Archives of Sexual Behavior

, Volume 45, Issue 8, pp 2137–2154 | Cite as

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
Original Paper


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.


Masturbation Partnered sexuality Pleasure Solitary sexuality Women Sexual orientation 



We thank Lisa Diamond for guidance with interview questions, Sara McClelland for helpful discussions, and Shannon Burke, Emily Dibble, William Frey, Gayatri Jainagaraj, Melissa Manley, Taylor Moberg, and Lane Nesbitt for assistance with data collection and transcription. K.L.G. was supported by a National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship (Grant No. DGE0718128). The research described in this paper was supported in part by grants to K.L.G. from the Pillsbury Graduate Research Award, the University of Michigan Institute for Research on Women and Gender, and the University of Michigan Rackham Graduate School.

Compliance with Ethical Standards

Conflict of interest

The authors declare that they have no conflicts of interest.

Ethical Standards

This research was approved by the University of Michigan Health Sciences and Behavioral Sciences Institutional Review Board.

Human Rights and Informed Consent

All procedures performed in studies involving human participants were in accordance with the ethical standards of the institutional and/or national research committee and with the 1964 Helsinki declaration and its later amendments or comparable ethical standards. Informed consent was obtained from all individual participants included in the study.


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media New York 2016

Authors and Affiliations

  • Katherine L. Goldey
    • 1
    • 2
  • Amanda R. Posh
    • 1
  • Sarah N. Bell
    • 3
  • Sari M. van Anders
    • 4
  1. 1.Department of PsychologyUniversity of MichiganAnn ArborUSA
  2. 2.Department of Psychology and Behavioral NeuroscienceSt. Edward’s UniversityAustinUSA
  3. 3.Departments of Psychology and Women’s StudiesUniversity of MichiganAnn ArborUSA
  4. 4.Departments of Psychology and Women’s Studies, Programs in Neuroscience and Reproductive Sciences, Science, Technology, and Society Program, Biosocial Methods CollaborativeUniversity of MichiganAnn ArborUSA

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