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Defining Pleasure: A Focus Group Study of Solitary and Partnered Sexual Pleasure in Queer and Heterosexual Women

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Solitary and partnered sexuality are typically depicted as fundamentally similar, but empirical evidence suggests they differ in important ways. We investigated how women's definitions of sexual pleasure overlapped and diverged when considering solitary versus partnered sexuality. Based on an interdisciplinary literature, we explored whether solitary pleasure would be characterized by eroticism (e.g., genital pleasure, orgasm) and partnered pleasure by nurturance (e.g., closeness). Via focus groups with a sexually diverse sample of women aged 18-64 (N = 73), we found that women defined solitary and partnered pleasure in both convergent and divergent ways that supported expectations. Autonomy was central to definitions of solitary pleasure, whereas trust, giving pleasure, and closeness were important elements of partnered pleasure. Both solitary and partnered pleasure involved exploration for self-discovery or for growing a partnered relationship. Definitions of pleasure were largely similar across age and sexual identity; however, relative to queer women, heterosexual women (especially younger heterosexual women) expressed greater ambivalence toward solitary masturbation and partnered orgasm. Results have implications for women's sexual well-being across multiple sexual identities and ages, and for understanding solitary and partnered sexuality as overlapping but distinct constructs.
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Defining Pleasure: A Focus Group Study of Solitary and Partnered
Sexual Pleasure in Queer and Heterosexual Women
Katherine L. Goldey
Amanda R. Posh
Sarah N. Bell
Sari M. van Anders
Received: 3 August 2015 /Revised: 19 January 2016 /Accepted: 28 January 2016/ Published online: 23 March 2016
Springer Science+Business Media New York 2016
Abstract Solitary and partnered sexuality are typically depicted
as fundamentally similar,but empirical evidence suggeststhey
differ in important ways. We investigated how women’s defi-
nitions of sexual pleasureoverlapped and diverged when con-
sidering solitary versus partnered sexuality. Based on an inter-
disciplinary literature, we explored whether solitary pleasure
would be characterized by eroticism (e.g., genital pleasure,
orgasm)and partneredpleasureby nurturance(e.g.,closeness).
Via focus groups with a sexually diverse sample of women
aged 18–64 (N=73), we found that women defined solitary
and partnered pleasure in both convergent and divergent ways
that supported expectations. Autonomy was central to defi-
nitions of solitary pleasure, whereas trust, giving pleasure, and
closenesswere important elementsof partnered pleasure.Both
solitary and partnered pleasure involved exploration for self-
discovery or for growing a partnered relationship. Definitions
of pleasure were largely similar across age and sexual identity;
however,relative to queer women, heterosexualwomen (espe-
cially younger heterosexual women) expressed greater ambiva-
lence toward solitary masturbation and partnered orgasm.
Results have implications for women’s sexual well-being across
multiple sexual identities and ages, and for understanding solitary
and partnered sexuality as overlapping but distinct constructs.
Keywords Masturbation Partnered sexuality Pleasure
Solitary sexuality Women Sexual orientation
Solitary sexuality (i.e., being sexual alone, including solo mas-
turbation, fantasy, erotica use, etc.) and partnered sexuality (i.e.,
being sexual with a partner, sometimes referred to as dyadic
sexuality) are typically understood as different manifestations of
the same underlying phenomenon. Both are commonly thought
to reflect an individual’s characteristic level of sex drive, which
can be expressed with a partner, or, in the absence of a partner,
via masturbation (Laumann, Gagnon, Michael, & Michaels,
1994;vanAnders,2015). Historically, both are assumed to be
oriented around the same goal—experiencing orgasm (Kinsey,
Pomeroy, Martin, & Gebhard, 1953; Masters & Johnson, 1966;
Whalen, 1966; reviewed in Spector, Carey, & Steinberg, 1996;
Tiefer, 2004). In these ways, solitary sexuality is conceptualized
as ‘partnered sexuality minus the partner’ (van Anders,
2015), or as a less complex, less context-dependent, and less
desirable substitute for partnered sexuality.
The ideathat solitary and partnered sexuality are fundamen-
tally the same persists despite empirical evidence to the con-
trary. Solitary and partnered sexuality differ in several impor-
tant ways. First,sexual desire can be separated into solitaryand
partnered components, which are only moderately intercor-
related (e.g., at .30–.35) (Spector et al., 1996; van Anders,
2012b). Moreover, relative to partnered desire, solitary desire
is less gender/sex-specific (i.e., less sensitive to gender/sex of
target) (Dawson & Chivers, 2014) and more malleable in
response tosexual cues (Goldey& van Anders, 2012). Second,
&Sari M. van Anders
Department of Psychology, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor,
Department ofPsychology and BehavioralNeuroscience, St.
Edward’s University, Austin, TX, USA
Departments of Psychology and Women’sStudies, University of
Michigan, Ann Arbor, MI, USA
Departments of Psychology and Women’s Studies, Programs in
Neuroscience and Reproductive Sciences,Science, Technology,
and Society Program, Biosocial Methods Collaborative,
Universityof Michigan, 530 Church Street, Ann Arbor, MI
48109, USA
Arch Sex Behav (2016) 45:2137–2154
DOI 10.1007/s10508-016-0704-8
Content courtesy of Springer Nature, terms of use apply. Rights reserved.
... By contrast, information on queer women's sexual subjectivity within masturbation experiences is less scarce. Compared to heterosexual women, queer women appear to have a greater sense of entitlement to masturbation (Goldey et al., 2016) and engage in masturbation more frequently than heterosexual women (Richters et al., 2003). Still, queer women experience guilt and shame related to the stigma and silence around (female) masturbation (Meiller & Hargons, 2019). ...
... Same-gender sexual encounters more readily enable women to disrupt heterosexual scripts and establish new roles (Braun et al., 2003;Lamont, 2017;Ussher & Mooney-Somers, 2000), as women are free to explore their bodies and desires in ways that do not focus on penile-vaginal penetration (Hammers, 2008). Indeed, women who have had sexual experiences with other women also report engaging in a more diverse range of sexual activities (Breyer et al., 2010) and are more likely to prioritize their own orgasm than are women who have never had sexual experiences with women (Goldey et al., 2016). Additionally, women who have had sexual experiences with other women report a higher sense of sexual selfefficacy, entitlement to self-pleasure, and entitlement to pleasure from their partner . ...
... Notably, descriptive research contrasting experiences of solo and partnered masturbation is scarce. Goldey et al. (2016) utilized focus groups to examine women's pleasure in solo and partnered sexual activities. Their participants enjoyed the autonomous control of physical stimulation in solitary pleasure and the interpersonal closeness of partnered pleasure. ...
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This qualitative study aimed to examine the experiences and attitudes toward masturbation among emerging adult women. The study was the first to compare women's solo and partnered masturbation experiences, focusing on how feelings of pleasure, sexual desire, and a sense of empowerment—important markers of women's sexual subjectivity—varied across the two contexts. The sample consisted of 40 women between the ages of 18 and 22 years. The majority of participants identified as Latina (33%) or Black (30%) and were enrolled in community college. Semi-structured interviews about women's masturbation experiences were analyzed using thematic analysis. Women described a multitude of feelings, including pleasure but also awkwardness and guilt. Although women did not describe their masturbation practices as morally wrong, they often alluded to disliking masturbation and preferring it less to partnered sex. Whereas some attitudes and feelings (e.g., awkwardness) arose in the context of both solo and partnered masturbation encounters, others were prevalent only in one (e.g., guilt in the solo encounters). Feelings of pleasure, sexual desire, and empowerment manifested differently in the two contexts. There was more focus on self-knowledge, control, and physical pleasure in the solo encounters and more enjoyment of a partner's desire and intimacy in the partnered encounters. We examine the findings through a feminist lens and consider how race/ethnicity, sexual scripts, and contemporary societal contexts shape women's sexual lives.
... The SOE has hardly been studied in the context of solitary masturbation, probably because masturbation has been considered taboo for centuries (Das, 2007;Sierra et al., 2022). Furthermore, it is assumed that solitary sexuality is less complex, less context-dependent, and less desirable than partnered sexuality (Goldey et al., 2016). ...
... Second, SOE was compared in the context of solitary masturbation and that of sexual relationships. We predicted SOE would be more intense in the context of sexual relationships than in the context of solitary masturbation (Goldey et al., 2016;Sierra et al., 2021) (H2). Third, we examined the relationship between gender and SOE in both contexts (solitary masturbation and sexual relationships). ...
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The subjective orgasm experience (SOE) is the psychological perception of orgasm sensations and closely related to sexual health. Here, SOE was studied through the context in which it is experienced (sexual relationships and solitary masturbation), gender, and sexual orientation. For this purpose, data were collected from 4255 people (1927 men and 2328 women) of different sexual orientations (heterosexual = 1545; bisexual = 1202; and gay = 1508) who completed two versions of the Orgasm Rating Scale (ORS) for both contexts (i.e., sexual relationships and solitary masturbation) along with a socio-demographic questionnaire. Results showed that the ORS in the context of solitary masturbation is an instrument invariant by gender and sexual orientation. Significant differences in SOE were found by context: it was more intense in the context of sexual relationships (vs. solitary masturbation); by gender: women (vs. men) reported greater intensity; and by sexual orientation, with heterosexual people (vs. gay and bisexual people) having a more intense experience.
... Pleasure consists of emotional, cognitive, and physical domains as well as mind-body connections (e.g., sub headspace; [12,13]). Sexual pleasure can be defined as "perceptions of physical and emotional positivity and enjoyment accompanying sexual experiences" [14,15]. ...
... Research with trans individuals and sexual satisfaction points to both universal experiences as well as transspecific experiences, such as pleasure as a distraction from body dysmorphia, and effects of hormone replacement therapy on pleasure sensation [24]. Sexual minority cisgender women (e.g., lesbian, bisexual, queer) were more likely to describe entitlement to selfpleasure than heterosexual cisgender women [13]. ...
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Background: Alt-sex practitioners are a diverse group with diverse unconventional sexual behaviors including consensual non-monogamy (CNM), kink, fetishism, and bondage/discipline dominance/submission, sadomasochism (BDSM). Perhaps because of their openness to non-normative sexuality, these communities often comprise a large proportion of lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans, queer, among others (LGBTQ+) individuals. LGBTQ+ individuals experience higher rates of sexual violence and consent violation than their cisgender, heterosexual peers both inside and outside of formalized alt-sex communities. Pleasure, including but not limited to sexual pleasure, is often a motivator for engaging in sexual and alt-sex activities. This study examines how consent violations influence pleasure among LGBTQ+ alt-sex members. Methods: We conducted an electronic one-time survey of LGBTQ+ alt-sex practitioners (N = 1354). In this study, we analyze open-ended responses for ways pleasure was described in response to questions about consent violations. We use thematic analyses in Dedoose online software. Results: Two subthemes emerged related to the violation itself, (a) pleasure as a motivator for violating consent and (b) pleasure in spite of consent violation. As the second theme that emerged, pleasure was a component of the aftereffects of the violation in two ways: (1) pleasure was reduced or inhibited by consent violations; (2) pleasure was a motivator for healing and advocacy. Conclusions: We discuss practical and research implications based on the complex relationships between violations and pleasure reported by participants.
... A recent paper indeed showed these same findings in a sample of over five hundred men and women using an online survey assessing their perceived sexual pleasure in various sexual activities (37). Multiple factors, including closeness to each other, building trust, feeling desired and giving pleasure to a sexual partner have been put forward to play a role in women"s partnered sexual contact (38). ...
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Introduction: Penile and genital surgery for congenital or acquired conditions is daily practice in reconstructive urology. These procedures, which carry the risk of disrupting nerves and blood vessels, may impair the genital sensation, and affect the capacity for sexual pleasure. Self-reported tools are needed to systematically assess the male genitalia before and after reconstructive surgeries in terms of genital sensation and sexual experience. Aim: This study validated the Dutch translation of the self-assessment of genital anatomy and sexual functioning (SAGASF-M) questionnaire and investigated the perceptions of healthy men regarding their genital anatomy and sensory function. Methods: Eight-hundred and eight sexually active men with a median age of 39 years (18-79 years) and no history of genital procedures other than circumcision filled out an online version of the questionnaire. Twenty-four participants were randomly recruited to confirm the responses of the SAGASF-M questionnaire by a clinical evaluation. Main outcome measures: The SAGASF-M questionnaire comprises of multiple-choice questions and clarifying illustrations asking men to rate their genital appearance, overall sexual sensitivity, and pain perception as well as the intensity and the effort to reach orgasm. Prespecified regions of the glans, penile shaft, scrotum, perineum, and anus are evaluated through this questionnaire. Results: Only slight variability in anatomical ratings was observed. Overall discrimination between different genital areas in terms of genital sensation was significant. The bottom of the glans or frenular area was rated the highest contributor to "Sexual pleasure", followed by the other regions of the glans and shaft. The same distribution was found for "Orgasm intensity" and "Orgasm effort". The anal region was generally rated the lowest. "Discomfort/Pain" was rated lower than any of the other sensory function indicators and the top of the glans and anal region were rated most likely to perceive this unpleasant sensation. Participants reported significantly more sexual pleasure and intense orgasms when stimulated by a sexual partner compared to self-stimulation. Homosexual and bisexual men reported a higher contribution of the perineal and anal regions in sexual pleasure and orgasm. No significant difference between circumcised and uncircumcised individuals regarding overall genital sensation could be found. Conclusion: The Dutch translation of the SAGASF-M questionnaire is a valuable and reliable tool for self-assessment of genital anatomy and sensation, providing a site-specific attribution of a patient's perceived sexual function. Further prospective research with this questionnaire could aid in the patient-centered improvement of genital surgery. This article is protected by copyright. All rights reserved.
... This allows to explore whether clitoral knowledge is higher in populations with potential access to new feminist inputs (e.g., college students) or can be counted as widespread knowledge. Because orgasm can be an important aspect of sexual pleasure but does not necessary cover all aspects, we additionally considered sexual pleasure as a variable in our analysis (Goldey, Posh, Bell, & van Anders, 2016;Opperman et al., 2014;Pascoal, Narciso, & Pereira, 2014). ...
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Despite some efforts to enhance clitoral knowledge to increase women's sexual pleasure, a gendered orgasm gap persists. We aimed to provide contemporary data on people's knowledge about the clitoris and investigate its association with the experience of sexual pleasure. Heterosexual participants (n = 573; 64.2% women) took a quiz on clitoral knowledge and answered sexuality-related questions. Participants answered only 50% of the nine quiz items correctly. Clitoral knowledge predicted sexual pleasure and orgasm in women, mediated via reduced endorsement of gendered sexual scripts. Our results highlight the importance of clitoral knowledge and its interplay with societal barriers for the experience of pleasure.
... Studies across multiple sexual identities and ages have found that solitary and partnered sexuality are overlapping yet distinct components of sexuality (Goldey et al. 2016). Therefore, future investigations should study sexual pleasure, sexual autonomy, and sexual distress both in solitary and different partnered contexts. ...
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Research suggests that pressure to meet gender norms can limit social behaviors and ultimately promote poor health outcomes, such as disparities in decreased sexual pleasure, which are considered a central component of human rights and well-being. Previous studies have shown that sexual pleasure and sexual autonomy are gender-related, but little is known about these indicators in diverse populations. This study used data from a probabilistic sample of Cape Verdean immigrant (n = 127) and Portuguese native (n = 133) women and men who were in an intimate relationship enrolled in the FEMINA (Fertility, Migration and Acculturation) project to explore intersectional variations in sexual pleasure, sexual satisfaction, and distress considering their interplay with sexual autonomy and social representations regarding sexuality. For all participants and especially among men, sex is a very important part of life. Sexual autonomy was positively associated with sexual pleasure among Cape Verdean and Portuguese women and Portuguese men. Sexual distress was negatively associated with sexual pleasure among women, especially Cape Verdean women who reported higher sexual distress. This small-scale study is an example of an intersectional approach to sexual health and rights.
Job stress is pervasive in today's workforce and has negative implications for employees' mental and physical well-being and job performance. Recovery activities outside of work can reduce strain and improve work outcomes; however, little is known about pleasurable intimate recovery experiences and their influence on work outcomes, even though these experiences are important parts of most people's lives outside of work. The present study examined sexual activity that is shared either with a relationship partner or oneself (masturbation) and how pleasure specifically predicts well-being and work outcomes to induce recovery. Results suggest that pleasurable sexual activity, with a partner or alone, is related to perceived recovery from work stress, job satisfaction, work engagement, and life satisfaction. Moreover, perceived recovery from work mediated the relationship between pleasurable sex and work outcomes. Gender moderated this relationship such that pleasurable sex was a stronger predictor of recovery for women (compared to men) in the context of sex within committed relationship partners (but not masturbation). Theoretical and practical implications are discussed.
While factors related to undesirable consequences of sexual activity for Latinas are well documented, Latinas’ experiences with sexual satisfaction and pleasure in the broader context of sexual health remain understudied. The objective of this study is to increase understanding around adult Latinas’ experiences with sexual satisfaction, pleasure, and desire. Participants were recruited via a combination of convenience and snowball sampling approaches and engaged in individual interviews which utilized a semi-structured approach. Twenty self-identified Latina women, ages 19–37, participated. Participants represented diverse ethnic and cultural backgrounds within the Latina diaspora. Three themes (each with subthemes) emerged from this analysis: (1) Latina women value sex and sexuality, (2) specific factors make their sexual experiences more or less pleasurable, and (3) experiences of being Latina shape sexual relationships and encounters. These findings have implications for social work education, practice, and policy. Critical and strengths-based approaches encourage questioning and critiquing power dynamics in the sexual lives of Latina women and have potential to inform work with other groups.
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Amidst the vast majority of literature that either quantify the extent to which one identifies to be asexual or creates an atomistic perspective of the asexual spectrum which reiterates the false notion that all asexuals are aversive to sex, the current qualitative inquiry aimed to describe the sexual experiences of sex-positive asexuals who are rarely mentioned in academia. Fifteen Indian sex-positive asexuals who have engaged in either self-pleasure or partnered sex, and even both, were recruited for the study. The individual semi-structured interviews that captured their perceptions of their own sexual experiences were thematically analysed to cover the same important phenomena. The experiences associated with developing own identity in terms of sexual activity included self-exploration helping in self-acceptance, feeling of being different and a preference of the type of sexual activities. The participants also reported how their preconceptions about sex based on media and peer engagement differed from what it really was. Emotional experiences during self-pleasure and partnered sex were found to be radically different for most of the participants. Recognising why self-pleasure is important to them and the impacts they believe it had, were commonly observed. It was also found that the participants had a clear understanding of their own roles and the extent of efforts to be put into self-pleasure activities and partnered sex. During the normal human experience of physiological arousal, which is purely based on non-sexual factors about the partner or a potential one, they resort to indulging in sex with them or pleasuring themselves. A dichotomy in terms of the intrinsic and extrinsic reasons for why they indulged in self-pleasure or partnered sex was observed. The results of the study are pivotal in developing inclusive practises, sex education and community awareness about this particular community and, most importantly, enabling representation of their experiences within the academia about sex and sexuality.
Sexual pleasure is a meaningful linkage of physical sensations of sexual contact with affective interpretations of those sensations, and is a key milestone of sexual development during adolescence. However, sexual pleasure is not simply cerebral assessment of sexual outcome but instead rests in the ways each specific body generates sensation in the context of social, cultural, interpersonal, and intrapersonal meaning. The understanding of sexual pleasure during adolescence is enlarged through assessment of sexual embodiment from consideration of diverse bodies—those associated with spina bifida, autism spectrum, and gender dysphoria. The objective of this chapter is to contribute to a framework for understanding the development of sexual pleasure during adolescence.KeywordsSexual pleasureAdolescentEmbodiment
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A stratified probability sample survey of the British general population, aged 16 to 44 years, was conducted from 1999 to 2001 (N = 11,161) using face-to-face interviewing and computer-assisted self-interviewing. We used these data to estimate the population prevalence of masturbation, and to identify sociodemographic, sexual behavioral, and attitudinal factors associated with reporting this behavior. Seventy-three percent of men and 36.8% of women reported masturbating in the 4 weeks prior to interview (95% confidence interval 71.5%-74.4% and 35.4%-38.2%, respectively). A number of sociodemographic and behavioral factors were associated with reporting masturbation. Among both men and women, reporting masturbation increased with higher levels of education and social class and was more common among those reporting sexual function problems. For women, masturbation was more likely among those who reported more frequent vaginal sex in the last four weeks, a greater repertoire of sexual activity (such as reporting oral and anal sex), and more sexual partners in the last year. In contrast, the prevalence of masturbation was lower among men reporting more frequent vaginal sex. Both men and women reporting same-sex partner(s) were significantly more likely to report masturbation. Masturbation is a common sexual practice with significant variations in reporting between men and women.
Testosterone (T) is often studied for its role in causally influencing (male) sexual behavior. However, research in females and males from a variety of species also demonstrates evidence for the ???reverse relationship???, i.e., effects of sexual stimuli and behaviors on T. Although sexuality clearly modulates T, T does not respond the same way in every individual or in every sexual situation. What accounts for this variability in sexually-modulated T is not well-characterized. However, the social context surrounding a sexual interaction, over and above specific sensory modalities or behaviors, seems important in shaping sexual modulation of T. Additionally, in humans, sexual thoughts in the absence of external stimuli or the mere anticipation of sexual activity can increase T. These findings suggest that one source of variability in sexually-modulated T may be how an event is experienced internally (i.e., cognitively, perceptually, and affectively). In this dissertation, I examined how internal experiences shaped sexual modulation of T and bidirectional sexuality-T associations in women. To address my research questions, I employed longitudinal, qualitative, and experimental methods. First, I demonstrated that women???s T was positively associated with solitary sexual behavior (i.e., being sexual alone) but negatively associated with dyadic sexual behavior (i.e., being sexual with a partner). Second, mirroring their differential associations with T, solitary and dyadic sexuality were described as qualitatively different experiences by women themselves. In focus group discussions, women defined solitary sexual pleasure as oriented around autonomy and orgasm, and dyadic sexual pleasure as oriented around nurturant intimacy (among other components). These findings supported theoretical predictions that sexual contexts oriented around genital/erotic pleasure would be linked with higher T, and those oriented around nurturance would be linked with lower T. Finally, I showed that cognitive/emotional experiences predicted women???s acute T responses to visual sexual stimuli. Specifically, identification with stimuli (i.e., taking the perspective of film characters) moderated T responses to self-chosen versus researcher-chosen erotic films. Taken together, my findings highlight (a) the bidirectional and dynamic nature of T-sexuality associations and (b) the power of even subtle internal cues to shape physiology.
A candid and provocative critique of women's sexual liberation in America. Although conventional wisdom holds that women in the United States today are more sexually liberated than ever before, a number of startling statistics call into question this perceived victory: over half of all women report having faked orgasms; 45 percent of women find rape fantasies erotic; a growing number of women perform same-sex eroticism for the viewing benefit of men; and recent clinical studies label 40 percent of women as "sexually dysfunctional." Caught between postsexual revolution celebrations of progress and alarmingly regressive new modes of disempowerment, the forty women interviewed in Performing Sex offer a candid and provocative portrait of "liberated" sex in America. Through this nuanced and complex study, Breanne Fahs demonstrates that despite the constant cooptation of the terms of sexual freedom, women's sexual subjectivities-and the ways they continually grapple with shifting definitions of liberation-represent provocative spaces for critical inquiry and personal discovery, ultimately generating novel ways of imagining and reimagining power, pleasure, and resistance.