I can remember in excruciatingly vivid detail the two things that brought the most shame to me and all the rest of the teenage girls I went to school with: periods and masturbation. Both of these topics were so deeply steeped with embarrassment that we didn’t even acknowledge their existence. Instead, we suffered through period cramps or the panic of needing a tampon but not having one with the same levels of silence with which we placated our hormones, our sexualities and our secret nightly self-discoveries.

Our bodies felt shocking, lurid and mysterious. The more we neglected to talk about how they had changed, how they made us feel, and the incredible power of a female orgasm, the further we burrowed into ourselves, creating a secret Morse dialogue with our fingers, a confidential disclosure of the flesh.

It feels ironic to me that masturbation was shrouded in so much secrecy back then, especially now that I can openly celebrate it as being pivotal for unlocking some of the most deeply shrouded secrets of my own personal identity. It’s also shocking that in 2016, more than 20 years after self-pleasure was such a taboo topic for me and my schoolmates, female masturbation and pleasure are still saddled with some stigma.

It’s clear to me now that masturbation, and a willingness to discuss it without shame or disgust, is essential for maintaining mental and sexual health. It provides a platform not just for sexual exploration, but also for understanding and accepting who you are, who you’re attracted to, and the sorts of fantasies you may be wanting to share with another person.

There is, after all, no escaping our true selves. If we consider masturbation to be something of a physical, pleasurable form of meditation then it’s no surprise that our subconscious can sometimes present us with an assortment of ideas that we weren’t even aware of. This is crucial at all stages of our lives, but it is especially important in our formative years in terms of helping us to navigate our sexualities and to ease us into feeling comfortable with whatever form they take.

As a result, masturbation can be shocking, informative, exciting and sometimes even disturbing, providing us with that plateau of serenity where arousal meets the mind without the interruption of a secondary party. Just how many of us have fantasized about a man or a woman during masturbation and realized that we may, in fact, be gay? At the very least, our fantasies often show us that gender identity and sexuality are far more complicated than a straightforward label could ever ascribe to us.

Masturbation offers far more to us than just a private exploration of our sexualities, though, and can also help us to understand our emotional and mental well-being as well as our relationships with other people. On a personal level, masturbation has been integral in helping me to process my emotions throughout my life and has been a key tool for helping me work out issues ranging from the trauma that followed a sexual assault to simply realizing that I wanted to end a relationship.

It’s also been crucial for helping me to manage depression and anxiety, providing the power with which to soothe a panicked mind or to unblock a sadness that I was struggling to express with tears. Self pleasure not only provides the catharsis of some kind of release, but also the underrated and divine peace that comes with being able to heal in private.

Masturbation shouldn’t be a source of shame, and it shouldn't be a dirty word (although I’m sure we’d all welcome some new slang terms for female self-pleasure than the ones that are currently available). It’s a form of self-expression, one of which we all are capable, but also one that tends to manifest in ways that are as unique and idiosyncratic as each and every one of us. It may also be one of the most personal and rewarding. We should be encouraging women of all ages, from teenagers to those in old age, to be comfortable enough with their bodies that they can enjoy all aspects of themselves without shame.

Female sexuality shouldn’t be a social secret anymore, just as our fantasies, identities, emotional processes and capacity for pleasure shouldn’t remain a secret to ourselves. So here's to opening things up, exploring our bodies and acknowledging that we do so without shame or stigma.