Orgasm after Vaginoplasty

Orgasm and sexual pleasure are important goals of gender reassignment surgery (GRS). Most trans women report being able to orgasm after penile-inversion vaginoplasty with clitoroplasty using the glans penis.* However, some are not able to orgasm and some report difficulty orgasming.

Two large studies found that 18% of trans women were not able to orgasm by masturbation after surgery. In one of the studies an additional 30% of the women had difficulty orgasming from masturbation.

The number of women who couldn’t orgasm went down to 14% or 15% when they included all sexual activities.

Other recent studies** have found numbers of anorgasmic women ranging from 0% to 52%, although most results were close to 18%.

It is clear that a significant percentage of trans women are not able to orgasm after this type of vaginoplasty, but it is not clear exactly how many.

SOME RECENT STUDIES OF ORGASM AFTER GRS

There were five studies where the women had clearly been sexually active:

Lawrence, 2005 – anonymous questionnaires from 232 trans women, 227 answered the question on orgasm by masturbation:

18% were never able to achieve orgasm by masturbation.

15% were rarely able to orgasm with masturbation.

15% were able to orgasm less than half the time by masturbation.

However, it seems that only 15% were completely unable to orgasm. “About 85% of participants who responded to questions about orgasm were orgasmic in some manner after SRS [GRS].” 

Imbimbo et al., 2009 – 139 trans women (93 questionnaires at clinic, 46 phone interviews):

14% of the trans women complained of anorgasmia

18% of the trans women were never able to orgasm by masturbation (out of 33 women who masturbated)

33% of the trans women were never able to orgasm by vaginal intercourse and 25% seldom orgasmed this way (out of 60 women having vaginal intercourse)

22% of the trans women were never able to orgasm by anal sex and 13% seldom did (out of 75 women having anal sex)

56 women had oral sex, but the study gives no numbers for orgasm.

Buncamper et al., 2015 – 49 trans women completed questionnaires:

10% had not had orgasm after surgery, although they had tried.

Selvaggi et al., 2007 – 30 trans women were personally interviewed by a team of experts:***

15% had not experienced orgasm after surgery during any sexual practice.

Giraldo et al., 2004  – 16 trans women were given structured interviews at follow-up visits:

0% had problems – all the women reported the ability to achieve orgasm

Note: This study is about a modification to the technique for creating a clitoris.

There is one study where 18% of the women never orgasmed after surgery, but it is not clear if they were sexually active or not:

Hess et al., 2014 – 119 trans women completed anonymous questionnaires, 91 answered the question “How easy it is for you to achieve orgasm?”:

18% said they never achieve orgasm

19% said it was rarely easy for them to achieve orgasm

The other studies above asked about sexual activity or gave the women an option to say the question did not apply or they had not tried. This one did not.

On the other hand, some people did not answer the question, so perhaps women who were not sexually active skipped the question on orgasm.

There are three studies that only give brief information on how many women could orgasm; it is not clear what is going on with the rest of the women.

Perovic et al., 2000 – 89 trans women were interviewed:

It looks like 18% had not experienced orgasm during vaginal sex, but it is possible that some of the women were not sexually active.

“Information on sensitivity and orgasm was obtained by interviewing the patients; the sensitivity was reportedly good in 83, while 73 patients had experienced orgasm.”

and

“If the penile skin is insufficient, the creation of the vagina depends on the urethral flap, which also provides moisture and sensitivity to the neovagina. The results of the interviews showed that orgasm was mainly dependent on the urethral flap.”

Goddard et al., 2007 – 70 trans women were interviewed by a telephone questionnaire; 64 of them had had a clitoroplasty:

It looks like 52% of the women with clitorises were not able to achieve clitoral orgasm, but again it is not clear if they were sexually active.

“Clitoral sensation was reported by 64 patients who had a neoclitoris formed and 31 (48%) were able to achieve clitoral orgasm.”

14% of the women complained of “uncomfortable clitoral sensation.”****

Wagner et al. (2010), – 50 trans women completed a questionnaire:

It looks like between 17% and 30% were not able to achieve clitoral orgasm.

“Of the 50 patients, 35 (70%) reported achieving clitoral orgasm” but

“90% of the patients were satisfied with the esthetic results and 84% reported having regular sexual intercourse, of whom 35 had clitoral orgasm.” 

If we look only at the group having regular intercourse, 17% of them are not having clitoral orgasms. But were the women not having intercourse masturbating and unable to orgasm? If so, they were also sexually active and the 30% number is the relevant one.

The study gives very little information on the questionnaire and results, but it seems surprising that 83% of the women were having clitoral orgasms from sexual intercourse; that is not typical in cis women.

A final study asked about pleasurable sexual intercourse, not orgasm:

Salvador et al., 2012 – 52 trans women participated in the study. It is unclear how they were surveyed, but based on this earlier study, it could have been a combination of a questionnaire and interview.

8% did not consider vaginal sex pleasurable.

However, only one woman said sexual intercourse was unsatisfactory (2%) while 10% of the women said it was average; presumably some of the women who said it was average also said it was pleasurable and some did not.

About Orgasms

Freud believed that women had vaginal and clitoral orgasms; unfortunately he also believed that vaginal orgasms were superior and mature women should give up clitoral orgasms. In the 1960s Masters and Johnson showed the physiological basis for clitoral orgasms in the lab; they argued that orgasms during intercourse were also clitoral orgasms, just harder to achieve. More recently, some sexologists have shown that some women have G-spot orgasms during intercourse, although not all experts believe in them.

For most women it is easiest to have an orgasm from masturbation or clitoral stimulation. Most women are not able to have clitoral orgasms during vaginal intercourse without additional clitoral stimulation. Some women experience other types of orgasms during vaginal intercourse.

Although trans women’s biology is somewhat different from cis women’s, their clitorises are formed from the most sensitive area of the penis. Therefore, we might expect trans women to have orgasms most easily from masturbation of the clitoris; the study by Imbimbo et al. that compares different sexual activities supports this hypothesis.

It also makes sense that when we look at orgasms from all sexual activities, we find more trans women are able to orgasm than when we look at just clitoral orgasms; some trans women may be having G-spot orgasms involving their prostate gland.

Interestingly, Imbimbo et al. found that it was easier for trans women to have orgasms from anal sex than vaginal sex (65% of the women often had orgasm from anal sex, 35% seldom or never did; 42% of the women always or often had orgasm from vaginal sex and 58% seldom or never did). Furthermore, more of the trans women were having anal sex than vaginal sex (54% versus 43%). Perhaps they had more experience with anal sex before surgery or perhaps anal sex worked better for some women.

Studies that simply ask about orgasm without talking about what type of orgasm or sexual activity is involved do not give enough information about what is happening. Future studies that include this information would make it easier to compare the results and to improve outcomes.

Comparing the Studies

It is difficult to compare the results of the studies. The studies are of surgery at different clinics around the world; the work is being done by different surgeons and may involve variations in technique. Some of the surgeries are more recent than others as well.

In addition, the studies use different methodologies to collect data and they do not ask the same questions. Some are focused on clitoral orgasms, others talk about orgasm during intercourse, some studies talk about masturbation, and some are vague about what they mean by orgasm.

As is common in follow-up studies, almost all of the studies had a significant drop-out rate; not everyone who had the surgery participated in the study. This could create a bias in either direction – people who regret the surgery might be too depressed to respond to the clinic or people who were dissatisfied might be more motivated to participate in the study.

The method of the study could also introduce biases; people may be more likely to tell the truth in an anonymous survey than in an interview. On the other hand, interviews may allow for follow-up questions and clarifications.

With only 10 studies that are so different it is impossible to come to any definitive conclusions about orgasm after GRS. I like to believe that Goddard et al.’s numbers of anorgasmic women are so high because some of them were sexually inactive or because their study included women 9-96 months after surgery. It could also be something to do with their surgical technique. After all Perovic’s et al.’s study also included women 0.25-6 years after surgery and some of them may have been sexually inactive, but their numbers were much better.

I suspect that the reason all of Giraldo et al.’s patients were orgasmic is that their sample size is so small, but again, it could be that they have a superior technique.

It might be that Buncamper et al. had better numbers than most of the studies because their patients had surgery more recently with improved techniques, but it might also be because their study was smaller.

With so few studies, I could find no clear pattern based on when people had surgery, how data was collected, or follow-up time after surgery. For further information on the studies, see this appendix.

What is clear is that we need more research on patients who are not able to orgasm after surgery. Are some people more at risk than others? Does the surgical technique make a difference? What role does aftercare play?

Is being non-orgasmic just a possible complication of the surgery? If so, how common is it?

And most important, what can be done to enable all trans women to be able to orgasm after surgery?

 

 

 

*I did not find data on orgasm after intestinal vaginoplasty. According to this 2014 review of studies, most studies of intestinal vaginoplasty did not look at sexual function; for those that did the review reports a score for sexuality rather than information on orgasms.

** I have excluded studies published before 1994 and studies where all of the surgeries were performed before 1994. The studies by Imbimbo et al. and Selvaggi et al. may include some participants who had surgery before 1994.

*** The exact number of the participants is unclear because this study is one of a pair using the same participants. The other study by de Cuypere et al. did in-depth interviews with 32 trans women while this one focused on testing the sensitivity of the genitals for 30 trans women. Unfortunately, the de Cuypere study reports data in terms of how many women “Never-sometimes” had orgasm so their data is not comparable to other studies. (They found that 34% of the women never-sometimes had orgasm during masturbation and 50% never-sometimes had orgasm during sexual intercourse.)

**** Goddard also reports that despite problems, “no patient elected to have their clitoris removed.” Is the man mad?

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Sensate Vagina Pedicled-Spot for Male-to-Female Transsexuals: The Experience in the First 50 Patients – Review

A Dutch surgeon has developed a new technique to create erotic sensations in trans women’s vaginas.

The author operated on 50 trans women (born male) between August 2009 and May 2014. He created a a sensate vagina pedicled-spot and a neo-clitoris during primary penile skin inversion vaginoplasty. Part of the corona glandis of the penis is “pedicled on the dorsal penile neurovascular bundles” and put into the neo-vagina.

The goal of the operation is to increase sexual sensitivity for trans women.

“One of the goals of sex reassignment surgery is to create tactile and erogenous sensitivity in the reconstructed genitals. A neo-clitoroplasty performed during primary gender-confirming surgery for male-to-female transsexuals, is a procedure which has been considered state of the art for over 40 years, gives sexual functionality to the neo-female genitalia. This goal falls short due to the inner neo-vagina’s lack of erogenous sensitivity, having instead only tactile sensitivity of the skin and prostate. This shortcoming persists despite the refinements to the vaginoplasty throughout the years.

To improve the sexual functionality, I have innovated a technique that creates a sexual sensate vagina pedicled-spot in the male-to-female transsexuals, which could be compared with the G-spot, in combination with neo-clitoroplasty.”

At 15 weeks, 82% of the patients had sexual feelings in the clitoris and 62% had sexual feelings in the sensate pedicled spot within the vagina. However, the study also says that erogeneous sensibility recurred in all the patients; so perhaps some patients developed sensitivity after 15 weeks.

The study does not discuss orgasms or patient satisfaction. There is no information on whether or not the trans women were having active sex lives. Future studies should look at these issues.

Future research should also look at whether there are any differences between neo-clitorises created with this procedure and other neo-clitorises. Does it affect the clitoris if part of the corona glandis is used to create the sensate pedicled spot within the vagina?

This is an exciting first study, however. Creating sexual arousal and pleasure is an important part of gender reassignment surgery.

What about safety?

The technique added 15 minutes to the time of the operation. This might increase the risk of blood clots, although they did not report any.

Complications included:

6% per-operative rectal lesions which were directly closed

2% post-operative bleeding

34% one or more aesthetic corrections involving the introitus, labia majora, or clitoral region,

4% infections treated with antibiotics

10% post-operative bladder retention which resolved spontaneously after 1 week

20% had meatoplasty to enlarge the opening for peeing

It is difficult to evaluate the relative rate of complications. The rate of bleeding in this series compares well to rates reported in this 2010 German study (6%) and this 2011 overview from the United Kingdom (10%). On the other hand, their rate for problems with narrowing of the urethra is much higher than in the other two studies (none and 3-4% respectively). In this review of studies, a 2001 German study had higher rates of complications. None of the other studies discuss aesthetic corrections.

We need studies that compare the relative safety and rates of complications of different surgical procedures, including this one.

More Details on the Study:

40% of the patients felt sensations in the clitoris an average of 11 weeks before the sensate pedicled spot, 40% felt sensations in both at the same time, 4% felt sensations in the sensate pedicled spot first, and 12% were unclear on the timing.

Erogenous feelings in the clitoris recurred after 7.6 weeks on average in 46 patients, with a range of 5 days to 48 weeks. Erogenous feelings in the sensate pedicled spot recurred after 12.6 weeks on average in 44 patients, again with a range of 5 days to 48 weeks.

For one patient, “the sensate pedicled-spot was lost due to pressure but remarkably the sensate potency was not lost in this case.”

“Hypersensibility occurred in two patients of the sensate pedicled-spot along with hypersensibility of the clitoris.”

The average age of the patients was 38.4 years (range 19–65 years).

Follow-up ranged from 17 to 73 months (mean 46.7 months) and is still ongoing.

You can read details of the surgical technique used below.

Original source (contains graphic photos of surgery):

Sensate Vagina Pedicled-Spot for Male-to-Female Transsexuals: The Experience in the First 50 Patients by Kanhai RC in Aesthetic Plast Surg. 2016 Apr;40(2):284-7.

Technique described in this study:

“For the vaginoplasty, I employ a modification of the abdominally pedicled penile skin inversion technique enhanced by a dorsal rectangular scrotal skin flap. For this, the penile skin tube with the fascia penis superficialis (dartos fascia) and superficial dorsal cutaneous veins adherent to it are dissected from the erectile corpora, leaving the dorsal neurovascular bundles unharmed and covered by Buck’s deep penile fascia. Subsequently, two longitudinal incisions through Buck’s fascia, but not through the tunica albuginea, are made bilateral to the dorsal neurovascular bundles. By blunt and sharp dissection, the intermediate fascia, including both dorsal neurovascular bundles, is raised from the tunica albuginea all the way from the base of the glans to the urogenital diaphragm. After undermining part of the glans, two small parts of its corona and a part of the preputium is left attached to this pedicle which will be divided. One part will serve as a vascularized sensate neoclitoris with its preputial hood and the other part will be the sensate pedicled-spot. The sensate pedicled-spot will be attached to the anterior wall of the vagina in the ostium region and invisible in frontal view.”

Long-term follow-up of individuals undergoing sex reassignment surgery: Psychiatric morbidity and mortality – Review of Abstract

The authors of the study suggest that gender reassignment surgery may increase psychiatric problems for some people and decrease them for other people.

The study looked at the medical records of 104 people who had sex reassignment surgery in Denmark between 1978 and 2000.

They found that there was no statistically significant difference between the number of psychiatric diagnoses before surgery and after surgery.

In addition, the people who had diagnoses before surgery were different from the people who had diagnoses after surgery. Only 6.7% of the group had a psychiatric diagnosis both before and after surgery while 27.9% of the group had a psychiatric diagnosis before surgery and 22.1% had one afterwards.

According to the authors “this suggests that generally SRS may reduce psychological morbidity for some individuals while increasing it for others.”

The study also found that:

Psychiatric diagnoses were over-represented both before and after surgery (i.e. the group had more psychiatric issues than the general population).

Trans men (born female) had a significantly higher number of psychiatric diagnoses overall; there were no other statistically significant differences between trans men and trans women.

At the same time “significantly more psychiatric diagnoses were found before SRS for those assigned as female at birth.”

10 people had died at an average age of 53.5 years.

Questions for the Future

The most important question is, of course, how can we make sure that SRS does not increase psychiatric problems in the future?

Is it a question of better screening to identify gender dysphoria?

Do people need more support and counseling after surgery?

Should some people transition without getting surgery?

Were poor surgical outcomes linked to psychiatric problems?

Could low hormone levels after surgery cause problems for some people?

Were people’s problems caused by the surgery or some other aspect of transition that happened after surgery?

Or to put it another way, how do we identify which people might benefit from surgery and which might be hurt by it? or do we need to make other changes to prevent new psychiatric diagnoses after surgery?

It would also be helpful to know more about the specific psychiatric diagnoses before and after surgery. Are we seeing increases in depression, anxiety, eating disorders, or what?

How did the patients whose mental health improved compare to those whose mental health got worse? Were they older or younger? What were their life circumstances?

What does it mean that trans men had more psychiatric diagnoses before surgery? Was surgery more beneficial for them than for trans women or did trans men just have more psychiatric problems overall?

How long after surgery did people get the new psychiatric diagnoses?

More about the study:

Only the abstract of the study is available online, so it is hard to interpret some of their results.

The abstract gives few further details on their methodology, but a similar study of physical illnesses and death looked at the records of 56 trans women (born male) and 48 trans men (born female). The follow-up period began when people received permission for surgery. The group used in the other study represented 98% of all people who officially had SRS in Denmark from 1978 to 2000.

Original source:

Long-term follow-up of individuals undergoing sex reassignment surgery: Psychiatric morbidity and mortality by Simonsen RK, Giraldi A, Kristensen E, Hald GM in Nord J Psychiatry. 2016;70(4):241-7.

Where to Call if you Need Help

This is not a political blog, but I think we all need a reminder to take care of ourselves right now. Reach out for help – there are people who want to help you.

And to parents who read my blog, please tell your kids you love them and will fight for them.

Sources of Help:

Trans Lifeline for trans people:

  • US number: 1-877-565-8860
  • Canadian number: 1-877-330-6366
  • and their website.

The Trevor Lifeline for LGBTQ youth (US) – 1-866-488-7386 and their website.

National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (US): 1-800-273-TALK (8255) and their website.

The International Association for Suicide Prevention – their website has an interactive map with phone numbers and locations of crisis centers.

From Maria Shriver’s blog, Powered by Inspiration.

Two Years After My Suicide Attempt, I’m Still Living and Sharing

“Waking up two years ago gave me opportunities, some of which seem obvious but some of which I’m still discovering. I have the opportunity to continue the life I began and do the things I want to do. I have the opportunity to offer help to people who would have helped me if only I had shared what was going on.”

Read more here.

Finally, some helpful tips from the website Recommendations for Reporting on Suicide:

Suicide Warning Signs

  • Talking about wanting to die
  • Looking for a way to kill oneself
  • Talking about feeling hopeless or
    having no purpose
  • Talking about feeling trapped or
    in unbearable pain
  • Talking about being a burden
    to others
  • Increasing the use of alcohol or drugs
  • Acting anxious, agitated or recklessly
  • Sleeping too little or too much
  • Withdrawing or feeling isolated
  • Showing rage or talking about seeking revenge
  • Displaying extreme mood swings

The more of these signs a person shows, the greater the risk. Warning signs are associated with suicide but may not be what causes a suicide.

What to Do

If someone you know exhibits warning signs of suicide:

  • Do not leave the person alone
  • Remove any firearms, alcohol, drugs or sharp objects that could be used in a suicide attempt
  • Call the U.S. National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-TALK (8255)
  • Take the person to an emergency room or seek help from a medical or mental health professional.

Suicide is not a Footnote

I am fed up with studies that treat suicide like a footnote.

You are not talking about “patients” or “participants” or “transsexuals.” You are talking about people.

If someone commits suicide during the study, I want to read about it in the abstract, not buried in the methods section. So somebody died and didn’t participate in your study – that is not the important story.

Why did they commit suicide? When did they commit suicide – before or after medical treatment? What medical and therapeutic treatments were they getting? Were there any underlying mental health issues that weren’t being treated? Did they need more support during and after transition? Were they properly diagnosed? Did they have depression? Were they trauma survivors?

You don’t get to ignore their death in your conclusions. The person’s death is part of your results. Suicide needs to be reported in your results and it needs to be discussed.

Most of all, you need to talk about what we can do to reduce the number of suicides and suicide attempts among transgender people.

 

To my readers, if you or someone you love is thinking about suicide:

Sources of Help and Information:

Trans Lifeline for trans people:

  • US number: 1-877-565-8860
  • Canadian number: 1-877-330-6366
  • and their website.

The Trevor Lifeline for LGBTQ youth (US) – 1-866-488-7386 and their website.

National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (US): 1-800-273-TALK (8255) and their website.

The International Association for Suicide Prevention – their website has an interactive map with phone numbers and locations of crisis centers.

What to Do

If someone you know exhibits warning signs of suicide:

  • Do not leave the person alone
  • Remove any firearms, alcohol, drugs or sharp objects that could be used in a suicide attempt
  • Call the U.S. National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-TALK (8255)
  • Take the person to an emergency room or seek help from a medical or mental health professional

Two Years After My Suicide Attempt, I’m Still Living and Sharing

“Waking up two years ago gave me opportunities, some of which seem obvious but some of which I’m still discovering. I have the opportunity to continue the life I began and do the things I want to do. I have the opportunity to offer help to people who would have helped me if only I had shared what was going on.”

Read more here.

From Maria Shriver’s blog, Powered by Inspiration.

Effects of different steps in gender reassignment therapy on psychopathology: a prospective study of persons with a gender identity disorder

This study found that hormone therapy reduced symptoms of psychological distress, although surgery had no further effect.

However, this conclusion is undercut by the fact that one person committed suicide during follow-up,* treatment did not reduce the prevalence of suicide attempts, and 17% of the people surveyed after treatment reported suicidal thoughts.

There are also areas where the methodology of the study could be improved.

Finally, the data on the percentages of suicide attempts is confusing. See the end of this review for details on the data.

Summary of the results:

After treatment, patients reported fewer symptoms of anxiety, depression, interpersonal sensitivity, and hostility.

Transition did not reduce the percentage of suicide attempts.

One patient committed suicide during follow-up.*

Transition did not affect patients’ psychosocial well-being, i.e. employment, relationships, number of sexual contacts, drug use, and suicide attempts.

Over 90% of patients said that they were happier and felt better about their body after treatment, but 17% reported that they had suicidal thoughts.

The improvement in psychological symptoms happens after hormone therapy. Surgery did not cause a significant change in psychopathology, although patients reported slightly more symptoms after surgery than after hormone therapy.

When asked, 57.9% of patients said that they experienced the most improvement after hormone therapy, 31.6% experienced the most improvement after surgery, and 10.5% experienced improvement just from being diagnosed.

After treatment, the average scores of psychopathology were similar to the general population.

After hormone therapy, none of the average subscale scores were different from the general population. However, after surgery, the group’s average scores for sleeping problems (p=0.033) and psychoticism (p=0.051) were higher than the general population.

These results raise some important questions.

What can we do to reduce suicide, suicide attempts, and suicidal thoughts in transgender people who have transitioned?

Why didn’t the percentage of suicide attempts go down when people were reporting fewer symptoms of depression?

Why didn’t surgery improve the mental well-being of the patients?

There were also a couple of important methodological questions that the authors did not discuss.

Combining the results of different treatments

As often happens, the study lumped together trans men (born female) and trans women (born male). The treatments for trans women and trans men involve different medications and surgeries. It is possible that androgens and estrogens have different effects on mood. Similarly, it might be that some surgeries are more beneficial to mental health than others or that some surgeries are more stressful than others.

The participants in the study were 46 trans women and 11 trans men. The authors do not discuss whether they differed in their mental health symptoms or social well-being. Nor do they give information on the gender of the people who completed the questionnaires at follow-up.

The study does not specify exactly what medications and dosages were used for the hormone therapy. They do not say exactly what surgeries the patients got.

Missing Data

As with many longitudinal studies, they did not have follow-up data on all of the participants due to incomplete questionnaires. In addition, one participant did not complete a questionnaire at the beginning of the study.

Thus, 56 people completed a questionnaire about their mental health before treatment, but only 47 people completed the questionnaire after hormone treatment. The authors then compared the average scores on the baseline questionnaires to the averages on the questionnaires after hormones.

It is possible that this would lead to a bias in the data. For example if depressed people were less likely to complete follow-up questionnaires, the average for the follow-up questionnaires would show fewer symptoms of depression than the average for the initial questionnaires.

The authors do not discuss whether the people who did not complete the questionnaires after hormone therapy were significantly different from those who did.

Leaving suicide out of the results

The person who committed suicide was not included in the study; if they had been it might have distorted the data. Presumably their responses at baseline would have increased the average score for symptoms of depression, but without a follow-up questionnaire for them, symptoms of depression would appear to go down. Leaving them out makes the results clear – symptoms of depression went down among everyone else.

At the same time, without data on the person who committed suicide during follow-up, it is not fully accurate to say that symptoms of depression went down after treatment. For at least one person it doesn’t make sense to talk about symptoms of depression going down.

Suicide during follow-up is part of the results of this study. It is relevant to the question of whether or not people felt better after transition. When someone commits suicide during a study, this needs to be part of the discussion. When did they commit suicide? Were they depressed before transition? Did they regret the surgery? Did they say they were depressed during or after transition?

Not talking about the suicide is disrespectful to the person who died. It leads to possibly false conclusions about the effects of transition. And it stops us from being able to figure out what we can do to prevent future suicides – do we need to give people more therapy before medical treatments? should some people not get surgery? do we need to give people more therapy after surgery?

Back to the questions raised by the study

What can we do to reduce suicide, suicide attempts, and suicidal thoughts in transgender people who have transitioned?

Clearly, medical transition is not enough. It does not prevent suicide, suicide attempts, or suicidal thoughts. It does not even reduce the prevalence of suicide attempts.

As far as I know, this is the only study that has followed a group of people with gender dysphoria during treatment and collected data on suicide attempts.

We need more research to figure out how to prevent suicide and suicide attempts among transgender people after transition. It might also help if we knew more about what was going on in this study.

When exactly were the suicide attempts – after hormones or after surgery? When exactly did the person commit suicide?  Does this reflect regret related to the surgery itself or something else?

Were there any gender differences in the suicide attempts?

Were there any differences in the specific treatments given to the people who attempted suicide? Were there any problems in the outcomes of the treatments?

Did the same people attempt suicide before and after transition?

Did the people who attempted suicide say they were depressed? Had they been diagnosed with mental health issues? Were they getting counseling?

Do we know of things that went wrong in the lives of the people who attempted suicide?

Do some people need more counseling and evaluation before transition? Should we adapt the hormonal doses or surgeries for different people? Do we need to give additional support after transition? Are there alternatives to transition that would better help some people deal with gender dysphoria?

At this point all we know is that we can not rely on medical transition to prevent or reduce suicide attempts among transgender people.

We need to know more.

Why didn’t the percentage of suicide attempts go down when people were reporting fewer symptoms of depression?

The results of this study are somewhat confusing. People reported that their symptoms of depression and psychological distress went down after transition. In addition, the vast majority of people who had transitioned said that they felt better – they were happier (93%), less anxious (81%), more self-confident (79%), and their body-related experience improved (98%). Only 2 people said they were more anxious and 1 less self-confident. Only 2 said that their overall mood was similar.

So why did 7 people (17.6%) report that they had suicidal thoughts? Why were there 4 suicide attempts?

Were the people who had suicidal thoughts so unhappy to start with that an improvement in their mood still left them suicidal? Perhaps they had even more suicidal thoughts before transition – but the prevalence of suicide attempts was not affected by transition.

It’s possible that the group’s average scores for depression are in the normal range while a few individuals are miserable. On the other hand, the group has an above average number of suicide attempts and suicidal thoughts. According to an Emory University website “It is estimated that 3.7% of the U.S. population (8.3 million people) had thoughts of suicide in the past year, with 1.0% of the population (2.3 million people) developing a suicide plan and 0.5% (1 million people) attempting suicide.” In this study, 17.6% of the group reported suicidal thoughts at the moment of follow-up. The suicide attempt percentage was 9.8% at follow-up.

We are looking at a group of people with elevated levels of suicidal thoughts and suicide attempts – how does that fit with questionnaires that find a normal level of symptoms of depression?

Are we seeing accurate reports of how people feel? Are people minimizing their problems when they fill out questionnaires after treatment?

The authors of the study do not discuss the apparent contradiction between suicide attempts and suicidal thoughts one the one hand and an improved mood on the other.

The authors do point out that the percentage of suicide attempts at the beginning of the study was lower than in other studies of transgender people. It may be that the participants in this study had fewer problems than most transgender people; for one thing they are a group that is able to access medical care. However, that does not answer the question of why for this particular group of people transition did not change the prevalence of suicide attempts.

We need more research into what is going on here. We need to be able to identify people who may attempt suicide or feel suicidal after transition so we can help them.

Why didn’t surgery improve the mental well-being of the patients?

We don’t know and we need more research to answer this question. However, here are a few possibilities:

Possibility #1 – Return to regular life

In their discussion, the authors suggest that there might be an initial euphoria after beginning hormones that wears off later on. In addition, after surgery, people might be “again confronted with stigma and other burdens.”

In other words, the improvement after hormone therapy is higher than the improvement will be in the end. There is still an improvement later on, but the initial level of euphoria isn’t going to last. If this is true, it would be important information for people who are transitioning so that they don’t have false expectations of what life will be like after transition is complete.

Possibility #2 – Surgery is not the best treatment for everyone

The authors also suggest that further studies should look at exploring the idea that some patients might want hormones without surgery.

It may be that surgery is not the best treatment for everyone with gender dysphoria. Perhaps some people would have been better off with just hormone therapy.

Previous studies have found that about 3% of people who have had genital surgery regret it, so we would expect one or two people out of 50 to regret their surgery. Perhaps they are depressed and this affects the group average.

Possiblity #3 – Effects of surgery

It is also possible that some people had post-surgical depression and that this affected the results.

Perhaps some people were still recovering from surgery and did not feel well (the study included people 1 to 12 months after surgery). In particular, this might lead to the increase in sleeping problems found in the study.

Perhaps some people were dealing with complications of surgery.

Perhaps the hormonal changes after surgery affected people’s moods.

Possibility #4 – People were already happy

On the other hand, perhaps by the time people get surgery, they are already happy due to counseling, hormones, and social transition.

Perhaps if people had been forced to stop with hormone therapy alone, they would have become unhappy.  As the authors point out, it may have made a difference that they knew they were going to be able to get surgery.

Possibility #5 – Surgery doesn’t affect mental health

It may simply be that surgery does not improve mental health. At this point, we do not have proof that it does.

In the end, we just don’t know.

Further studies are needed to determine if surgery is helpful and who should get it. Perhaps the authors of this study can use the data they already have to address this question.

 

* Data on this patient was not included in the study.

Original Source:

Effects of different steps in gender reassignment therapy on psychopathology: a prospective study of persons with a gender identity disorder by Gunter Heylens, Charlotte Verroken, Sanne De Cock, Guy T’Sjoen, Griet De Cuypere in J Sex Med 2014 Jan 28;11(1):119-26. Epub 2013 Dec 28.

 

Questions about the data on suicide attempts:

The authors talk about the prevalence of suicide attempts before and after transition, but they don’t talk about the time periods they are looking at. The authors say that the prevalence of suicide attempts was unchanged, but they don’t explain when the suicide attempts took place before treatment. It makes a big difference if they are comparing three years before transition to three years afterward or if they are comparing a lifetime before transition to the average 3 year follow-up period – a follow-up that took place 1-12 months after surgery.

In addition, the actual data on suicide attempts is confusing. In Table 3, the authors list the prevalence of suicide attempts as 9.4% at presentation and 9.3% at follow-up. However, in their discussion they say the suicide attempt percentages were 10.9% initially and 9.8% at follow-up.

Looking at Table 3,  there were 5 attempts in a group of 54 people which would give a percentage of 9.26%, a number that doesn’t match either of the ones given by the authors. In addition, there were 4 attempts in a group of 42 people which would give 9.52%, another number that doesn’t match.

The percentage they gave at baseline in Table 3 seems to be 5 out of 53 people, while the percentage at follow-up seems to be 4 out of 43. Perhaps one of the 54 people didn’t answer the question on suicide attempts in the first set of questionnaires. But where does the additional person come from in the second set of questionnaires? If they are including the person who committed suicide in the suicide attempts, wouldn’t the number of people used to calculate the percentage before treatment be 54 or 55, not 53?

None of this explains why they would list different numbers in their discussion. Perhaps there were some suicide attempts by the same person that were included in one set of numbers but not the others? The table talks about the prevalence of suicide attempts while the discussion talks about the percentage.

It would have been helpful if they had clarified this.

 

 

Male-to-Female Transsexualism: Technique, Results and 3-Year Follow-Up in 50 Patients – Study Review

This is a 2010 study of the functional and cosmetic outcomes of the surgical techniques used at a German clinic. They followed 50 trans women who had surgery between May 2001 and April 2008. The surgeries were all performed by the same surgeon who had extensive surgical experience.

Before surgery, all the patients had completed a two year “real life” test and had been recommended for surgery by two independent psychiatrists. They had been on hormones for at least one year, although they stopped taking hormones a month before the surgery.

The patients were sent a questionnaire to follow-up on sexual function and patient satisfaction with the surgery. All 50 patients completed the questionnaire; the mean follow-up time was 3 years.

Outcomes of Surgery

Regrets:

One person regretted the surgery and became clinically depressed. They attempted suicide twice and had not fully recovered two years later.

The patient was 24 years old and the authors suggest that the ideal age for surgery is 30 years old. They also recommend thorough evaluation and good counseling before surgery.

This is consistent with other studies that found a regret rate after surgery of 3-4%. In a group of 50 people getting the surgery, you would expect one or two people to wish that they had not had the surgery.

The patient regretted the surgery 3 days after the operation.

Complications:

6% had bleeding after surgery

4% required operative revision due to the bleeding (two of the three who had bleeding)

10% had shrinkage of the vagina which could be corrected by a second surgical intervention

4% had a minor bulge in the anterior vaginal wall which could be easily fixed with simple excision

There were no post-operative rectocele (bulge of the rectum into the vagina) or urethrovesical fistulae.

The authors of the study say that the incidence of surgical complications was comparable to the data in the literature.

The 6% of patients with bleeding that they report is better than the 10% reported by a United Kingdom clinic in this review.

Their rate of complications is considerably better than this 2001 study at a different German hospital which reported that “Major complications during, immediately and some time after surgery occurred in nine of the 66 patients (14%), including severe wound infections in six, a rectal lesion in three, necrosis of the glans in three and necrosis of the distal urethra in one. Minor complications, e.g. meatal stenosis in seven patients, occurred in 24 (36%) of patients.”

They do not report any problems with narrowing of the urethra, which is also an improvement over the 3-4% reported by the clinic in the Untied Kingdom.

They do not report any problems with pulmonary embolisms or fistualae between the rectum and vagina. These are problems that are relatively rare and you might not expect to see them in a group of only 50 people; the review from the United Kingdom reported a rate of 2 in 1000 pulmonary embolisms with 1 death. They also reported a rate of 6 in 800 rectal fistulae.

Minor complications:

6% subcuntaneous hematoma that did not require any further therapy (i.e. they had a ruptured blood vessel causing a lump or bruise under the skin)

General:

Mean operative time – 190 (160–220) minutes or 3.16 (2,66- 3.66) hours

Mean depth of the vagina – 10 (6–14) cm or 3.93 (2.36-5.51) inches

Median hospital stay – 10 (6–14) days

In comparison, the United Kingdom clinic reported an operative time of 120-150 minutes, while the 2001 German study reported a mean time of 6.3 hours with a range of 4-9 hours.

Satisfaction with results at follow-up

Appearance:

10% of the patients were dissatisfied with the appearance of their labia

90% were satisfied with the appearance of their genitals

We need more research on how to construct labia that are satisfactory for all trans women.

Depth of Vagina:

20% were dissatisfied with the depth of their vagina

80% were satisfied with the depth of their vagina

4% were still dissatisfied with their vagina after a second operation

Of the ten women who were dissatisfied with the depth of their vagina, eight had a new operation to augment the vagina. Of the women who had the second operation, two were still dissatisfied (25%). Perhaps the secondary operation could be improved.

We need to know more – why were 20% dissatisfied with the depth of their vagina? What can be done to ensure that all trans women have vaginas that are deep enough?

How deep were the vaginas at follow-up? Were there some women whose vaginas were not deep who were satisfied anyway?

Sexual Pleasure:

5% of the trans women having regular sexual intercourse experienced pain during intercourse; 84% of the trans women were having regular sexual intercourse

70% of the trans women reported achieving clitoral orgasm

The authors are not clear here, but it looks like 30% of the trans women who had this surgery are unable to achieve orgasm. This is a serious problem; they should have addressed it more fully.

Were some of the women not attempting orgasm? Did everyone answer the question?

At one point the authors say, “84% reported having regular sexual intercourse, of whom 35 had clitoral orgasm” – that would change the numbers to 35 out of 42 women which would be better (although it would still leave 17% of the sexually active women not having orgasms). On the other hand, they also say, “Of the 50 patients, 35 (70%) reported achieving clitoral orgasm.”

As it stands, it looks like a large percentage of trans women are not having orgasms after surgery. That would be a problem and worthy of more discussion in the results. The ability to orgasm is an important, vital aspect of the outcome of these surgeries.

In addition, doctors and surgeons need to address the problem of pain during intercourse. Is there something trans women can do themselves to reduce the pain? Can the surgeries be improved in this area?

From their Discussion and Conclusions:

“The incidence of surgical complications was comparable to the literature data. The most common complication (10%) in the follow-up was shrinkage of the neovagina. In all cases a second surgical correction was necessary to definitively solve the problem. In all patients vaginopexy to the sacrospinous ligament was carried out, reducing the rate of neovaginal prolapse as described in the literature.

After 3 years, 49 patients were satisfied and did not regret or had doubts about having undergone sexual reassignment surgery. The only exception was a 24-year old patient who, 3 days after the operation, regretted his decision. After that, he developed a strong depression which needed psychological therapy. Two years after surgery, the patient had still not recovered completely and had attempted suicide twice.

We agree with Rehman and Melman that the best age to undergo sexual reassignment surgery is 30 years, an age that enables patients to adjust socially and sexually, increasing the possibility to develop attractiveness and allowing the patients to mature in dealing with new life stresses. Moreover, before undergoing such surgery, it is our opinion that all patients at all ages need deep and intensive psychological examination and must be informed about all the functional and cosmetic risks associated with this operation and, above all, about the impossibility of regretting the decision and returning to their natural gender.

With improvements in surgical technique over the years, male-to-female gender-transforming surgery can assure satisfying cosmetic and functional results, with a reduced intra- and postoperative morbidity. Nevertheless the experience of the surgeon and the center remains a central important aspect for obtaining optimal results.”

The full article includes graphic pictures of surgery as well as details of their technique; you can get it at the link below.

Original Source:

Male-to-Female Transsexualism: Technique, Results and 3-Year Follow-Up in 50 Patients by Wagner S, Greco F, Hoda MR, Inferrera A, Lupo A, Hamza A, Fornara P in Urol Int. 2010;84(3):330-3.