Illustration by Emma D.

Long before you ever have sex, you have a sex life. I was in my 20s before I fully grasped this concept, which was a few years after I started having sex, and it came as a total revelation. But think about it: even before your first kiss, there are probably people you’re attracted to, and body parts that respond to the people you’re attracted to, and the desire to see those people naked. Then, at some point, sex becomes a theoretical possibility, and before long an actual reality, until suddenly it seems like relationships are no longer about hand-holding and movie dates, but rather “Are they doing it?” And whether you’re single and curious about sex, or you’re in a relationship and unsure about having it, or you’ve already had it and are wondering if that means you’re supposed to keep having it from now on, the whole notion can be pretty overwhelming.

I can’t unburden you of all those complicated feelings, but here’s a fact: you don’t have to have sex to be sexual. Of course, you can if you want to and you’re prepared to protect yourself against pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases, but to me, being sexual can mean lots of things. And regardless of what you’ve got going on physically at the moment, I think it’s worth understanding and exploring all the options for your sexual self, most of which fit into three categories:

1. Intimacy

Intimacy—the simple act of being physically and emotionally close with another human being—is a major part of our lives. It’s what you experience as a kid when your parents cuddle you after a bad fall. It’s that feeling you get when you and your best friend have an inside joke that you can’t even explain to anyone else, but it makes you both howl with laughter. It’s a long make-out session. It’s being able to tell someone about your anxieties and knowing that they won’t judge you. It feels fantastic, and it usually builds slowly over time.

Intimacy is often confused with, or used as a euphemism for, sex, but they’re not the same thing—they overlap a lot, but not always. I personally recommend including intimacy in your sex life, but there are all sorts of other ways to be intimate with a partner without doin’ it: for example, kissing, giving each other massages, masturbating together, talking about your fantasies. Just talking, period, about anything that’s important to you is a way of showing someone that they, too, are important to you, and vice versa.

It’s also easy to think that if you’re not dating anybody, your life lacks intimacy, but this isn’t true either. If you play with your best friend’s hair, or snuggle them at a sleepover, or share secrets for hours at a coffee shop after being pumped full of latte—these things make you feel warm and cozy, and they have nothing to do with your sexuality. Or they might—sometimes experimentation with friends is part of how we figure things out—but this behavior is primarily about building a relationship with another person. It’s essential that we establish intimacy with people other than our romantic partners, because our closeness to friends and family helps us make sense of what we do or don’t want from sexual relationships.

2. Sexy Thoughts

A big chunk of your sexuality is completely and totally private, and sometimes we don’t take enough advantage of that. Having sexual thoughts is absolutely, 100% normal and healthy. They can be triggered by a scene in a movie, a girl you saw on the street, a passage from a Judy Blume book, a new person in class, or just some free time with your active imagination. First of all, can I just say: how fascinating is it that mere thoughts can trigger physical responses in our body? Fantasies feel kinda awesome—or frustrating, or sometimes even wrong—but in a world where we’re not always sure what to do with our bodies, it’s nice to know that we can do anything we like with our minds. And your fantasies can stay there, or you can write them down, or you can transfer them to other people and write racy fan fiction.

Fantasies in general are a wonderful way to explore your own sexuality without feeling judged or embarrassed about it. You can imagine hooking up with a person you are not normally attracted to, or multiple people, or with someone other than the person you’re in a relationship with—the sky’s the limit. Just like a dream where something strange happens and you wake up relieved that it didn’t actually happen, fantasies are a place where you can do whatever you want without being concerned about the reaction or consequences. Thoughts are not actions, so give yourself permission to fantasize without feeling guilty.

And, of course, there’s always masturbation. If you haven’t tried it yet, I strongly encourage you to do so. It helps clear your brain when it’s all fogged up with thoughts of your latest crush. We don’t encourage our fellow sisters to do it enough, and it’s often treated like a shameful secret, whereas dudes get their own gestures and jokes and cultural touchstones. Masturbation is a blessing. No matter what you use—a hand, a blanket, a vibrator—keep trying until you learn what makes you have an orgasm. It’s a free, easy way to treat yourself for getting your homework done or making it through the day or just waking up in the morning. A bonus is that if you learn how to make yourself come before anyone else gets a crack at it, you can teach them how.

3. Feeling Sexy

You can also express your sexy self without doing “the deed” (however you define that, if you do), and you have complete control over how you do so. For instance, did you consider that you’re allowed to wear any kind of underthings you like and no one ever has to see them except for you? It’s true. Garters, briefs, camisoles, slips, whatever makes you want to strut. When I wear something I consider playful underneath my clothes, I carry myself differently, even if the only person I’m turning on is myself.

But then there’s the sesssuality you might want to share with the world. Maybe you like to wear short skirts. Maybe you like to combine lingerie-looking tops with motorcycle boots. Maybe there’s nothing hotter to you than a T-shirt and jeans. It can be exciting to show off what you got if you want to, and don’t let anyone tell you that you’re sending “the wrong message” to the people who check you out. The only message that you’re sending is: I’m confident enough to choose how I want to look on a given day.

After a particularly difficult breakup a while back, I signed up for a burlesque dance class, and it wound up totally changing how I thought about myself. Before that, I had thought of my sexuality as a thing that belonged to the guys I was dating, something I turned on and off depending on whether they were around. But sexy-dancing in a room with 12 other women and watching my body create these movements in the mirror, with no one else watching but me (since all my classmates were doing the same thing—watching themselves), showed me that I don’t need anyone else’s gaze to make me feel hot. I joined the class thinking, This is what I’ll do until I find another boyfriend, and I left wanting to use my new signature flirty moves on myself. You don’t have to take a dance class to feel this way—dancing in general, alone in your bedroom or with your friends, is a rush, and watching yourself can be even more thrilling than being watched.

And like I said above, there are also plenty of ways to meet your needs/satisfy urges/explore your sexual side without “going all the way.” You and your partner can stimulate each other with your hands, or get on the phone and tell each other all the things you’d like to do to each other, or dry hump—a terribly unclassy term for rubbing your bodies together with clothes on. (I HAVE TO ADD: sending revealing photos is a riskier route, as even safer apps like Snapchat have not proven foolproof, and it’s a lot of trust to be putting in someone else’s hands.) But many people forget that they have so many options, and you can have lots of fun trying them out.

This is your sex life. Parts of it will be private, parts of it might be public, and some of it you’ll share with select people along the way, but no matter what, you’re in control. And you know what? If you’re satisfied, then you’re doing everything right. ♦