Superstar soccer player and LGBTQ+ icon Abby Wambach sat between her parents at the Macaroni Grill when she realized she was gay. Her server introduced herself with a smile and a crayon, writing her name upside-down so Abby and her parents could read it, and that’s when something so minute profoundly changed Abby’s life forever. The server’s hand grazed Abby’s pinky finger, and an electric current—the kind you read about and pine for—sizzled through her entire body and explained away an ocean of questions about her sexual identity.
The way she tells it, she sat like a statue between her parents, desperately trying to keep her face neutral while a burst of understanding quaked through her. Oh! Ohhhh! Here was the reason she felt such an affable kind of love for her boyfriend of four years, why something always just felt amiss. She suddenly knew she was capable of feeling that body-jolting desire for someone, but it was for women, not men.
In describing this moment on Glennon Doyle’s podcast “We Can Do Hard Things,” she said, “I had been avoiding it and ignoring it and denying it for so long, and this moment was what I had been hoping to feel with this boy. This is what I thought I was supposed to feel but never did… It was a literal graze that made me feel all those feelings and go Oh, I understand.”
With her devout Catholic upbringing, that moment (and the heartfelt letter she wrote to the Macaroni Grill and subsequent make out session with said waitress) led to plenty of hardship and scary soul-searching before Abby Wambach grew to find comfort in this new identity. In fact, she couldn’t even say the word lesbian for many years. But in the process of searching, of scrubbing down the proverbial walls of her sexual identity to read the writing, Abby gave herself permission to question, to learn, and to examine, which is the surest way to figure out what lights us up and turns us on.
So, what happens when there’s no “pinky graze” moment?
Unfortunately for me, no Macaroni Grill waitress (or any other woman) grazed my pinkies (or any other body part) until I was nearly 40 years old and married with two beautiful sons, deeply embedded in my suburban life. For me, the absence of such an experience in my formative years translated to secretly watching the L Word (and other stuff) on my laptop in my basement in the middle of the night, buzzing and churning with sexual energy.
I’m a writer, typically of the nonfiction variety, but I spent hours writing half a dozen sickeningly romantic (and sexually graphic) stories about women meeting, having rousing sexual exploits, and falling in love. Those writing sessions were followed by hours of self-rebuke about how fantasizing about women didn’t make me gay.
My delayed sexual exploration crashed into reality when I inevitably met a woman who inspired those nervous belly bubbles and a gripping need to kiss and touch and experience her body. It was beautiful and liberating—but it also brought with it a reckoning, and I exploded the foundation of my life to get to the bottom of it. When the destruction was over and I sifted through the detritus of my marriage, I kept wondering why I hadn’t figured all this out sooner.
I knew it wasn’t fear of rejection; I grew up in a liberal household with very open-minded parents. Instead, like the vast majority of us, I moved through life with the inertia fueled by Disney fairytales and the formulaic assumption that I was straight. The kind of sex I really wanted to experience or was capable of never really occurred to me until I was years into my marriage to a man who I deeply loved.
At 40, I burst out of the two-dimensional fantasies and into real human interaction and discovered that, yes, I crave and am fulfilled by sex with a woman, that her curves and smooth skin are fundamental to what turns me on most. But when I really search myself, there were signs that I ignored, voices I tuned out, and signals that I misread on the way to that discovery.
I have since learned that we can’t just wait around for someone to graze our pinkies. Rather, we need to mine for information and clues that can lead us to sexual experiences and partners that will suit us—that will light us up. Here’s what I learned from my topsy-turvy sexual exploration:
Listen to your body—it knows.
It’s so common to grow up in sexual silence, or worse yet, to associate shame with eroticism or sexual exploration. But while the brain gets hung up in all those associations, the body doesn’t heed these warnings—it just feels. If you feel a flutter when you watch a couple bring an extra partner into the mix on a TV show or movie, don’t ignore the feeling. Your turn-ons may not even involve a partner—maybe you get turned on when you go dancing. Even if you can’t act on these feels right away, put a pin in them. Sometimes we see something or meet someone that makes us feel something new, but we turn away from it because we’re afraid of what it says about us. Don’t turn away. Take a good, long look.
Be game for something new.
For most of us, sexual pleasure is a journey marked with plenty of trial and error. You might encourage a partner slap your ass and learn that Nope, that’s not your thing. But as it turns out, discovering what you don’t like can often lead you what you want. Being open to new and erotic experiences can also help you learn what you like. For example, even if a more vanilla kind of sex is preferable and feels a little safer, you may learn that a little dirty talk gets you going. But if you don’t try, you’ll never really know.
Unlearn what you know about yourself and sex.
Through television, media, music, politics, school, religion, (and practically everything else), we collect and store bits of information about what it means to be a sexual being and a woman. Many of those messages tell us it’s naughty, unladylike, or unacceptable to explore, to be a little wild, or to enter relationships that aren’t considered mainstream. Unlearning all that starts with learning about yourself. Use a hand mirror the next time you touch yourself. Try podcasts that talk about sex and relationships like the Savage Lovecast with Dan Savage or anything with Belgian psychotherapist and sex guru Esther Perel. Expanding your mind will lead you to new (and often pleasurable) places.
Embrace your lizard brain.
The recipe for what turns us on is often an arbitrary amalgamation of DNA and life experiences with extra randomness thrown in, also known as our lizard brains. You may feel embarrassed by proclivities that feel out of line with how you see yourself. Maybe you’re a feminist in your everyday life who likes to be dominated in the bedroom. But as long as your encounters are consensual and legal, give your lizard brain permission to lead to the sexual satisfaction you are capable of achieving.