TRANSforming Gynecology

Sexual function in transfeminine patients following gender-affirming vaginoplasty


 

For many patients, sexual function is an important component of a healthy quality of life.1 However, to many transgender individuals, their sexual organs are often a source of gender dysphoria, which can significantly inhibit sexual activity with their partners. Patients who seek gender-affirming surgery not only hope to have these feelings of dysphoria alleviated but also desire improvement in sexual function after surgery. While the medical and psychiatric criteria for patients seeking vaginoplasty procedures are well established by the World Professional Association for Transgender Health,2 there is little guidance surrounding the discourse surgeons should have regarding sexual function pre- and postsurgery.

Setting realistic expectations is one of the major challenges surgeons and patients alike face in preoperative and postoperative encounters. Patients not only are tasked with recovering from a major surgical procedure, but must also now learn their new anatomy, which includes learning how to urinate, maintain proper neovaginal hygiene, and experience sexual pleasure.

Dr. K. Ashley Brandt, an ob.gyn. and fellowship-trained gender affirming surgeon in West Reading, Pa

Dr. K. Ashley Brandt

Given the permanence of these procedures and the possibility of loss of sexual function, the surgeon must ensure that patients truly comprehend the nature of the procedure and its complications. During the preoperative consultation, the surgeon must inquire about any desire for future fertility, discuss any history of pelvic radiation, epispadias, hypospadias, current erectile dysfunction, libido, comorbid medical conditions (such as diabetes or smoking), current sexual practices, and overall patient goals regarding their surgical outcome.

The vast majority of patients state they will experience a significant decrease in gender dysphoria with the removal of their current natal male genitalia.1 However, some patients have very specific preferences regarding the cosmetic appearance of vulvar structures. Others have more functional concerns about neovaginal depth and the ability to have receptive penetrative intercourse. It is important to note that not all transgender women have male partners. Furthermore, whether patients have male or female partners, some patients do not desire the ability to have penetrative intercourse and/or do not want to undergo the potential complications of a full-depth vaginoplasty. In these patients, offering a “shallow depth” vaginoplasty may be acceptable.

It is useful in the consultation to discuss a patient’s sexual partners and sexual practices in order to best determine the type of procedure that may be appropriate for a patient. In my practice, I emphasize that full-depth vaginoplasties require a lifelong commitment of dilation to maintain patency. Unlike cisgender women, patients must also douche to ensure appropriate vaginal hygiene. Regarding cosmetic preferences patients may have, it is essential to educate patients on the significant variation in the appearance of vulvar structures among both cisgender and transgender women.

During the surgical consultation, I review which structures from their natal genitalia are removed and which structures are utilized to create the neo–vulvar-vaginal anatomy. The testicles and spermatic cord are excised. The dorsal neurovascular bundle of the penile shaft and portion of the dorsal aspect of the glans penis are used to create the neoclitoris. A combination of penile shaft skin and scrotal skin is used to line the neovaginal canal. The erectile tissue of the penile shaft is also resected and the natal urethra is shortened and spatulated to create the urethral plate and urethral meatus. I also remind patients that the prostate remains intact during vaginoplasty procedures. Unless patients undergo the colonic interposition vaginoplasty and in some cases the peritoneal vaginoplasty, the neovaginal canal is not self-lubricating, nor will patients experience ejaculation after surgery. In the presurgical period, I often remind patients that the location of erogenous sensation after surgery will be altered and the method by which they self-stimulate will also be different. It is also essential to document whether patients can achieve satisfactory orgasms presurgically in order to determine adequate sexual function in the postoperative period.

It cannot be emphasized enough that the best predictor of unsatisfactory sexual function after genital gender-affirming surgery is poor sexual function prior to surgery.1,3

Retention of sexual function after gender-affirming genital surgery is common, with studies citing a range of 70%-90% of patients reporting their ability to regularly achieve an orgasm after surgery.1,4 In some cases, patients will report issues with sexual function after surgery despite having no prior history of sexual dysfunction. If patients present with complaints of postsurgical anorgasmia, the provider should rule out insufficient time for wound healing and resolution of surgery-site pain, and determine if there was an intraoperative injury to the neurovascular bundle or significant clitoral necrosis. A thorough genital exam should include a sensory examination of the neoclitoris and the introitus and neovaginal canal for signs of scarring, stenosis, loss of vaginal depth, or high-tone pelvic-floor dysfunction.

Unfortunately, if the neurovascular bundle is injured or if a patient experienced clitoral necrosis, the likelihood of a patient regaining sensation is decreased, although there are currently no studies examining the exact rates. It is also important to reassure patients that wound healing after surgery and relearning sexual function is not linear. I encourage patients to initially self-stimulate without a partner as they learn their new anatomy in order to remove any potential performance anxiety a partner could cause immediately after surgery. Similar to the approach to sexual dysfunction in cisgender patients, referral to a specialist in sexual health and/or pelvic floor physical therapy are useful adjuncts, depending on the findings from the physical exam and patient symptoms.

Dr. Brandt is an ob.gyn. and fellowship-trained gender-affirming surgeon in West Reading, Pa.

References

1. Garcia MM. Clin Plastic Surg. 2018;45:437-46.

2. Eli Coleman WB et al. “Standards of care for the health of transsexual, transgender, and gender non-conforming people” 7th version. World Professional Association for Transgender Health: 2012.

3. Garcia MM et al. Transl Androl Urol. 2014;3:156.

4. Ferrando CA, Bowers ML. “Genital gender confirmation surgery for patients assigned male at birth” In: Ferrando CA, ed. “Comprehensive care for the transgender patient” Philadelphia: Elsevier, 2020:82-92.

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