“I heard Amanda lies under the bathtub faucet.”
I was tucked into my locker after seventh-grade gym, wrangling my sweaty sports bra out from beneath the underwire bra on top of it. I designed this technique so no one could see my nipples. Eavesdropping on my classmates was an unexpected bonus.
“Why doesn’t she use the hand-shower thing?”
“She doesn’t have one.”
I might have screamed, “That’s not how you’re supposed to take a shower,” if I hadn’t been stuck in a two-bra shibari of my own design. Or maybe, “Is she pregnant with water?” But I never would have dared ask the only question I actually needed answered: Why?
I wasn’t religious. I wasn’t even wholesome. I was the one who knew what a blow job was (or, as I learned it, a “blow joe”). I was the one who got in trouble for “swearing like a sailor.” I was even the one who proudly told the entire lunch table that I was “pretty sure the applicator thing stays on the outside.”
But masturbation? Whom???
Slowly, I figured out it was like rubbing that genie lamp inside a cave, except the cave is hip-huggers and also there’s no genie. I felt contaminated for even thinking about it. How could it possibly feel good enough to offset the humiliating means of getting there, the cringe-worthy noises and grotesque expressions I might make, the devastating judgment if I was ever found out or how grody I’d definitely feel afterward? But above all was the insidious thought that had haunted me so long it nearly became me:
Who ever said I deserved to feel good?
Maybe I would have felt differently if I’d had a lock on my bedroom door. If I had liked my body. If I had gone to a school with better sex ed. If I possessed even one crumb of self-esteem. If I had become friends with Amanda, or any girl for that matter. If I could have seen Big Mouth or Pen15 or Booksmart or any content that normalizes girls pleasuring themselves, for themselves. But I didn’t. And so I learned pleasure as something meant for other people.
Shame followed me into high school like the rolling backpack my chiropractor begged me to use. I didn’t know it as “shame” then, just as “the truth.” I did start dabbling in sexual activity with other people, but I justified it to myself on the grounds that they wanted it. I prided myself on being “chill” and “low maintenance” and “so down-to-earth, I’m basically in hell.” But me… horny? Ha ha ha honestly that’s really funny because it’s medically impossible for me to be horny my doctor told me and you can ask them except like patient confidentiality and actually who told you I was horny because THAT ONE TIME at the assembly when I yelled “Schwing!” I was doing a very funny bit.
I was so committed to being unburdened by libido that I maintained it for years, without question. I became The Adult Girl Who Had Never Masturbated (R.I.P. Stieg Larsson). I even started joking about it—something about my small hands, as if a lack of meaty thumbs and an octave reach exempted me from the bean-flicking draft.
I wish I could say that, one day, some sexy spirit moved me to put on “I’m Every Woman” and finger-blast myself into sensual oblivion. The reality is slightly less empowering: A supportive boyfriend surprised me with a vibrator. Not for him, not for us, just for me. I guffawed, “In what world? I hope they take returns! Why is it so smooth?” But then, in a quiet moment when no one was home, I locked the door, turned off the lights, lit a candle and gave it a try. And all at once, I understood why Amanda had lain spread-eagle beneath the bathtub faucet.
She figured it out at 12. I was twenty-fucking-four.
Check out Adam Conover’s “My Pleasure” essay, on the power of pain, here.