Clara Barnhurst

“Sometimes I wonder what it would be like to have [a penis],” a friend said as we walked home from an evening out.

Me too, I thought.

It caught me by surprise, how automatic the thought was. I mean, of course I have the experience of that thing attached to me, but off the back of our conversation about sex, genitals and their funny ways it was clear that I really didn’t have the experience of having a penis. Not really.

Since coming out I would tuck it away, and that further removed me from the experience of having a penis. It became a thing for peeing. An extra step when putting my knickers on. Nothing was in the way: no brushing around, no movement, no need to adjust. I remember these things, but they feel like a distant state. An objective remembering with no visceral connection.

“Each penis is different,” another friend said to me conspiratorially one evening, “They each have their little ways, they each like their own thing. Every penis gets to be discovered.” I laughed along with her, but it made me uneasy. Partly, it highlighted my lack of experience with penises. Partly, it made me consider my bisexuality. Partly, I felt distinctly uncomfortable about my own memories of having a penis: they don’t feel real.

I used the line in the conversation the other night, and my companion agreed that they were fickle things, “You try stuff and say to yourself, ‘OK, well that didn’t work last week!’” There is a whole world of penises I’m only being made aware of now. The more I learn, the deeper my conviction that my experience of my body is radically different to those without gender dysphoria.


It might seem obvious, but without the experience to earth the understanding it never occurred to me that my experience of my body would be so different. What strikes me is that it took leaving the male role and giving up on my penis to actually learn things about penises. I could only engage with the topic as an outsider and my information about them is enabled by my dissociation. That thing I was born with wasn’t ever mine - or at least, I never took ownership of it. Maybe that’s crazy and maybe it shouldn’t be, but there we are.

I’ve written before about sex and how it’s obvious my experience of sex is in no way male despite having that thing. That actually, the act was traumatic and forced. My inability to psychologically own my memories of having a penis, made clear by my experience chatting to women about them, has to have fed into my experience of sex. Genitals have a use: mostly for fun. I never experienced fun in the way my friends describe. It wasn’t all bad, but it wasn’t like that either.

“Why would you want to pee standing up anyway?” I asked my friends as we discussed stand to pee devices, aim, and now men don’t seem to know how. The words came out of my mouth almost unbidden, and they surprised me. Yet another dissonant flood of memory: peeing standing up. Yeah, I did that. I remember doing that. But the depth that normally comes with memory - light and shade, feelings, little events framing a fragment - aren’t there. Another dissociative moment: I remember doing it without thought, a default setting, yet I can’t really understand why anyone would want to stand to pee, given the choice.

It’s a strange state of affairs, to have dissociated to the extent that bits of my existence before coming out just don’t make sense to me now. But it doesn’t feel unhealthy. I’ve just moved on and set it outside my identity, as one might after recovering from a long illness or addiction. If a condition confines you to a wheelchair for some years and suddenly they find a way for you to do without it, you might remember the wheelchair, but it’s likely the feelings and depth of the memory also falls away: it’s a period of life that you want to leave behind. To retain the recall is traumatic or disruptive.

Is this running away or denying my past? I don’t think so. Denying would be not talking about the thing I was born with. Running away would be a refusal to recognise that I never really took ownership of that thing and avoiding the thoughts that are raised when I’m sat at a table of 20-something PhD students talking about sex, relationships, feminism, and genitals. This is moving on.


A non-op friend of mine said she finds herself wondering why she wants to keep her bits as they are. That the culture of surgery in the transfeminine world makes people like her, that are actually fine about that aspect of their bodies, stop and examine why they don’t have a problem with it. I’ve always told my clients to not go looking for dysphoria if there is none. It upset me to think that transfem culture was putting my friends that don’t want surgery into that position of doubt - I have to recognise that even some of the language in this piece is assuming dysphoria surrounding a person’s genitals. It’s not always the case. How do my non-op friends move on in a setting that erases them? There is an assumption that transgender women want surgery. Why?

I guess that means some women do take ownership of their penises and actually do understand what it feels like to have one in a full sense. I’m jealous, actually. Much of the pressure placed on transgender folks surrounds their genitals. Society wants to know what you have. You might note that I’ve kept my language about the present state of my bits rather vague. Folks who want to trawl back through my archive will find articles that are more explicit about what I have downstairs at the time of writing, but somewhere along the way I just decided to not. I can’t tell if that’s dissociation or not, but it makes sense to me.

Interestingly, my backing away from being open about my bits has enabled me to engage more with my friends in these kinds of discussions. It’s allowed me to examine my feelings from a vantage point that brings greater clarity. It’s also allowed me to write pieces like this, so I can only count it as a good thing. One thing all of us at the table the other night could agree: genitals have a use. They’re fun and they have that footnote of a reproductive function. But no matter what you have, they’re all ugly.


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