Mathilde Kennis (FPN): Trans persons and their sexual well-being
“If I go through gender confirmation treatment, how will life be between the sheets?” This is a common question in the trans-community. Mathilde Kennis is trying to find an answer.
Kennis is a PhD candidate at two research groups within the Faculty of Psychology and Neuroscience: Brain Stimulation and Cognition (supervisors Alexander Sack and Felix Duecker) and Experimental Health Psychology (supervisor Marieke Dewitte). Her study focusses on adult trans persons, people whose birth gender does not align with their gender identity (gender dysphoria). These transgender persons often want to undergo gender confirmation therapy, a medical procedure to align their body with their gender. “I want to look at their neurobiology and sexual well-being. I want to do this from the time they are still in the “wrong” body, during their transition, and eventually after the anatomical reassignment.”
What does the brain tell us?
Neurobiology studies what physically happens in the brain. “We’re looking for connections between different zones in the brain.” Some of these zones differ slightly between men and women. “I want to see if, in trans persons, their brain is already more ‘male’ or ‘female’ than their body. And if, for example, a woman becomes more masculine through hormone therapy, does the brain also change?"
Kennis suspects that the cause of gender dysphoria isn’t simply a male brain in a female body (or vice versa). She thinks it has to do with the areas of the brain processing the connection between the body and the mind. “In many trans persons we see an aversion to their own body.”
Often trans persons are on a long waiting list for gender confirmation therapy, during this period they feel unhappy. “If we can show that we can apply therapy around the experience of their own body and not so much to the male/female dynamic. Then maybe we can ease their pain during this waiting period.” Kennis also wants to look at how she can help people who decide not to go through with the medical procedure. This choice is also often made, because of the costs, fear for the impact of the procedure, or because they do not completely conform to a binary gender identity (male or female).
To find trans persons to take part in the study, Kennis is partnering with Ghent University, which houses one of the largest gender centres in Europe. “We will recruit our participants at this institute, but I’m also immersing myself in the community.” She does this by, among other things, visiting the monthly café-nights of Transgender Limburg in Maastricht. “As a cisgender woman I cannot know exactly what goes on inside their heads, and I want my research to benefit them. That’s why it’s important for me to keep talking to the community, and not work from an ivory tower on studies they have no use for. I don’t want to presume that as a researcher I know more about gender dysphoria than they do: trans persons are the experts, and scientists should listen to them.”
Quite good for a girl
Kennis had a science and mathematics heavy high school programme, in a classroom with mostly boys. There she often heard “you’re quite good at this for a girl”. After having admonished the boys, she developed an interest in the difference in the brain between men and women. “Trans persons are an interesting group to study this topic.” Where do these differences come from? Are they taught or biological? Can we influence them? “When I learned more about gender dysphoria and how these people suffer, I gained more affinity with the group itself, not just the man-woman subject.”
In this period someone from her hometown came out as a trans woman. The negative reactions awakened her inner activist. “These people go through a lot: depression, anxiety and scarily high suicide rates. We must understand this group better.”
“I think I’m lucky to be focussing on this topic now. It has finally become somewhat acceptable to research these questions, we now have the chance to take this subject seriously.”
There are many cases of trans persons who are very sure about their case, all doubt has been left behind. “I have to go through this process, otherwise I won’t be happy.” But even these people will be confronted with how difficult this transition is. There are many social changes you go through: How will I be addressed? How do I tell my family and friends? Add to that the physical changes from the surgery and hormone treatment. “You basically go through a new puberty.”
“This strongly shows that this is not a choice for trans persons, but a necessity. Otherwise you wouldn’t endure this difficult process.”
From woman to man, or the other way around, is a transition that fits within the framework of how our society views gender. These gender categories are strongly embedded in society but can be limiting. “There is a large group of people that float in between these categories. However, this question is still too complicated for my research. Step 1 is finding out what is going on with trans persons who fit within the binary framework; later I would like to expand my studies to the non-binary and gender fluidity.”
“Clarity and understanding are where we can gain a lot. We’re progressing in small steps, and I’d like to make a few of them."