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

Abstract

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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Fig. 1

Notes

  1. 1.

    Participants identified their gender/sex from options of “female,” “male,” or “a gender not listed here (please indicate),” with an open-ended textbox option. We did not specifically inquire whether participants identified as cisgender or transgender, but no participants self-identified as transgender in the open-ended textbox.

  2. 2.

    We held an additional session for this category because one group ran out of time before moderators addressed all of the main questions.

  3. 3.

    One 26-year-old participant elected to attend an 18–24 session because she was a current undergraduate student, and one 39-year-old participant attended a 41+ session due to scheduling issues.

  4. 4.

    Participants at one session did not complete feedback forms due to time limitations.

  5. 5.

    An exception to this coding method was used to identify segments of discussion relevant to orgasms. Here, we used the Text Search Query function of NVivo to code for the word “orgasm” and synonyms (e.g., climax, come, get off). The first author read excerpts identified by the Text Search Query to eliminate any coding of potential synonyms of orgasm used in other contexts.

  6. 6.

    van Anders (2015) has discussed how the line between solitary and partnered sexuality can become blurry in interesting ways; for example, is internet sex solitary because it occurs alone or partnered because it involves interaction with another person? Interestingly, our participants also noted that the boundaries of solitary and partnered sexuality could blur in contexts such as internet sex and mutual masturbation.

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Acknowledgments

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.

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Correspondence to Sari M. van Anders.

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

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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.

Appendix

Appendix

Outline of Focus Group Discussion Guide

  1. 1.

    What are some things about being sexual that make you feel pleasure? These could be pleasurable aspects of solitary sexuality, partnered sexuality, or both.

  2. 2.

    Venn Diagram activity (see Fig. 2).

    Fig. 2
    figure2

    Venn Diagram activity. Each participant was asked to arrange two cut-out circles to represent her answer to the following question: To what extent are the things you find pleasurable about solitary sexuality the same or different as the things you find pleasurable about partnered sexuality? The lack of overlap in a would represent that the participant considered solitary and partnered pleasures very different, and the overlap in b would represent that she considered them very similar. Participants selected one of 11 pre-marked positions, and a moderator scored the activities such that 1 = most overlap and 11 = least overlap. Thus, a would be scored as 10 and b would be scored as 2

  3. 3.

    What do you find pleasurable about partnered sexuality?

  4. 4.

    What are some motivations or reasons for engaging in partnered sexuality?

  5. 5.

    How do your feelings toward your partner affect your pleasure?

  6. 6.

    How do you measure your degree of pleasure in partnered situations?

  7. 7.

    When you engage in partnered sexuality, do you plan it and look forward to it? What do you look forward to? Is the anticipation itself pleasurable?

  8. 8.

    Are there circumstances that make partnered sexuality especially pleasurable for you?

  9. 9.

    What do you expect to get out of partnered sexuality?

  10. 10.

    What do you find pleasurable about solitary sexuality?

  11. 11.

    What are some motivations or reasons for being sexual by yourself?

  12. 12.

    Would there be a reason to engage in masturbation without orgasm? If so, what reason?

  13. 13.

    Do you feel that masturbation is ok when you are in a relationship or have a regular sexual partner? Why or why not? Have you felt this way in all of your relationships?

  14. 14.

    How do you measure your degree of pleasure in solitary situations?

  15. 15.

    When you engage in solitary sexuality, do you plan it and look forward to it? What do you look forward to? Is the anticipation itself pleasurable?

  16. 16.

    Are there circumstances that make solitary sexuality especially pleasurable for you?

  17. 17.

    What do you expect to get out of solitary sexuality?

  18. 18.

    Are there times or situations when you would prefer to engage in solitary activity rather than partnered activity? If so, what are those situations?

  19. 19.

    Are there times or situations when you would prefer to engage in partnered activity rather than solitary activity? If so, what are those situations?

  20. 20.

    What is the role of fantasy in pleasure? Is this important during solitary situations, partnered situations, or both?

  21. 21.

    Can use of erotica contribute to pleasure? Is this the case for solitary sexuality, partnered sexuality, or both?

  22. 22.

    Are there things you identify as similarly pleasurable about both solitary and partnered sexuality?

  23. 23.

    What is one positive thing in terms of pleasure that you get from solitary sexuality that you don’t get from partnered sexuality?

  24. 24.

    What is one positive thing in terms of pleasure that you get from partnered sexuality that you don’t get from solitary sexuality?

  25. 25.

    Venn Diagram activity repeated (to see if participants’ feelings have changed during the course of the discussion).

  26. 26.

    Following recap from moderator’s notes: Have we missed anything, or are there any other thoughts that you would like to share?

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Goldey, K.L., Posh, A.R., Bell, S.N. et al. Defining Pleasure: A Focus Group Study of Solitary and Partnered Sexual Pleasure in Queer and Heterosexual Women. Arch Sex Behav 45, 2137–2154 (2016). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10508-016-0704-8

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Keywords

  • Masturbation
  • Partnered sexuality
  • Pleasure
  • Solitary sexuality
  • Women
  • Sexual orientation