Research Shows Many Trans Folks' Sexual Attractions Change After Transition
Toby was exclusively attracted to women before he transitioned. Now he’s attracted to men, too.
BY ZHANA VRANGALOVA
Toby was assigned female at birth. While living as a woman, he was attracted almost exclusively to women. But when he started taking
testosterone at age 22, that began to change. “It was like a switch got flipped inside my brain,” he says. “I’d never really thought of men in
a sexual way, and then all of a sudden, I’d look at some guys and have all these sexual fantasies about them.”
Toby’s story is far from unique.
Several studies suggest that changes in sexual orientation among trans people are quite common. Among 115 Dutch participants, for
example, 33% of trans women and 22% of trans men reported experiencing changes in their sexual attractions. This was true of 49% of
trans masculine and 64% of trans feminine individuals in a 2015 study of 452 participants from Massachusetts, with the majority of these
changes occurring after social transition. In another 2013 study of 507 U.S. trans men who’ve started transitioning (including hormones
and/or surgery), 40% reported some shift in sexual attractions. Almost identical results were found in a 2005 study of 232 U.S. trans
women who had undergone surgical and hormonal transition, where 43% reported significant shifts in their sexual orientation (of 2+
points along the 7-point Kinsey scale).
Most of these changes include shifts from exclusive attraction to one gender pre-transition toward some level of bisexuality post-transition,
as was the case with Toby, who declined to share his last name. But some people claim almost complete reversal of their sexual
orientation. For example, 13% of the trans women in the 2005 study switched from exclusive or primary attraction to women to exclusive or
primary attraction to men (there were no such drastic changes among those who were initially attracted to men). Of the trans men in the
2013 study who were initially attracted to either men or women, 6-7% experienced a complete reversal.
(All of these studies asked only about attractions toward men and women, so we don’t know about participants’ attractions to other trans
or genderqueer people.)
Why these changes happen is less clear, and like many things in psychology, this may be a question with several correct answers.
Although we tend to think of sexual orientation as something fixed at birth (determined by our genes and prenatal hormone exposure) and
usually unchangeable thereafter, it is undoubtedly fluid to some extent, so shifts in attraction could be no different from those that happen
to many cisgender folks as well. Research with cisgender populations finds that almost 20% of young adult women and 5% of men report
changes in their attractions over a 5-year period. But these general population numbers are much lower than those found in trans
populations, suggesting there are likely other factors at play among trans folks.
Perhaps the most obvious candidate is the hormonal changes that trans people undergo as part of their transition. While the exact ways
androgens and estrogens influence sexual orientation are not yet understood, most scholars agree that hormones — at least as far as
prenatal exposure goes — play an important role. And many trans folks themselves directly link these changes in attractions to the
hormones they are taking or suppressing.
Another possibility is that the changes in sexual attractions are precipitated by the physical changes that trans people experience after
hormonal or surgical treatments. Dr. Seth Pardo, PhD, a behavioral health epidemiologist at the San Francisco Department of Public
Health who has done research on transgender issues (and who happens to be a trans man who did not experience notable shifts in his
sexual attractions over the course of his transition) explains how the lack of alignment between a person’s gender identity and their body
can be an obstacle to sexual attractions, especially if those attractions carry more physical, social, and psychological risks.
“Imagine you’re in a female body and you identify on the masculine spectrum.
You don’t want to be sexual with men, because those men would treat you as
a female-bodied person, and that kind of sexual interaction is not of interest to
you. So even if you did have attractions for men, you might not engage with
men or even indulge in fantasies about men until you can be witnessed as and
interacted with in your affirmed gender.”
Men, in particular, can also be more physically dangerous than women, something that Toby, as a relatively small person, was always
acutely aware of. “I didn’t want them seeing me and sexually objectifying me as a woman, but even worse, the possibility that they could
hurt me if they got angry about my gender identity or my body was always in the back of my mind.”
Having a body that matches your gender identity and that you feel comfortable in allows you to expand the genders that you feel
comfortable interacting with.
Dulcinea Pitagora [DulcineaPitagora.com], a queer psychotherapist and sex therapist who specializes in working with gender and sexual
minorities, describes other ways physical changes can lead to sexual expansion. “Some clients who are masculinizing or feminizing
through hormone replacement therapy and experience changes in skin texture and body hair might become attracted to or fascinated by
their own bodies, sometimes by virtue of feeling sexier in their own body, and look for that in new partners in a way they hadn’t before. For
others, they may want more of a contrast in others’ bodies in order to more fully appreciate the changes in their own body, and look for
someone that expresses gender much differently than they do.”
It remains unclear to what extent these shifts represent brand new attractions that never existed before versus attractions that already
existed to some extent but were suppressed or dismissed. Some trans people report clear pre-transition desires to one or the other
gender that they actively suppressed, in many cases because they were trying to fit in with the heterosexual norm given their gender
assigned at birth. As one trans woman explained in an older 1998 study: “I couldn’t be attracted to a guy when I was a guy because that
would make me gay.” Others remember only fleeting attractions that were not very strong until their social and/or physical transition
allowed them to enjoy and embrace these more challenging feelings. And some don’t acknowledge any pre-transition attractions toward
the “new” gender.
Experiencing these shifts is not always easy. “I know it involves another coming out, a third coming out,” says Dr. Pardo. “You had your
sexual orientation before you transitioned, then you come out about your gender transition, now you're coming out again about another
sexual orientation?” But while these changes can sometimes be frustrating and unsettling, it’s important to remember they are not only
perfectly normal, but can also lead to new discoveries, and enrich trans people’s lives in beautiful and unexpected ways.
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