A Trans Woman's Spouse
Dear Patrick: I am in a good relationship with a woman of transgender experience (as she puts it). We have been scrimping and saving for years now to pay for her sex-change surgery. It has taken a lot of research to find a doctor that we feel will give her the complete female genitals she wants—not just a vagina, but also a clitoris and labia.
The problem is that as the surgery date gets closer, I am getting nervous. We have been together for more than four years, and I have no problem with our intimacy as it exists now. I very much enjoy anal sex with my girlfriend, and I don’t have any problem seeing her as a woman with a large clitoris. She has a lot of self-respect, and I can’t help but respect her in turn. She is beautiful to me and has so much courage. Please understand that I don’t want to ask her to stop her process of transition if she needs this surgery to feel complete. A part of me is just really, really afraid that the surgery will change our lives together and not for the better.
I am afraid she won’t be able to have an orgasm after the operation. I don’t see how this will be possible, given all of the cutting in the pelvic area. I don’t feel that we got a good answer from the doctor about this, either. My girlfriend says she doesn’t care, that not having an orgasm matters less to her than not being complete as a woman. But after a few years of enjoying a body that looks right, won’t she also want a body that functions properly? What woman can be happy if she can’t have an orgasm with her partner?
I realize that neither one of these options is perfect. And it isn’t my body, so it should not be my decision. But is it legitimate for me to bring it up for discussion given that sex is mutual, and my concern is for her well-being as well as for my own selfish desires, like teasing her until she comes?
Dear Trans-Woman’s Spouse: Unfortunately, very little decent research has been done on the results of genital surgery for transgender women. This genital surgery has certainly improved a great deal in appearance; ten years ago, there was little concern about giving the patient inner labia, let alone a clitoris. Like you, I have anxiety for all of my friends who choose the surgery, but I can also have anxiety for the women who long to have it and can’t. Their mental health often suffers quite a bit. Despite the fact that many trans people, especially those who are gender-queer, claim they can accept their bodies as they are with minimal medical intervention, I personally feel that expecting a transgender person to live with the wrong genitals is just plain cruel. Trying to live as a man without a penis and testicles or a woman without a vulva and vagina is very, very, very difficult, if only from the standpoint of self-image. And yet these surgeries remain very expensive and also less than entirely satisfactory.
Do you believe that your spouse may be having this surgery because she thinks that you want her to have it? Does she think that it’s necessary to have the surgery to guarantee the relationship will last, or to keep you thinking of her as a woman? If so, I think you have a right to bring this up. It’s important to reassure her that you do not care and in fact have some real doubt or dread about the operation. Just don’t put her in the position of reassuring her about the outcome; she has as little control over that as you do.
One of the things about being transgender that is hard for cis-gender people to understand is the amount of risk involved in transition. We rarely know when we take hormones whether we will like what they do for us or not. The same is true of non-genital surgery, or of the social aspects of transition like coming out to friends and family. We transition because we have to, often; we are so miserable the way we are that we can’t stand being in that social position any more. Even gender queer people find it necessary to reject the gender they were labeled as at birth.
So your spouse may be in the very difficult position of needing an operation she can’t guarantee. It may look like elective surgery, but for her, there may not be a real choice. Her well-being may be in the balance here. I think anyone who has the discipline to save up for years to get SRS (sex reassignment surgery) is demonstrating how very much they need this body modification.
Please do not assume that orgasm after surgery will not be possible. That’s not necessarily true, although you may need to do some experimenting to find out how to get her off with all the new anatomy. Many trans-women find that after SRS, they can experience orgasms during anal sex, even if the vaginal sensation is not intense enough to get them off. Does your partner enjoy anal sex? This is one technique that might come to your rescue if you need a little help getting your sex life back on track after surgery.
Good luck with the big discussion. I hope your relationship survives meeting this big goal. You have been such a strong supporter of your spouse up to this point. So I hope you can continue to let her determine what makes the most sense for her at this phase of her life.