How To Access Pleasure if Gender Dysphoria Is a Barrier

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Everyone deserves pleasure, but not everyone has the same access to it. Intimate justice, a term coined by psychologist and researcher Sara McClelland, PhD, is a framework that examines how systemic oppression affects your ability to experience, imagine, and believe you deserve a fulfilling sexual and romantic life. For many trans and non-binary people, gender dysphoria can function as a barrier to accessing sexual pleasure—a barrier that this community tends to experience more than folks with non-oppressed identifiers, like being cisgender, straight, white, able-bodied, or thin. But, there are tools to help overcome the barrier and experience pleasure.

I'm a gender and sex therapist with over 10 years of experience, and I'm also a non-binary person. I’ve seen sexual pleasure for trans and non-binary folks function as a beacon of profound gender euphoria, connection, and spiritual recharging. Even so, it’s tough to imagine the experience of sexual pleasure when you’ve never experienced it, don’t see people like you or relationships like yours depicted in media, are dealing with negative societal messages about your body and identity, and are managing life in a country that doesn’t celebrate or support who you are. And for many trans and non-binary people, that's exactly the case.

On this episode of The Well+Good Podcast, McDaniel discusses their new book, Gender Magic, which serves as a guide for trans and non-binary folks to live shamelessly, reclaim joy, and step into their most authentic selves.

Many trans folks experience varying degrees of gender dysphoria, which describes a distressing disconnect between sex assigned at birth and gender identity. The specifics on how gender dysphoria shows up is unique for each person, but some ways it can present in sexual situations is feeling disconnected from or numb to body sensations, not wanting certain body parts to be touched in particular ways, getting stuck in your head about how a partner is perceiving you, or feeling conflicted about desiring specific sexual roles or acts because you fear it will somehow make you less valid in your gender identity.

Compounding the issue of gender dysphoria complicating pleasure for many trans and non-binary people is the generally lacking and narrow scope of sex education that most people receive, which focuses purely on cisgender and straight identities. This renders a popularized understanding of sex that's restrictive, gendered, and binary.

The good news is that upon becoming aware of the barriers in the way of accessing pleasure and tools that can help you overcome those barriers, finding pleasure becomes accessible to everyone. If you’re struggling to find pleasure in your body right now, know that you are entirely normal, and there are tools that can help you change that reality.

5 tips for accessing pleasure in your body, even if gender dysphoria is a barrier

1. Have respect for your body

A helpful mindset shift is to let go of the need to love your body all the time in order to feel pleasure in it. Loving your body as a foundation for pleasure is a high standard that can be difficult if not impossible to meet when dealing with gender dysphoria.

Instead of body love, I prefer body respect, which means that, even if you don’t love every part of your body every second, you can still show it kindness and allow yourself to experience pleasure.

That's why instead of body love, I prefer the concept of body respect. Body respect means that, even if you don’t love every part of your body every second, you can still show it kindness and allow yourself to experience pleasure. Body respect is more about action than attitude. It’s consciously choosing to be gentle with yourself, believing you deserve pleasure, and taking action toward things you know bring you pleasure or encourage curiosity.

3. Don’t gender it

Your biggest sex organ isn’t your brain; it’s your skin. And skin isn’t gendered. For many transgender and non-binary folks, navigating where and how we want to be touched can be challenging. Certain body parts carry with them gendered associations—like chests, hips, and our reproductive organs.

However, reframing all parts of our bodies as just skin that has the possibility of giving way to yummy sensations can remove the gendered pressure. Thinking of your body as just skin also frees you to play with new ways of touching, naming, and experiencing body parts about which you might have conflicting feelings.

4. Gender it

I know I said not to gender it, but stick with me. It can be a blast to gender the hell out of bodies during a sexual or erotic experience—but with a catch. You get to gender your body (and ask a partner to do the same) in whatever way feels the most affirming to you. Use the words you like for your bits, use whatever names and pronouns you want, and ask for gendered dirty talk that makes the hairs on your neck stand up in delight. You get to play. You get to imagine and re-imagine. Have fun!

5. Queer it up

Sex education often presents sex as looking a certain way based on your gender and sexual role. How boring! Queering something means considering how society’s boxes aren’t serving you and might actually be limiting you. One way to queer up sexual pleasure is to decenter genitals and orgasm. When you focus on indulging in pleasurable sensations in your body instead of rushing toward a perceived finish line of orgasm, you remove the pressure from sex looking any particular way. As long as you (and consenting partner(s)) are having fun, the rest is just details.

6. Do it for the Revolution

The Black feminist poet Audre Lorde, a personal hero of mine, talks about pleasure and the erotic as resistance to oppression in her essay, Uses of the Erotic. Creating space for erotic pleasure in our lives, whatever that looks like to you, is about much more than personal fulfillment. When we tap into pleasure in our bodies, we are tapping into creative energy, connection, a feeling of being alive, and the deep "yes" of our intuition. This connection to both ourselves and others through pleasure reminds us of the world we want to create, how we want to feel, and makes us less likely to accept a life and a world where we don’t get to experience those things.

For more intel on living authentically as a trans or non-binary person, listen to McDaniel's full conversation on The Well+Good Podcast here.

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