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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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ORIGINAL PAPER
Defining Pleasure: A Focus Group Study of Solitary and Partnered
Sexual Pleasure in Queer and Heterosexual Women
Katherine L. Goldey
1,2
Amanda R. Posh
1
Sarah N. Bell
3
Sari M. van Anders
4
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
Introduction
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
smva@umich.edu
1
Department of Psychology, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor,
MI, USA
2
Department ofPsychology and BehavioralNeuroscience, St.
Edward’s University, Austin, TX, USA
3
Departments of Psychology and Women’sStudies, University of
Michigan, Ann Arbor, MI, USA
4
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
123
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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... 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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... 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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