I began writing this essay months ago and set it aside after feeling it may be too explicit. But after reading Andrea Long Chu's pessimistic New York Times op-ed titled "My New Vagina Won't Make Me Happy," I felt the need to share my story regardless of how revealing it may be, in an attempt to counteract the power mainstream media has held over trans narratives for way too long.
While the transition process is not an easy one, it is merely a slight portion of the trans experience. One that can be compared to puberty -- a time that is confusing, lonely, vulnerable and depressing for all of us, regardless of gender. But for some reason, the sensationalism of a before and after story is what media, journalists, producers and writers seem to focus on as opposed to being progressive and exposing further nuances of our experience.
Unlike Karley Sciortino, a friend of mine who was one of the first to allow me to express the beauty of sex after transitioning when she interviewed me for her Breathless column in Vogue -- a piece titled "Why One Woman Wants to Talk About Sex After Surgery" -- most mainstream voices in media are afraid of portraying trans women as desirable. This may be due to the fact that most media is produced by and for a male gaze that fears the fact that trans women are desired by cis het men -- the same men who have fulfilling sexual encounters with us.
Mainstream media seems to be caught in a chasm between sad trans narratives and trying to understand us, and it's within this confusion that we are marginalized and our fight for respect and basic human rights is called into question. The sad trans narrative also makes it easier for our oppressors to paint us as mental cases and messes. It validates their confusion and empowers them to continue ostracizing us as well as those who love and desire us. The more these sad stories are told, the more we internalize them and feed them back to our own communities, making it easier to stew in our own sadness than pursue a life of fulfillment.
So now, I'll do my part to counter this narrative by tossing my story into the ether -- regardless of how revealing or explicit it may be.
Early in my transition, I was fed pessimistic anecdotes by other trans women, and ended up carrying these perspectives with me throughout my trans adolescence. I was told I would never get a job so I should pursue sex work, that I would never be loved because a man would always leave me for a cis person, and that if I pursued reassignment surgery I would never experience the true pleasure that cis women experience.
I was told not to be proud of my transness and instead should pursue the cis American dream of white picket fences and fear. I used these ideas to validate my low self-esteem and insecurities and they enabled me from taking responsibility for a darkness that existed within me, beyond gender issues.
Thankfully, once I grew past my transition, I took responsibility for the emotions I let dictate my life choices. I eventually learned that these negative notions were not only completely false, but were fed to me by a system that wants to keep us oppressed, a system that doesn't want us to pursue our truths or have access to the joy and depths of pleasure that await us when we do.
I am aware that trans bodies exist on a spectrum. I always wished I could be like girls who embrace their bodies without longing for confirmation surgery.
For a long time, I tried, but eventually had to face the fact that I was on another end of the spectrum. For me, it wasn't about sex, it was about being naked and feeling free in my own skin. But nonetheless, all roads eventually lead to sex and being uncomfortable in your own skin definitely has an affect on one's sex life. It always took time for me to let go with lovers and when I finally did, I still had internal boundaries.
I never fully embraced the idea of receiving pleasure. I focused solely on this submissive need to please, which may have been innate, but was further fed by my insecurity. I wasn't able to let go and fully connect with partners, and therefore there was a limit to my love.
Making the decision to undergo confirmation surgery felt like I was standing on the edge of a building, wondering whether or not I should jump. I knew once I made the decision and let that morphine lull me to sleep, there would be no turning back and I had to accept whatever the consequences may be. I chose a surgeon in Thailand because he came highly recommended -- and his services included a month of supervised recovery.
During my consultation, we spoke about my sexual goals and whether I cared more about penetration or clitoral sensation. This would determine where he would focus the redistribution of tissue and nerve endings. I answered that both were a priority for me, but there was always a voice inside telling me to forget pleasure and simply hope to get beyond the pain. I weighed all the options and decided I was willing to take the risks. And so I creeped toward the edge of that building, looked down at the street beneath, jumped, and never looked back.
I was bedridden for a month. I stayed in a hotel affiliated with the surgery center and nurses came to check in on a daily basis. They assured me I was healing when I thought I was ruined and helped me face my fear of vaginal dilation, the process of maintaining neo vaginal depth and width. An integral part of post operative care that while painful at first eventually became somewhat of a pleasure.
One night, in the dark chill of my air-conditioned room, I began my dilation routine. Holding the dilator inside me, I decided to explore rather than simply hold it in place as suggested. My fear of injury began to subside and my movements slowly began to accelerate. I could feel myself pushing at a point of pleasure deep within and what was once a routine requirement became a beautiful moment of self pleasure.
To my surprise a quavering wave of ecstasy began rising within me -- a feeling I'd never experienced before. Orgasms used to be urgent and violent but this was a rising tide that plateaued and rose higher each time it resurfaced, repeating itself. The moment of release instead became a drawn-out sensation that gave way to an explosive inner orgasm.
I was in shock.
As I began to catch my breath and wrap my head around what had occurred, my delight turned to terror when I realized my bed sheets were soaking wet. Fearful I had torn something and was bleeding, I snapped out of my state of bliss, reached for the nightstand, switched on the light and pulled back the comforter to investigate. There was no blood, but the sheets were indeed wet, and so was I.
Could it have been from my orgasm? No one ever spoke to me about orgasms or self-lubricating post surgery. Self-lubrication was not something I ever expected to experience in my lifetime. My confusion and curiosity led to a second attempt at achieving orgasm -- this time with the lights on.
Once again my orgasm began to rise and gave way to the tide that rose in me moments before. Much to my delight, a beautiful translucent fluid began to flow from me and down onto the sheets as I came. This was beyond any expectations I had and I was now full of hope and excitement for what my sex life could become.
But the road to rediscovering my body and how it related to sex and pleasure wasn't always rainbows and orgasms.
After settling into the idea that receiving pleasure was even an option, I had to then realize there was a huge difference between pleasing myself and being pleased by others. I was also so set in my submissive ways that I didn't realize I had conditioned myself not to be pleased by others at all, let alone expect it. I began by exploring with lovers I had been with in the past who were eager to show me how they could please me post-op.
Soon I learned that wanting to please didn't mean they were any good at it, and one thing I never took into account was how it would affect me when they weren't. I went through a phase of blaming myself for every bad sexual experience I had. I told myself it was my fault because my vagina wasn't the same as others. I was once again using my transness to validate insecurities instead of allowing myself to explore and seek solutions.
Blaming things on your transness is a self-fulfilling prophecy: you decide "it is what it is" and settle into a false but inevitable demise. But I hadn't come this far to give up now, and I was determined to break through my pessimism, even if it meant kissing a lot of frogs before doing so, or in this case, being eaten out by them.
One of my first experiences receiving oral sex post-op was a nightmare. It was painful and lasted way too long. I was confused as to why it wasn't the same as when I masturbated. At this point I had mastered inner and outer orgasms on my own and assumed it would be just as easy with lovers. I was finally comfortable enough with my body to let go and allow myself to receive pleasure but I soon realized that when a lover tries to please you without actually paying attention to what does or does not bring you pleasure, it just doesn't work.
I also realized that for the first time, my body was now directly connected to my mind and if I wasn't fully present or invested in a sexual encounter, neither was my vagina.
It wasn't until I met a lover who was extremely attentive to what turned me on that I began to realize the power of being mentally invested. We were friends before lovers and there was a level of comfort between us that I'd never experienced with other partners.
We talked openly about pleasure and explored each others' bodies, learning what worked and what didn't. My mind and body were finally in synch and I began to expand and even lubricate during peaks of penetrative pleasure. We listened and learned from one another, allowing for a reciprocal exchange of energy and pleasure to flow between us, and I was even able to give into my submissive nature while receiving all that I was giving in return.
It's a shame our connection didn't last, but it taught me a lesson outside of sex, that love is not a beast you can tame like an orgasm.
I've since become way more in tune with my sex and sexuality and the power my body has over itself and others. I'm now more invested in my sexual experiences and the partners I choose to allow into my life and body. There was a time when I longed to see myself through someone else and based my womanhood on the amount of desire in their eyes, but I'm no longer interested in external validation or unfulfilling sexual encounters.
Sex should be an investment and I finally see the power of owning and investing in one's body. There's power in knowing how to please and love yourself because it teaches you how to be pleased and loved by others.
It's amazing what the human body can achieve and teach you when you refuse to limit your mind and allow it to become one with the rest of you. I no longer allow myself or others to blame anything on my transness nor do I view it as something that limits me.
My transition taught me the value in reaching for my truth. It also showed me that investing in self-confidence is paramount to exploring all the nuances of pleasure that exist within me. It's taught me lessons beyond sex and has made me aware of the transformative power we possess when mind, body, and spirit are in tune. It's kept me grounded in joy and pleasure regardless of limits placed on me and my community by those who choose to portray us as lost and broken.
And I see now that those who view us as weak are merely observing a projection of themselves, and although they may have power over media they will never have power over the body I've invested in, nor the pleasure I now allow myself to receive.
Nomi Ruiz is a writer, singer, songwriter, and producer. Follow her on Instagram @nomiruiz.