The Curious Case of the Phantom Penis

by Megan Bridges

The following article originally appeared in Brainstorm:

Our investigation of the phantom penis begins with Mirabelle, a twenty-five-year-old woman born without arms but who nonetheless experiences phantom limb syndrome. Phantom limb syndrome is the sensation of a limb that is not physically present due to a hard-wired body map in the brain that persists after an amputation or congenital defect. Dr. V.S. Ramachandran of UC San Diego has conducted extensive research on phantom limb syndrome, and he describes Mirabelle in his book, Phantoms in the Brain. In one encounter between Mirabelle and Dr. Ramachandran, Mirabelle states that she has experienced phantom limb sensations since childhood. This is unlike female-to-male transsexual men, individuals who were born female but identify as male (also known as gender dysphoria). Many trans men report experiencing vivid phantom penis sensations, suggesting that they have a hard-wired male body map in their brains that is incongruous with their physical female bodies.

In 2007, Dr. Ramachandran set out to learn more about phantom penis sensations in trans men. What he learned was surprising. After interviewing 29 trans men, he learned that 18 of the 29 subjects experienced phantom penis sensations prior to sexual reassignment surgery. Two of the trans men interviewed reported that the sensations began after starting testosterone therapy, while most reported that the sensations began in childhood. In an ABC interview, Dr. Ramachandran stated that the trans men provide precise descriptions regarding the length of their phantom penises, which side their phantom penises lean, and the angle between their pubic bones and their phantom penises. Phantom penis sensations are commonly experienced in cisgender men, men who were born male and identify as male, without penises as well. Approximately 58% of cisgender men who have had their penises removed due to accident or disease experience phantom penis sensations, including phantom erections and phantom orgasms. However, they’re not the only ones capable of experiencing such sensations. That is to say that trans men with phantom penises also experience phantom erections, both during arousal and in some non-erotic situations.

Additionally, few trans men experience phantom breast sensations after undergoing a mastectomy in comparison with cisgender women. Between 33% and 53% of cisgender women who have had their breasts removed due to cancer experience phantom breast sensations, while only 3 of the 29 trans men interviewed experience phantom breast sensations following chest surgery. A similar finding was found in male-to-female transsexual women who have undergone sexual reassignment surgery. While their penises are not removed during the sexual reassignment procedure, some of the penile tissue is removed. That being said, only 30% of trans women experience phantom penis sensations following the removal of penile tissue as opposed to the 58% of cisgender men previously discussed. These findings suggest that gender dysphoria is not solely a product of nurture, as previously believed, but can also be largely attributed to nature.

Click here to read the SF Gate article on Dr. V.S. Ramachandran’s study and here to access his research proposal.