When transmasculine people start taking testosterone, as many (but not all) do as part of their transitions, most experience a sort of ”second puberty,” a rush of physical and mental-emotional changes. Often this includes a swift and substantial surge in sex drive.
The extent of this boost varies from person to person: While libido is often portrayed as a simple reflection of hormone levels, it’s actually the product of a slew of complex factors—an equation that experts are still puzzling out. Notably, the alleviation of gender dysphoria that often comes with going on T can reduce a person's stress levels and increase their comfort in their own skin. Those changes themselves can trigger an uptick in libido. The initial surge in sex drive that comes with taking T also typically abates over the course of a few months or years, eventually leveling off into a new baseline of sexual interest and urges.
Any sudden burst of sex drive can be a lot to handle, though, and any sort of "new normal" always takes some adjustment. This is why discussions about how to work through shifts in libido while starting T often come up on trans forums and within trans groups.
However, beyond these communities, it’s shockingly hard to find information on how to manage the effects of notable spikes in a person's sex drive. In an effort to expand conversations on this topic, VICE spoke to River Patrascu, a trans man who started taking testosterone in mid-2019, and his partner, Devon Storm, a cis woman, about how they’ve approached shifts in and imbalances between their sex drives in recent years.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
River: This is obviously subjective, but before going on T, I had a fairly high interest in sex, and I masturbated most days. But I didn’t have a high libido—a physical urge to have sex. For most of my life, having sex wasn’t so much about my physical pleasure as it was about seeking validation. I didn’t even let other people touch me that much whenever I had sex.
Within two months of going on T, I suddenly had an insatiable sex drive. It got to the point where I couldn’t think straight unless I took time out of my day to go have an orgasm. I needed to get that done. It never stopped me from going to work or anything like that, but my body was definitely screaming for more stimulation and release than my mind ever had before. Before I started this part of my transition, if I was depressed or just not in the mood, I wouldn’t feel a need to masturbate. I could sometimes go months without any kind of sex, even solo play, and be fine. After going on T, my body wouldn’t allow for that kind of break.
The changes in anatomy that come with going on T can play a role in this as well. Your clitoris gets bigger, for example. So you may be more aware of it than you were before. Like, I would walk up the stairs early on after I started taking T and go, Oh shit, I feel that more than I used to.
I was with a different partner at that time, who I’d been dating before I started to transition. There were moments when I felt like I had to have sex, and she wasn’t up for it. We had conversations where I was like, “I don’t want to pressure you into anything, but this urge is making me physically uncomfortable, and I don’t know what to do.” My partner was very patient with me. She helped me get used to the idea that I needed to masturbate more in order to handle those physical urges when she wasn’t in the mood to have sex.
We shared a house with other people, so it wasn’t like I could just pop out to the living room to take care of things, though. I had to learn that sometimes it’s OK to masturbate next to a consenting partner. It took a while for that solution to grow on me because I was still figuring out how to feel comfortable with and in my own body, and masturbating next to someone is really vulnerable. But learning to do that did help me get more comfortable with my body, with my sexual boundaries, and with the idea of being vulnerable like that with a partner.
I’d been on testosterone for about a year by the time I met Devon. My urges had mellowed out a bit, and I’d gained some control over those feelings. But charting where I was sexually compared to a cis man’s experience [laughs], I was probably still like a teenage boy. My libido definitely hadn’t leveled out yet. That’s really only happened for me over the last few months.
Devon: Yeah, over the last six months maybe.
River: I’d say that it’s still higher than it ever was before, though. Also, when we met I’d transitioned to a point where I felt good about myself. I still had some body dysphoria whenever I felt like I wasn’t passing, but I was overall in a good place, and that comfort plays a role in increasing libido, too. It’s impossible to put a number on how much change stems from hormones and how much is related to those psychological factors, though.
I could sometimes go months without any kind of sex, even solo play, and be fine. After going on T, my body wouldn’t allow for that kind of break.
Devon: When we met, I’d recently broken up with a partner who I felt had restrained me in terms of my ability to be openly pansexual. I finally felt free, so I went wild and hoed out for a bit. I matched with River on Tinder during that period. I didn’t expect to get into a serious relationship. Sometimes you meet the person you want to be with, though, and any expectations you had just go away. But early on River got this version of me who wanted to have sex all the time.
River: It’s common for most new relationships, whatever the dynamic: You fall head over heels in lust, and for the first couple of weeks or months, you have sex multiple times a day. But eventually, as a relationship goes on, you start to find the balance between your libidos. So I went back to wanting but not necessarily needing to have sex every day. And Devon seemed like she went back toward a lower baseline libido.
Devon: Yeah, if I’m stressed out or my world feels disorganized, it’s hard to focus on sex, which I’ve always seen as a reward I get to indulge in if I take care of everything in my life. I also didn’t realize it before River and I talked through this, but I was constantly dealing with a lot of anxiety and depression. So I never considered myself a very sexual, high-libido person, even during periods of time when I was having a lot of sex.
As an aside, before I acknowledged my issues and went on Prozac to help address them, when I was anxious, I’d bite my nails like wild as a stress behavior. That made me hate the prospect of having sex at times, because lube, cum, or any fluid on my hangnails felt so painful.
My longest relationship before this one was with an AFAB person who identified as female. We had the common experience of lesbian bed death, where after a while sex didn’t matter. We went through life like best friends and we were fine. So I didn’t see the change in my sex life with River sex life as a big deal. No one had ever challenged me to think critically or differently about my relationship to sex.
Before River and I got together, I also didn’t know how testosterone could affect a person’s sex drive. Actually, one of the first things I told him was, “I need you to know that I know nothing about the trans experience.” The work I’ve had to do to try to understand that experience in all aspects of River’s life, not just in terms of sex, has been a huge aspect of our relationship.
River: Eventually, I had to bring up the imbalance in our sex drives that’d become apparent. I said, “Hey, mismatched libidos are totally fine. There are ways to deal with this. Some people handle it with open relationships.” To which Devon said, “Nope.” I listed a few other options, but no solution I proposed seemed to sit well with her.
So, I said, “I’ll be open with you: I can just masturbate if I’m feeling an immediate sexual urge, but I can’t maintain a long-term monogamous relationship with somebody whose sex drive is as low compared to mine as yours seems to be now, and we can’t agree on a solution.” Because it’s not just about missing orgasms; I can quickly and easily give myself those any time. I actually really enjoy masturbating because it’s a good way of discovering what my body can do now. I’m still discovering new sensations. The problem was that I was looking for a general sense of sexual intimacy with Devon that I just wasn’t getting. That was an uncomfortable thing to feel and to acknowledge openly.
Devon: This was a big issue in our relationship. I know River questioned my attraction to him, but the sex we did have was always way more fulfilling than any other sex I’d had before. I never felt unattracted to him or like I was just obligated by our relationship to be with him.
River: We had one big conversation about this where we both started to get angry at each other, so we decided to go talk in a nearby park. I told Devon I didn’t feel intimate with her anymore. It wasn’t just that we weren’t having sex. She didn’t want to cuddle in bed. She didn’t come up and hold or kiss me. We just felt physically distant. I tried to explain that, to me, it felt like that prevented a sense of closeness—my ability to get, for lack of better words, to the core of her, to connect on a deeper level. And she said, “I don’t get this at all.”
Devon: I was mad at River! I felt like he was making everything so convoluted. I didn’t get why he was making a big deal out of this, but also my heart was breaking because he told me that while he didn’t want me to feel pressured, he did need this in a relationship, and I didn’t feel like I could give it to him. I was frustrated that I was in this predicament. I was hard on myself.
You fall head over heels in lust, and for the first couple of weeks or months, you have sex multiple times a day. But eventually, as a relationship goes on, you start to find the balance between your libidos.
River: Devon begrudgingly agreed to give more intimacy a shot, but I had to take the reins on that effort—which was fine. I wasn’t regimented about that. I didn't try to set a regular schedule for having sex or anything. Instead I noticed chances for intimate touch and acted on them. Like, I’d throw Devon up on the kitchen counter and make out with her, then back off. Sometimes Devon got horny and we had sex and sometimes not. Part of this was demonstrating, slowly, through practice that we could be sexual, even if Devon hadn’t taken care of all the things she was stressed about and that being sexual doesn’t have to lead to penetrative sex or orgasm. Like, I can be in the kitchen, think, Devon’s ass looks good when she’s cooking risotto, and act on that urge by kissing and touching her without moving toward more. And if we have sex, we don’t feel any pressure to both cum. We can stop after two minutes if we want to. It’s not like the pressure many people feel when sleeping with cis men.
Devon: I’d mostly slept with cishet men in the period before I got together with River. I feel like I’d been brainwashed into believing all this stuff about sex, like that it had to involve penetration. We’ve reached a point now where both of us are like, Meh, we could live without penile penetration for the rest of our lives. As River tried to show me a different kind of sexual intimacy, I felt like, I'm getting this, but change is uncomfortable. Thank goodness for his perseverance because not a lot of people would deal with that right after the honeymoon phase.
River: I spent plenty of my life as a woman. I’d viewed sex as a commodity for the other person; even when I was enjoying it, I felt like I was giving something away to, or being used by, my partners in some sense. I understood why somebody who’d predominately slept with cis men might have that perception of sex. Also I adored Devon.
So I said, “If this is something you want to work on to find a balance between our drives and abilities, then I’m all here for it.” But I was always ready for Devon to tell me she just couldn’t give me what I needed. I always told her that I cared about her, and because of that, I wanted her to be free to take care of her own needs, even if that meant finding another partner who’d be able to better meet her where she was.
Around the time we were re-exploring intimacy, Devon went on Prozac. That helped us.
Devon: I’m not saying it’s the only thing that could have helped me, but medication really did help me manage my anxiety and depression in ways that allowed my libido to increase—although not to River’s level.
River: Being a person who lived most of his life as a woman and now is on testosterone and has a libido that's probably more aligned with that of a cis man (although I can't say that for sure), I feel like I have a kind of superpower I've been able to share with Devon. It’s a beautiful thing. Her inclination might be to have less sex than I might want to, but we get to break down gender norms and ask each other what sex really means and what it is we want out of it. I think that transfers into Devon feeling more comfortable having more sexual contact.
Devon: Yeah, it feels safe. My sex drive has gotten a bit higher in general as we’ve worked through these issues and gotten to a place where things are just really good in our relationship.
River: Over the last few months, my libido has plateaued. I’ve ultimately gone from maybe wanting to have sex three times a week before I went on testosterone, to being down for sex at least five times a week—but I don’t feel a huge need to have sex now. I still get a random itch in the middle of the day sometimes that makes me really feel a need to masturbate, but that’s easy peasy, done-and-dusted in five minutes. It’s no big deal.
Devon: River is really good at sneaky masturbation. I rarely notice when he ducks out. I just find little signs—like this bottle of lube politely tucked into a corner of our coffee table here! [Laughs] But it’s great to see River exploring himself in moments of comfort. It’s great to see him have moments of gender euphoria. Thanks, testosterone!
River: I’m not necessarily trying to be sneaky. It only takes a few minutes!
We’ve also reached this point of comfort with each other where, if there’s a lull in our sex life, it’s not a big issue.
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