The title of this post may conjure up a memory of a book that was particularly popular in the 1970s and 1980s called The Joy of Sex, which attempted to demystify sex between hetero couples, and make it seem exciting and fun, instead of being filled with anxiety, and even fear. Well, I'm not going to embark on a comprehensive set of instructions - How To Dilate Successfully And Win Friends, or something like that. But there are some aspects to it that I do want to talk about.
Dilation isn't much discussed. I'm going to talk about that.
People who realise that they are transsexual, and may need to undergo surgery, soon hear about dilation, but then put it out of mind, unless someone reminds them of the horror to come. I remember being told more than once, 'Oh, you know, don't you, that you'll have to dilate forevermore once you've had the operation?' As if it were a vile thing, or at least a dreadful, soul-destroying chore that I would bitterly regret letting myself in for. A kind of lifelong penance for defiling my bodily integrity.
And even I, who had not shirked to find out all I could about What Happened After The Op, had no true notion what it would actually be like. How could one know? Dilation had no personal reality whatever before the operation. One could only read about it second-hand, on other peoples' blogs. Their posts suggested there were - especially at first - pitfalls aplenty: pain, mess, infection, technical problems, psychological problems, certainly issues with taking time out and ensuring privacy.
Looking ahead as well as one could, it seemed that dilation would hurt, and it was indeed a chore, a chore that could easily become a bore.
I encountered one person who had given up on dilation because it had eventually seemed too much trouble. Consequently, her vagina had closed up. What? All that work done for nothing? All that personal time and effort and emotion gone to waste? She told me that her dreams of finding someone special, a close and trusted sexual partner, had all come to nothing. So she had gradually departed from her dilating regime, and then abandoned it entirely. She was an older transioner, as I was. It wasn't encouraging.
At the time - this was four years ago - I didn't press her for more details. It seemed kinder not to. But in hindsight I ought to have quizzed her, so that I'd find out precisely why she did not keep on dilating, and - since she regretted losing a functioning vagina - what high hurdle of difficulty had stood in her way, and what she now felt she could have done to jump over it. Forewarned is forearmed, after all. But reticence to talk about it kept me ignorant. A great mistake. The experience of people who have gone before you is always valuable, even if your own hopes and temperament are different, and you know that you will surely manage matters in another way - and hopefully be more successful.
I had failed to question her because I felt it would be intrusive, and too personal, and too probing of confidential matters, even though she had volunteered the story of her vagina without my asking. It wasn't that I was too prudish to discuss it.
But the classic prudish Anglo-Saxon attitude to genitalia is alive and kicking, and makes it difficult for some people to speak about dilation. I find this unbelievable, not only because this is 2013 and not 1913, but also because you would think that by the time anyone had been through The Process they would have lost all inhibitions about discussing their bodies, and what you can do with them. But apparently not! Dilation (in essence, pushing a penis-shaped rod up one's vagina, to stretch and shape it) is simply a regular and necessary medical procedure: but for many persons it remains a very embarrassing subject indeed, something to shy away from - like how best to wipe one's bottom. Not fit for a normal conversation, however serious. It's just not PC, and some people will get huffy and annoyed if you want to talk about the sordid facts of dilation.
Another attitude that makes dilation difficult to discuss is its link with the Old Life. That is, that dilation would not be needed if one had been born a natal woman with a natural, self-maintaining vagina. So dilation becomes a symbol of Male Origin, something a lot of trans women would rather forget completely - and so discussing it is painful to them. I'm not pooh-poohing that kind of view, even though I most certainly don't share it. I can completely see how acknowledging that dilation exists, and must be done, and why, could drag somebody back to a period of their life that was hard to bear. At the same time, that's letting a word keep you prisoner of the past. And not all women who dilate are transsexual. Natal women who have had vaginoplasties for various other reasons may need to dilate too.
I prefer to regard dilation as a symbol of a wonderful future, as evidence that the old body is permanently gone, and remodelled into something new and right. The need to dilate is proof that I now have a vagina as good as anyone else's, a vagina that's ready for business. Dilation is merely one of the several things I do to it to keep it in fine fettle, such as washing it. Every time I dilate, I am assured that my female identity is a real-world thing: the surgery made it so, and dilation keeps on reminding me. No men dilate. Only women.
And what about the link that dilation might have with sex? The quick-and-dirty defintion above of what dilation is includes the words 'push' and 'penis' and, my goodness, doesn't that suggest something akin to sexual activity? Well, there's no denying that if you're feeling randy, a spot of dilation is better than nothing. But a dilator is not a sex toy.
Transitioners emerging from the Charing Cross Hospital in London after their op, or the Nuffield Hospital in Brighton, have a pair of colourless perspex dilators that resemble little glass missiles. They look like modern sculpures in clear plastic. There is nothing remotely sexy about them. You can call them Dilator number one, and Dilator number two, as if they were tools or machines. They are too functional to get excited over. I introduced a note of humour with mine, by giving them names: Little Joe and Big Jim. Strangely - and this reveals yet another odd attitude where dilating is concerned - I have had more than one rebuke for being so frivolous. One person told me that the name Big Jim reminded them of someone they knew, someone gross, and they disapproved of my choice of names. In fact I got a right telling-off for personalising my dilators. I was told it was in bad taste and highly inappropriate. They were not lovers, only things for 'maintenance'.
Oh dear. Presumably my latest and biggest dilator, Mungo, is beyond the pale. The 'problem' with Mungo is that he is 38mm in diameter, which is full penis size, and lately I have discovered that by attaching the screw-in ball to him, I can (with supreme confidence) push him in very nearly five inches. For me that's good. The ball makes a great difference: I seem to have gained an inch of depth by fixing it on. Here he is. Top picture, the full 'Mungo' kit, as supplied by online manufacturer/retailer Femistent in September 2011; middle picture, the current line-up of Mungo-plus-ball, KY gel, and the optional little extender; bottom picture, ready to go, with a super grip:
I think you'll agree that although not colourless, Mungo isn't an exciting shade of pink or purple or red, and we are still in the realm of serious medical equipment.
That said, I really can't see the difference between Mungo and a big fat dildo. Or putting this another way, what would be the big advantage in buying a purpose-made dildo, however fancy, when I have Mungo? I haven't tried a vibrator yet, so I can't say whether I'd be tempted to invest £40 or so in one of them. But so far as having a proper-sized thing to push inside me goes, I believe that I have it cracked with Mungo. And he'll see me out: Femistent are expensive, but they make dilators that will survive nuking, and I'm confident that centuries from now he'll be dug up by an archaeologist and end up in a display of Ritual Objects in some Museum.
I have one or two friends who are happy to talk playfully and lightheartedly about dilation, and their own experiences, but they are exceptional. Most keep silent. Considering that this is a major feature of post-op life, I find that very odd, and very frustrating.
Of course, if one has a vibrant sex life, maybe dilation might be unnecessary. The eternal problem there is, can one get penetrative sex often enough, and to the full depth? If the answer is no, or not always, then proper dilation is still needed.
If you are like me, and don't have any sex at all - or at least not yet - then dilation is part of your regular weekly routine. Nowadays I need to dilate only once a week, optionally twice. I make it twice, because it's a great chance to take a jolly good look at my bits and check that they continue to look pink and healthy. That's a sound medical reason in itself. Does it bother me that I'll need to dilate every week forever? Not a bit. Does it bother me that Mungo may be the only thing that will ever see the inside of my vagina? Nope. After all, Mungo behaves impeccably, is totally under my control, there is no mess, no bristle burn, no beer breath, no emotional fallout, and he lets me live my life as I wish between meetups. Who needs the 'real thing'?