ in the broadest possible ways of course. For more of a basic overview about the topics of trans and sex for everyone, check out this post I wrote last year. Hopefully there’ll be something useful here for everyone – whatever your relationship to gender and sexuality – though.

This post is based around four questions which are useful for us all to reflect on. For each question I’ll give you the opportunity to make some notes of your own answers before reading other people’s responses, and my thoughts. The post ends with some further resources which can help you to tune into your erotic desires, and to communicate them to others.

Question 1: How do I feel when I’m most alive?

I borrowed this question from awesome mental-health activist Sascha Altman DuBrul. I think it’s a perfect starting point for thinking about sex, just as much as it is mental health. 

Generally when we think about sex – perhaps particularly as trans people – we make so many assumptions about what we should be doing, and how we should do it, that we lose track of what we’re doing it for. That is because of all the cultural baggage about what sex is, how it is gendered, and how bodies should work.

So let’s put all that aside for a moment and think about the feeling we might look for from sex – and from aspects of life beyond sex.

Consider the times in your life that you’ve felt most alive. These may not necessarily be sexual times. How did you feel at those times? For Sascha and myself, for example, we came up with answers like ‘I notice I feel keen to make eye contact with people’ and ‘I feel comfortable in my body’…

How do I feel when I’m most alive?

Here are some of the answers that came up in the trans sex workshop I ran, in response to this question:

  • Expansive, taking up space.
  • Bouncy, moving.
  • Competent.
  • A surge of energy.
  • Creative, motivated.
  • Relaxed.
  • Trusting.
  • Connected to everyone.
  • Free.
  • Spontaneous, like I want to laugh out loud.
  • Like I’m uncovering the truth.

What would it be like for this feeling to be the starting point for thinking about what we want to do erotically? How might we invite this feeling into our sex lives, and everywhere else for that matter? 

The problem with much sex advice is that it’s not about inviting that kind of feeling at all. It’s much more about how to do what wider culture defines as ‘sex’ in the most ‘normal’ way, and how to achieve a specific goal such as erection, penetration or orgasm. As Juno Roche points out, this approach can leave trans people feeling deficient, because it’s based on a cisgender ideal of what sex is, and how bodies should operate. Also this approach doesn’t actually work so well for many cis people either. 

Starting with pursuing the kinds of sex – and other activities – which make us feel most alive is way more helpful. It helps us to tune into whether we even want sex at all. For many folks on the ace spectrum, other activities bring this feeling way more than sex does. You don’t have to have sex at all, unless it does bring that feeling for you or you want to do it for other reasons. 

This question also helps us to tune into what kinds of sex we enjoy, instead of feeling we have to do certain things. It puts solo sex on a level with sex with other people, rather than thinking that sex with other people is somehow better. 

It also helps sex to be more consensual, because we get familiar with checking in with what we – and anybody else – actually wants, instead of doing what we think we – or they – should do.

As Black feminist Audre Lorde – and many who have followed her – have pointed out, this question of how we feel when we’re most alive could be a useful starting point for much more in life than just sex. If we took it seriously, we’d be inviting life in general to be pleasure-giving and consensual for all, and challenging the ways in which it isn’t.

Question 2: What blocks me (in general / as a trans person) from being open with myself about my desires, and from tuning into what turns me on or gives me pleasure?

Sascha Altman DuBrul says that two things are vital when it comes to mental health: Cultivating the capacity to communicate well with ourselves, and with others. The same is very much true for sex, but this is an area where many people struggle hugely. 

In the next two questions we’ll explore what blocks us from being open with ourselves about our desires, attractions, turn-ons and turn-offs, and what blocks us from being open with other people about these same things.

Let’s start with what makes it difficult to be open with ourselves…

What blocks me (in general / as a trans person) from being open with myself about my desires, and from tuning into what turns me on or gives me pleasure?

Here are some of the answers that came up in the trans sex workshop I ran, in response to this question:

  • Body dysphoria.
  • Peer pressure from others outside or inside the trans community.
  • Internalised transphobia.
  • Shame.
  • Overthinking things.
  • Wanting to be politically correct.
  • Pain from physical conditions.
  • Disability.
  • Confusion.
  • The way these things can change over time.
  • Being monogamous.
  • Other people’s perception of gender.
  • Lack of feeling.
  • Worrying about a partners’ pleasure.

For trans people in particular it can be hard to grapple with cultural ideals about what bodies ‘should’ look like and respond like, given that these are cisgender ideals. We can feel pressure to be ‘normal’, and fear that we might not be. On the flip side there can be a sense of pressure to be ‘trans enough’ or ‘queer enough’ which can make us feel bad if we do want ‘normal’ sex, or if we have discomfort with our trans body. It’s fine to enjoy what you enjoy, to have the body you have, and to feel how you feel about it. Whoever you are, you are trans enough.

It can be hard for us to accept dysphoria and to allow that we might want to avoid touching certain parts of our bodies, keep certain clothes on, etc. It can also be difficult – if we don’t feel dysphoria – to allow ourselves to enjoy parts of our body which don’t fit cultural assumptions about our current gender. It’s fine to be anywhere on the spectrum from dysphoric to euphoric about any parts of your body, and for that to change over time, or not. It’s fine to use your anatomy sexually in culturally expected ways, or in culturally unexpected ways, for your gender.

In order to access medical services, many trans people have had to distance themselves from the idea that their transness is in any way erotic for them. This can make it hard to really tune into what we enjoy, especially if it does involve eroticising our gender in some way. It’s important to remember that many – if not most – cis people find it a turn-on to be desirably feminine and/or masculine, and to ‘perform’ their masculinity or femininity during sex. It’s fine to be turned on by your transness, or femininity, or masculinity, or non-binary-ness. And it’s also fine not to be.

We can feel pressure to be sexual in ways that map onto our current gender rather than our birth-assigned sex, in order to affirm our transness. It’s fine for everyone – trans or cis – to enjoy things sexually which match the stereotypes of how their gender is sexual, and which don’t. For example, whether you are a woman, a man, or a non-binary person, it is fine to be active or dominant, or passive or submissive, sexually – or both, or neither, or different things at different times. 

Question 3: What blocks me (in general / as a trans person) from communicating my desires, turn-ons, and pleasures with others?

This isn’t just an issue for trans people. Research on cis people has found that even those who have been having sex together for years know under two thirds of what each other enjoys sexually, and under a quarter of what they dislike. People are also unlikely to communicate openly about their turn-ons and turn-offs with people they are dating or hooking up with because there’s so much stigma and fear about being ‘dysfunctional’ or ‘abnormal’ when it comes to sex.

However, there are reasons why communicating honestly about our desires and attractions can be particularly risky for trans people. Let’s reflect on these here…

What blocks me (in general / as a trans person) from communicating my desires, turn-ons, and pleasures with others?

Here are some of the answers that came up in the trans sex workshop I ran, in response to this question:

  • Fear of rejection.
  • Worrying about losing a partner.
  • A sense of scarcity which means you feel that you have to stay with a person if you’ve found someone who wants you, even if the sex/relationship isn’t good.
  • The struggle of finding people who aren’t either transphobic or fetishising of trans people.
  • Avoiding conflict.
  • Fear of upsetting people.
  • Not wanting to interrupt the flow of sex.
  • Lack of confidence.
  • Internalised transphobia.
  • Other people not holding space for our needs, just going after what they want.
  • The impact of hormones.
  • Not having the vocabulary or language to communicate with.

The current cultural moral panic about trans people makes this such a troubled area. As the documentary, Disclosure, pointed out, trans people are demonised in relation to their sexuality. Trans women – in particular – are frequently depicted in the media as sexual predators, despite the fact that they are statistically far more likely to be the victim of sexual assault, and other violence, than they are the perpetrator. It’s important to be very kind with yourself about the challenges of navigating your sexuality during this moral panic. It can help a lot to develop communities of support, if possible, and trusting relationships in which to be sexual.

Most trans people carry experiences of trauma which also tend to impact our sexual experience. If we have been painfully rejected, or assaulted, in the past, we may be very fearful of being open with partners in the present about our sexual needs and boundaries. Therapy with a trans affirmative therapist, and/or queer peer support, can help us to learn how to tune into our needs and wants, limits and boundaries, and to communicate these with others if we find this hard.

There can be big power imbalances in play with cisgender partners, which can also make it hard to communicate openly about sex, and about other vulnerable topics in our relationships. It’s important to talk about these power imbalances as part of a consent conversation. Of course other aspects of our experience comes into play here too, so it’s useful to consider how our transness or cisness intersects, for example, with our race, class, disability, age, HIV status, survivorship, immigration status, etc.

Communicating about sex can also be vulnerable when we’re with trans partners given that both/all people are likely to carry trauma, and we might want to be particularly careful to affirm others, and be fearful of hurting them more. Partners – whether one-off or long term – should want the sex we’re having to feel as safe and free as possible. The resources at the end offer some suggestions for how to start having these kinds of conversations if you find it tough.

Hopefully these answers help you to see that you’re not alone in finding this tough. Juno Roche’s book, Queer Sex, is a great resource outlining various ways in which trans people have found safe-enough and free-enough relationships and situations in which to enjoy their sexuality.

Question 4: Why is sex with trans people so awesome? 

It’s sad that when we think about trans sex, the things that most readily comes to mind are these blocks that we face to having good sex. It’s certainly important to be mindful of how tough things are at the moment, and to affirm that the struggles we experience are very real and understandable, and not our fault. However, it’s also possible to flip this and to ask what might be particularly great about trans sex, which everyone could learn from. 

Most people who are not trans are actually having unsatisfactory, mediocre, or even unwanted or non-consensual sex. That’s certainly the sense you get from the annual NATSAL survey which finds that at least half of those surveyed see themselves as having one or more sexual problems. This is because most people are trying to conform to a very limited idea of what sex is, what bodies should do, and how the different genders should be sexual, and failing at that.

So perhaps trans people might have something valuable to offer everyone when it comes to sex, given that we have stepped outside – to some extent – the rules and norms about bodies, sex, and gender. That’s certainly a key theme in Juno’s book, and it relates to Travis Alabanza’s idea that trans people should be seen as a gift for the rest of the world, instead of a problem. So let’s consider it…

Why is sex with trans people so awesome? 

Here are some of the answers that came up in the trans sex workshop I ran, in response to this question:

  • We think and talk a lot about gender, bodies, and sex.
  • Communication skills.
  • Expertise around consent.
  • We are storehouses of knowledge around bodies, hormones, the impact of medical stuff, etc. (which actually impact all people, not just trans people).
  • We’ve had to discover or redefine gender roles.
  • We have less assumptions and expectations so can see the full, unique person in front of us.
  • Opening up creativity and freedom.
  • Humour and playfulness (which takes away ‘performance anxiety’).
  • Acceptance of awkwardness and things not working as anticipated.
  • We’re more up for the process of sex rather than aiming at a particular goal.
  • Generosity.

When sex and relationships educator, Justin Hancock, and I wrote our book about sex – Enjoy Sex (How, When and IF You Want To) – we deliberately didn’t have any separate material about how to have sex with trans people, or as a trans person. This was because we figured that the way we’d want people to have trans sex is actually the way we’d want all people to have any sex. For example:

  • Don’t make any assumptions about the body and desires in front of you, whether that is your own body and desires in solo sex, or somebody else’s in partnered sex. All our bodies and desires work differently, and change over time.
  • Approach everyone – including yourself – with curiosity, openness, and ongoing consent check-ins.
  • Don’t focus on genitals and orgasms. This body may experience different forms of pleasure, in different parts of the mind/body. Leave the genital sex/orgasm script behind and consider all the different things that could count as sex (mentally and/or physically) and explore which of these you might want to try.
  • Drop the gendered script as well. There’s no reason you have to have particular sexual desires and behaviours just because you’re a woman, man, or non-binary person. Everyone has a complex, changing, relationship with their gender, body, and desires.

Resources

If you want more on all of this, check out my book with Justin. We also have a zine – Make Your Own Sex Manual – which takes you through a number of activities to figure out what you do – and don’t – want, and how to communicate that with others. It can be a great idea to create your own living document about your sexuality which you can share with others to explore what you might do together. If you want to explore your sexual fantasies more, we also have a zine on that.

Another recommendation is the Gender Stories podcast by our friend Alex Iantaffi which focuses more on trans issues. Alex and I wrote How To Understand Your Gender together, and are now working on How to Understand Your Sexuality. Also check out the So Many Wings podcast by Sascha Altman DuBrul (mentioned above), and his collaborator, genderqueer writer and artist, Jacks McNamara

For more on consent, check out Justin’s latest book, Love Uncommon’s resources on how to develop self-consent, and my Consent Checklist zine.

Gender GP also has an excellent series on trans sex education. And Scottish Trans and Waverley Care have recently brought out an awesome report on trans sexual health.


If you’d like to support my writing then feel free to drop me a dollar or two on my Patreon.


Meg-John Barker is the author of a number of popular books on sex, gender, and relationships, including Queer: A Graphic History, How To Understand Your Gender, Enjoy Sex (How, When, and IF You Want To), Rewriting the Rules, The Psychology of Sex, and The Secrets of Enduring Love. They have also written a number of books for scholars and counsellors on these topics, drawing on their own research and therapeutic practice.

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