Archives of Sexual Behavior

, Volume 45, Issue 8, pp 2137–2154

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

DOI: 10.1007/s10508-016-0704-8

Cite this article as:
Goldey, K.L., Posh, A.R., Bell, S.N. et al. Arch Sex Behav (2016) 45: 2137. doi:10.1007/s10508-016-0704-8


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 

Funding information

Funder NameGrant NumberFunding Note
National Science Foundation (US)
  • Graduate Research Fellowship DGE0718128
University of Michigan Psychology Department
  • Pillsbury Research Award
Institute for Research on Women and Gender, University of Michigan (US)
    Horace H. Rackham School of Graduate Studies, University of Michigan (US)

      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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