Whenever I smell Black Ice car freshener I think of the way the captain of the girls hockey team (of course) slid her hand against my cheek after expertly spiraling the dial to fill the car with the ambience of Brand New (again: of course). I remember her whispering: “I’m going to kiss you now, OK?”

At 16, that had been my first kiss but it was also all the confirmation I needed: I was a lesbian. And that it wasn’t a fluke reaction that I feigned diarrhea when my sixth grade boyfriend tried to kiss me. And neither was my instinct to break up with him over AIM hours later.

After I came out (think: lengthy Facebook post, sit-down convo with my Mom, heart-to-heart with my best friend), I went about my life as an out cisgender, lesbian.

So you can imagine my internal horror 6 years later, at 22, when a cisgender dude — the quintessential image of a jock — walked into the gym I was working at. He made me tingle from head-to-coochie-to-toes.

I’ll spare you the drama, but what ensued was the 18 month rollercoaster of our on-again, off-again fling.

As soon as it ended, the question of my sexual identity hit me like a 10 car pileup.

Before this boy, I’d been lucky enough to never really struggle with identifying as lesbian. Now, I desperately wanted to return to the comfort of my previous identity. Which meant, publicly, I discounted the year and a half we were together. “It was a phase” I’d say. Or, “I really think it was just a him thing.”

But privately, how both this break-up and these new identity questions were affecting me was clear. Suddenly, I wasn’t masturbating.

If you don’t know me yet, from my portfolio of sex toy reviews, this was a W-I-L-D turn of events. I’m someone who historically has starts and ends everyday with a nub-rub. At the time, I wanted to be a certified sex educator (and I’m now training to be!).

So why did I, the advocate for everything sex, stop? Because every single time I reached between my legs with fingers or toy, my mind immediately travelled to fantasies starring cis dudes.

Apparently my subconscious hadn’t gotten the message that I was a lesbian again! And the shame and discomfort I felt from these scenes kept me from enjoying solo sex. Eventually, I stopped trying to touch myself altogether.

I was experiencing what Dr. Wendasha Jenkins Hall, PhD, a sex educator and researcher based in Atlanta, Georgia, calls cognitive dissonance. Cognitive dissonance, she explains, “occurs when a person holds two or more contradictory beliefs, thoughts, attitudes, behaviors, or values and it can cause discomfort, tension, shame, and anxiety.”

According to her, it made perfect sense that I was having a hard time experiencing pleasure from masturbating when my mind kept creating erotic scenes with cis dudes. As long as I held strongly to the belief that I was only a lesbian, I was creating an internal paradox.

“Conflict and discomfort are the antithesis to pleasure,” she says. “So your fantasies were putting you in the position where you had to alleviate that discomfort.” And for me, she says, alleviating the discomfort of crushing on cis dudes meant saying no to masturbation.

Internalized biphobia is also often accompanied by fears that you’re greedy, insatiable, or unloveable. And the desire to “just pick a team.”

Internalized biphobia (n):

Self-hatred that occurs as a result of liking folks with gender’s like one’s own, and unlike one’s own, which is often accompanied by fear and hatred of other bisexual, pansexual, and omnisexual folks.

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Celibacy lasted for nearly half a year before something happened: I developed feels for a close friend of mine, another cis dude. But for the same reasons I estranged myself from my solo sex practices, I didn’t let myself express these feelings.

Apparently the experience of watching my crush swoon over someone else was enough to force me into confronting my internalized biphobia — and embrace the fact that my sexuality has evolved.

Because while I could say my jock-ex was “just a fluke,” having powerful feelings for second cis dude made it a pattern.

Soon after, I switched from a regular ol’ therapist to a queer therapist, something Jenkins Hall says is essential for those experiencing internalized biphobia.

“Killing off internalized biphobia often requires unpacking memories, experiences, and beliefs that are often dark, traumatic, or deep, so having a professional to talk to and help you sort things out is key,” she says.

My therapist was integral in helping me understand that being attracted to cis men now didn’t mean I had lied when I came out as lesbian.

Outside of therapy, I filled my social feeds with out and proud bi queers and activists (shoutout @gabalexa, @jenerous, @zacharyzane_, and @speakingofautumn), and stopped referring to myself as a “lesbian” in the articles I wrote.

By the time my 1-year break-up anniversary with the jock passed, I began to accept the fact that I, Gabrielle Kassel, am a big ol’ queer, bisexual dyke.

So, I came out such. This second time, via an Instagram story, Family FaceTime, and group text.

Once I did that? I stopped being so damn afraid that people other than womxn would show up in my fantasies!

Since then, I’ve been back to rubbing one out on the reg, fantasizing about whichever hotties my mind desired, and have tickled my fancy with nothing but organismic bliss.

I want to be very clear: The images your mind conjures during masturbation don’t define attraction or say anything about your identity.

For instance, it’s entirely possible to be a cis dude who jerks off to the idea of receptive anal sex, but who hates the actual sensation of something in your butt IRL. Or to be Domme, who rubs off to mental scenes of being submissive, even if that’s something you don’t actually enjoy in practice.

It just so happened, for me, my fantasies brought me face-to-face to the fact that I actually wanted to be having sex with cis dudes, that I no longer just liked womxn, and that it wasn’t just a ~my hot jock ex thing~.

Not masturbating (aka withdrawing pleasure from myself) was how my internalized biphobia appeared, in peak manifestation. Shedding all that internalized angst and replacing it with pride in my bisexual and queer identity was a necessary step before I could lean back into the fantasies, porn, or IRL hanky-panky that makes me hot and bothered.

Nowadays, I’m back on my morning and nightly masturbation grind. And that close-friend-turned-crush I told you about? He’s my boyfriend.

Oh, and you’ll never believe it: Hanging from his rear-view mirror is a Black Ice car freshener.

Gabrielle Kassel (she/her) is a queer sex educator and wellness journalist who is committed to helping people feel the best they can in their bodies. In addition to Healthline, her work has appeared in publications such as Shape, Cosmopolitan, Well+Good, Health, Self, Women’s Health, Greatist, and more! In her free time, Gabrielle can be found coaching CrossFit, reviewing pleasure products, hiking with her border collie, or recording episodes of the podcast she co-hosts called Bad In Bed. Follow her on Instagram @Gabriellekassel.