Illustration by Emma D.

Among my friends that are girls, secrets about masturbating make up the largest category of things that I am ill-advisedly made privy to. As soon as things get a little drunk-after-prom or giggly-at-a-sleepover, everyone gets all, “I totally masturbate … isn’t that CRAZY?!”

Having heard this at least 15 times by now, I have a less-than-difficult time accepting each new piece of OMG-so-crazy information. What still manages to blow my mind, though, is the fact that people have chosen to tell their secrets to me. Not only am I the worst secret keeper—whispering in my ear is basically the same as sending a mass text to everyone you know—I also was never exactly on the cutting edge of masturbation myself. While most of my guy friends made it very clear that they had been wanking since the waning days of elementary school, I didn’t even know that female masturbation was a thing until my best friend came clean to me in the fall of freshman year.

“What do you mean you’ve never masturbated?” she asked. “I thought everyone did.”

At that point in my life, the only thing more frightening than touching my own vagina was the possibility of being marked as a “late bloomer,” so I decided to take my lady parts out for a spin. Here are a bunch of questions that I wish someone had answered for me before I started masturbating, as well as relevant anecdotes I gathered from strangers and friends:

1. Is masturbating wrong?

Some things are wrong: e.g., stealing from Claire’s, murder, bullying, control-top pantyhose. Notice what isn’t on this list? Masturbation. Masturbation is a healthy, natural, NORMAL activity. If you try it out, you won’t go blind or grow hair on your palms. Your god of choice will not smite you. Your parents never need to know. The first few times you try it, though, you might feel guilty. This isn’t weird. Lots of people (mostly female-identified people) feel bad about masturbation at first because NOBODY EVER TALKS ABOUT IT. The more that it becomes part of your normal routine, though, the more you’ll realize that it’s just part of being a human, like breathing or farting or scratching your leg when it itches.

Relevant personal anecdotes from real live people:

“My parents never really talked about [masturbation], but I think I knew that generally it was something they probably didn’t approve of. To this day I don’t really know their opinions on it, but it’s OK, because I generally know my own.” –Abbi, 19

“I remember I used to feel awkward, even guilty, about masturbation. I felt like a freak, because I thought no one else did it. All [of my friends] said that masturbation was for weird, nymphomaniac girls because only boys did that. That kept me thinking I was weird and a nymphomaniac for years.” –Laura, 18

2. Am I the first/last person in the world to try this?

I asked a bunch of girls and women I know about their first masturbation experiences, and almost everyone prefaced her answer by saying she was either a “late bloomer” or an “early bloomer.” Hilariously (or perhaps sadly), they said this no matter what age they started. Women who masturbated for the first time at 12, and women who tried it for the first time at 20, both called themselves early bloomers. Other women who started at the exact same ages called themselves late bloomers. I guess this is what happens with something that nobody talks about—everyone thinks they’re weird. But I have some news for you: no matter what age you start masturbating, or if you never start masturbating, in this regard, at least, you aren’t special. You are neither the first nor the last person to try it out. Whatever age you decide to start masturbating, if you do, is “normal.”

Relevant personal anecdote from a real live person:

“I can’t even remember the first time I masturbated. I constantly humped just about everything when I was little … pillows, stuffed animals, etc. I never attached any sexual feelings or concepts to it until about middle school, which was the same time I first fingered myself. For me, I never considered humping or clitoral stimulation to be sexual until about that age.” –Danielle,* 19

3. Why should I masturbate?

The most obvious reason you should try masturbating is because you want to. I tried it because I wanted to be as cool as my friends (OH NO VICTIM OF PEER PRESSURE), but I’m glad I did, because masturbating is fun! And it can contribute lots of great things to your life.

Relevant personal anecdotes from real live people:

“Masturbating has improved my general self-confidence. I am a sexy woman who can meet her own needs!” –Danielle

“Masturbating definitely helped my stress levels and self-confidence.” –Zoë, 24

“When I can’t sleep or am stressed out I masturbate a lot, so I think it helps with sleep and stress.” –Holly, 21

4. So how do I actually do it?

This is probably the only question that I can’t really answer for you. What feels good is a matter of personal opinion. Just like people have different tastes when it comes to food, they have different tastes when it comes to things related to sex. The best advice I can give you is to try a bunch of different techniques and then decide what you like and what you don’t.

There are lots of different ways to masturbate. A good way to start is by using your hands, since that doesn’t cost any money and you hopefully are already familiar with how to operate them. What you specifically do with your hands is up to you:

  • You can stick varying numbers of fingers inside of your actual vagina (this is the part of the body that goes inside of you, like where you would put a tampon or get fingered). Not all women can orgasm from vaginal stimulation, but that doesn’t mean that vaginal masturbation won’t feel good for you.
  • You can also try touching your clitoris. Your clitoris, or “clit,” is located near the front of your genitalia, in front of your urethra (the place you pee from). Use your hands to massage your clitoris. Vary speeds and amounts of pressure that you use in order to determine what you like. You can try spitting on your fingers first;** some wetness can feel good.
  • In the same way that you can finger your vagina, you can also finger your anus (yes, that anus). If you plan on trying this, go slowly and use a lubricant (like spit) to make sure you’re comfortable, as the skin in your anus is thinner and more likely to tear than the skin in your vagina. You might like masturbating your anus, as it’s a good way to indirectly stimulate your clitoris.

(If you aren’t sure where all those parts are, there are some helpful diagrams on this page of the sex-ed site Scarleteen.)

Lots of people find masturbating more than one of these parts of the body at once to be pleasurable. If you are switching between anal and vaginal stimulation, be sure to wash your hands in between. Nasty infections are bad.

If masturbating with your hands is not for you, you might want to purchase a sex toy like a vibrator. Someone in a sex shop (find a friendly, feminist store) will be able to help you figure out the type of toy that is right for you. In most areas you need to be 18 in order to shop in a store for this sort of thing, but let it be noted that sex toys can be ordered online (just sayin’). You also might be living under the same roof as a free sex toy RIGHT NOW, and not even know it: lots of people I consulted sang the praises of “that shower sprayer thing on the end of a hose.” If you have one of these in your bathroom, that might be something worth checking out. Spray it on top of your clit, not into your vagina. Start at a low setting.

Relevant personal anecdotes from real live people:

“Back in the day, I mostly masturbated by lying in bed, face down, with a pillow between my legs, and humping the hell out of it. Eventually, in high school, some friends gave me a vibrator that was meant to be inserted, and I experimented with that quite a bit, including some anal play.” –Ellen,* 33

“I mostly use a vibrator, but sometimes I’m feeling nostalgic and I’ll go back to my hands. I always use my middle finger. It’s weird, but any other finger doesn’t feel as good. And two fingers never really worked for me. One was always falling off the clit and not being a part of the action.” –Amanda, 26

“I like to use my hands. Sometimes I think about buying some sex toys, but I really can’t afford them (I’m on a very tight college budget and I’m currently saving for an exchange year). I prefer clitoral stimulation, which I sometimes alternate with vaginal stimulation.” –Laura

“I have never used a sex toy in my life. I always masturbate lying down, on my stomach, using my hand/pillow/something. I think from the outside it would look something like a WAY, WAY, WAY less sexy version of what’sherhotgirlface in Black Swan. I suppose that would be considered purely clitoral stimulation?” –Katie, 26

5. Do I have to “come”? How do I know if I’ve had an orgasm?

You don’t have to do anything when you masturbate. The success or failure of masturbating has nothing to do with whether or not you orgasm, and everything to do with your enjoying yourself and feeling good.

Orgasms come in different sizes. It is possible for you to have no orgasm, a small orgasm, a large one, or one of any size in between. All of these still qualify as successful masturbation outcomes, if you had fun, killed some stress, or alleviated your boredom. Here are some things that might happen to your body when you orgasm:

  • The inside of your vagina might lubricate itself a lot at once (“get wet”).
  • You could feel a rush as blood flows quickly from other parts of your body to your genitals.
  • Your breathing might get fast; your heart rate could increase.
  • Your vagina (and maybe even some other parts of your body) might contract rapidly in a series of pleasurable waves.

Relevant personal anecdotes from real live people:

“I reach orgasm only about half the times that I masturbate. It’s a success if I have fun, and I always do.” –Danielle

“Truthfully, I have never orgasmed when I masturbate. I’m still in pursuit.” –Sophie, 17

“With masturbation, I come once and am done. I’ve tried going for another orgasm but I just lose interest.” –Ellen

“I almost always orgasm, usually once, but sometimes twice. I guess I do consider it more of a ‘success’ when I do, but at the same time I don’t think it’s a failure if I don’t orgasm.” –Michelle, 18

“I don’t know if I’ve really had an orgasm … it’s just a success if I get a warm and heightened pleasure.” –Abbi

6. Should I watch porn? Is that gross? Am I gross if I like watching porn?

There is nothing weird or gross about watching porn, just as there isn’t anything weird or gross about not watching it. Lots of people enjoy watching porn because it helps them get turned on or into a sexier mindset. Porn isn’t the only way to do this, though.

Relevant personal anecdotes from real live people:

“I fantasize about having sex with different men or women. [I think about] the sex and how it would feel.” –Danielle

“I watch a lot of porn. Like, a lot. I used to think it was kind of a dirty thing that I couldn’t talk to a lot of people about. I felt a lot better about masturbating and watching porn, though, after I started talking to my friends and (now ex-) boyfriend about it.” -Erinn, 19

“[I used to have a] TV with HBO and Showtime in my room—MAJOR PORN TIME USA!” –Katie

“I watch porn sometimes, but honestly, I read fan fiction or erotica at least as often. I’m so in love with my smart phone, [because] now I can read online things, AND be in bed lying down.” –Kelly,* 29

7. If I don’t like masturbating, is something wrong with me?

No! The important thing is to know that there is nothing wrong with giving it a shot. If you try it and you don’t like it, that’s fine! Plenty of healthy and happy people go through periods of their life, and even their entire lives, without masturbating. You should do what makes you feel good, and if that does not include masturbating, then don’t masturbate!

Relevant personal anecdotes from a real live person:

“Sometimes I’ll masturbate multiple times a day, sometimes I’ll stop for weeks. It changes!” –Claire,* 17

8. Is there a way I can refer to female masturbation without sounding like a health-class teacher?

There are tons of ways to refer to female masturbation without sounding clinical. I used a bunch in this article. Here are a few more suggested by some of the people I talked to:

“I always just call it rubbing one out.” –Zoë

“I like having a wank, even though I know that [usually] refers to male masturbation.” –Amie, 26

“My favorite word for female masturbation is the verb to frig, which I believe I first ran into in the works of the Earl of Rochester. I think it’s a 16th- or 17th-century term.” –Ellen

“I’m a fan of jilling off.” –Sophie

“I usually just think of it as getting off, because jilling sounds to me like that last step in making Jell-O, where you let it chill in the fridge.” –Michelle

No matter what you call it, how you do it, or what you think of the result, getting to know the likes, dislikes, mechanics, and nuances of your body is a good and valuable way to become more comfortable with yourself. So go south, young lady, and grow savvy in the things that make you feel good! ♦

* These women asked me to change their names for this article, and I obliged.

** Some of you in the comments expressed concern that using spit as lube might be unsanitary and cause infections. So we checked with our friends at Planned Parenthood and here’s what they said: “It’s not only totally safe to use spit as lube during masturbation or sex—it’s also convenient, readily accessible, and free.” So there you have it. (Good news for the nail biters and thumb suckers out there, too.)