Illustration by Mayticks
The first time a sexual partner asked for permission to touch my chest, I was floored. At the time, I thought “good sex” required lots of boob action, even though I didn’t like it—I’d resigned myself to just getting through it. But I didn’t even like having boobs in the first place. I’d just learned the name for that feeling—“gender dysphoria”—but I didn’t know what to do when partners slid into second base. Finally, I was given a clear opportunity to say “no.”
Advice on the finer points of having great sex.
My partner respected that boundary, and when my chest was removed from the equation, I was able to relax and have a fun, memorable sexual experience.
These days, I like my chest, but I’m still a gender non-conforming person who prefers some forms of touch over others, especially during sex. I’ve learned how to ask partners for what I want, and I’ve found strategies for alleviating dysphoria. If this is something you deal with, maybe you can find a strategy here that will help you get out of your head while you’re getting it on.
What is gender dysphoria?
The LGBTQ+ health company FOLX defines gender dysphoria as “emotional and physical distress experienced by some transgender and non-binary people whose perceived genders don’t match their sex assigned at birth.”Gender dysphoria might arise suddenly in response to an event, like getting misgendered, or it might be an icky feeling you experience all the time, like feeling discomfort with certain aspects of your body that don’t align with your gender identity or expression.Anyone can experience gender dysphoria—after all, strict behavioral and presentational expectations of gender performance hurt all of us—but gender dysphoria has the greatest and longest-term impact on trans, non-binary, and gender non-conforming people. In a 2021 study of trans adults pursuing gender-affirming medical care, nearly all participants said they’d started feeling dysphoric by the time they were seven years old.
Not all trans and gender non-conforming people experience dysphoria, but for those who do, it can affect our overall well-being. Gender dysphoria can lead to depression, anxiety, and sometimes suicidal ideation. The social stigma, discrimination, rejection, and barriers to gender-affirming healthcare that many trans and gender non-conforming people face can exacerbate dysphoria, too.
If you experience gender dysphoria in your daily life, it won’t necessarily come up during sex. You might not even think about your gender when you’re rolling around with a partner. But if you do experience dysphoria during sex, it can hinder your ability to stay turned on and present.
How does gender dysphoria affect people’s sex lives?When I asked non-binary sex educator Tuck Malloy about the ways gender dysphoria affects people’s sex lives, they cited Emily Nagoski’s concept of sexual “brakes” and “accelerators” from the seminal sex book Come As You Are. “We have things that turn us on, and our brakes—or, things that turn us off,” Malloy explained. “Even if we're doing a bunch of things that are really sexy for us and putting our foot on the gas—or on that acceleration—if we also have our foot on the brake, then the car's not gonna go anywhere.”
For some trans and gender non-conforming people, living with gender dysphoria is like constantly having your foot on the brake. “A lot of the work that I do with folks who experience gender dysphoria is finding methods to not only press down more on acceleration, but also practice taking their foot off the brake,” Malloy said.So how do you have an enjoyable sex life when gender dysphoria is getting your way?Talk about your boundaries with partners.
We know that you’re already talking to new partners about consent, STIs, and pregnancy prevention (if it’s relevant) before you start getting it on. (Right? Right.) Are there certain words, sex acts, or kinds of touch that elicit feelings of dysphoria? Share those boundaries with your partners and ask about theirs. And if you’re introducing new boundaries into a long-term sexual relationship, that conversation might bring you closer together.
“My go-to is always to be direct, even if it means being vulnerable. It can be empowering, and it can really help a connection or relationship grow in meaningful ways,” said Tobi Hill-Meyer, director of the series Doing It Ourselves: The Trans Woman Porn Project and editor of the short fiction collection Nerve Endings: The New Trans Erotic.
“I always remind myself that I'm having sex for myself,” Malloy, the sex educator, said. “If somebody doesn't want to have a conversation about what would make that an enjoyable experience for me, then maybe I want to revisit if I actually want to have sex with them.”
Don’t get all the way naked if you don’t want to.If you have a hard time seeing or feeling certain parts of your body, there’s nothing wrong with having sex while wearing your underwear, a bra, a binder, or even all of your clothes. “There’s so much hot sex you can have with your clothes on,” Malloy said. Your partner can run their hands over or under your clothes, or they can stimulate your genitals with a powerful vibrator over your pants or underwear. You can enjoy some good old-fashioned dry-humping—which is surprisingly sexy (and no, it’s not just for horny teenagers).Maybe you want to get mostly naked, but you don’t want to see your genitals. In that case, you can use safer sex barriers like dental dams or Lorals underwear to cover the area. These barriers are made of thin latex or polyurethane, so you can still feel whatever sensations are happening on top of them—and you get the added bonus of STI protection. Alternatively, you can use vibrators that cover a lot of surface area or strokers—some are specifically designed for transmasculine bodies.Focus on gender euphoria.
You might be tempted to focus on ways you can mitigate the negative feelings that come with gender dysphoria, but a different strategy of seeking gender euphoria—aka, the feeling of bliss that happens when you’re affirmed in and aligned with your gender—can help you enjoy yourself so much more.
Finding gender euphoria during sex doesn’t have to be complicated. “You can do everything the exact same way you would otherwise do it, but use different language for it,” Hill-Meyer said. She recommended asking your partner to call you a “good boy,” a “good girl,” or any gendered dirty talk names that you enjoy. Ask your partner to use specific adjectives that affirm your gender identity or expression—I like when my partner calls me “handsome” rather than “pretty.” Make sure your partner knows the word(s) you use to describe your genitals and other body parts, too.
Role play can help usher you into a state of gender euphoria. Malloy said having a character or power differential to focus on can “override” dysphoric feelings—it’s harder to feel weird about your body when you’re busy acting like a naughty nurse or a hot handyman. Role play also allows you to plan out the sex you’re going to have in advance. Knowing what to expect might help you feel more comfortable.
Ask your partner to perform oral sex in a way that aligns with the way you see yourself. If you want a blow job, you might ask your partner to suck off your strap-on, or bob their head up and down while they go down on you. For a cunniligus experience, have your partner gently hold your genitals against your body and provide “long licks with a big, flat tongue, like you’re licking an ice cream cone,” Hill-Meyer said. She noted that muffing—a term coined by Mira Bellwether in the zine Fucking Trans Women to describe finger-fucking the inguinal canals—can be a powerful way to experience penetration in the front “if you don’t have a body that is otherwise set up for that.”These techniques provide what Hill-Meyer called the “rocket fuel” for a gender euphoric sexual experience, and even if they don’t help you reach climax, you can always balance them out with other forms of stimulation that reliably get you off, like using toys or engaging in mutual masturbation.
If you feel dysphoric, take a break.
Even if you set boundaries and share your desires in advance, you still might experience gender dysphoria during sex. That doesn’t mean you’re doing something wrong. Sometimes dysphoria rears its head despite all of our introspection and preparation, and if a sexual partner diverts from what you’ve agreed on—even if it was unintentional—that can throw you for you a loop.If you wind up feeling uncomfortable during a hookup, pay attention to that and take care of yourself. “Give the brain a reset moment,” Hill-Meyer said. If you’re experiencing dysphoria, spend some time focusing on your partner’s body, ask your partner for language or forms of touch that bring you closer to a state of gender euphoria, or switch positions. You can always take a break if you need one. Malloy recommended safe words to help you navigate moments of gender dysphoria, too. “Using a stoplight system like green, yellow, and red can be really helpful as a tool to continue checking in,” they said. “‘Green’ means ‘this feels great,’ ‘yellow’ means ‘I'm not sure about this or I want to pause,’ and ‘red’ means ‘I need to stop.’”Gender dysphoria gives us an opportunity to think creatively about sex. If you take the time to experiment and practice clear communication, you’ll find words, toys, and techniques that work for you and make you feel amazing. Above all, remember: There’s no wrong way to bang, as long as you and your partners feel like your hottest selves as you do it. Get out there and go wild.Follow Ro White on Twitter.