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.
This is a preview of subscription content, access via your institution.
Buy single article
Instant access to the full article PDF.
Tax calculation will be finalised during checkout.
Subscribe to journal
Immediate online access to all issues from 2019. Subscription will auto renew annually.
Tax calculation will be finalised during checkout.
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.
We held an additional session for this category because one group ran out of time before moderators addressed all of the main questions.
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.
Participants at one session did not complete feedback forms due to time limitations.
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.
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.
Allen, L. (2002). Naked skin together: Exploring young women’s narratives of corporeal (hetero) sexual pleasure through a spectrum of embodiment. Women’s Studies Journal, 18, 83–102.
Backstrom, L., Armstrong, E. A., & Puentes, J. (2012). Women’s negotiation of cunnilingus in college hookups and relationships. Journal of Sex Research, 49, 1–12.
Bancroft, J., & Graham, C. A. (2011). The varied nature of women’s sexuality: Unresolved issues and a theoretical approach. Hormones and Behavior, 59, 717–729.
Bowman, C. P. (2014). Women’s masturbation: Experiences of sexual empowerment in a primarily sex-positive sample. Psychology of Women Quarterly, 38, 363–378.
Boyatzis, R. E. (1998). Transforming qualitative information: Thematic analysis and code development. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
Braun, V., & Clarke, V. (2006). Using thematic analysis in psychology. Qualitative Research in Psychology, 3, 77–101.
Braun, V., & Clarke, V. (2013). Successful qualitative research: A practical guide for beginners. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
Braun, V., Gavey, N., & McPhillips, K. (2003). The ‘fair deal’: Unpacking accounts of reciprocity in heterosex. Sexualities, 6, 237–261.
Braun, V., & Wilkinson, S. (2005). Vagina equals woman? On genitals and gendered identity. Women’s Studies International Forum, 28, 509–522.
Bridges, A. J., & Morokoff, P. J. (2011). Sexual media use and relational satisfaction in heterosexual couples. Personal Relationships, 18, 562–585.
Brotto, L. A., & Smith, K. B. (2013). Sexual desire and pleasure. In D. L. Tolman & L. M. Diamond (Eds.), APA handbook of sexuality and psychology. Person-based approaches (Vol. 1, pp. 205–244). Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.
Carvalheira, A., & Leal, I. (2013). Masturbation among women: Associated factors and sexual response in a Portuguese community sample. Journal of Sex and Marital Therapy, 39, 347–367.
Chadwick, S. B., Burke, S. M., Goldey, K. L., Bell, S. N., & van Anders, S. M. (2016a). Sexual desire in sexual minority and majority women and men: The multifaceted Sexual Desire Questionnaire (DESQ). Manuscript submitted for publication.
Chadwick, S. B., Burke, S. M., Goldey, K. L., & van Anders, S. M. (2016b). Multifaceted sexual desire and testosterone: Considering cortisol and desire target. Manuscript submitted for publication.
Cohen, J. N., Byers, E. S., & Walsh, L. P. (2008). Factors influencing the sexual relationships of lesbians and gay men. International Journal of Sexual Health, 20, 162–176.
Coleman, E. (2003). Masturbation as a means of achieving sexual health. Journal of Psychology and Human Sexuality, 14, 5–16.
Dawson, S. J., & Chivers, M. L. (2014). Gender-specificity of solitary and dyadic sexual desire among gynephilic and androphilic women and men. Journal of Sexual Medicine, 11, 980–994.
Dekker, A., & Schmidt, G. (2003). Patterns of masturbatory behaviour: Changes between the sixties and the nineties. Journal of Psychology and Human Sexuality, 14, 35–48.
Diamond, L. M. (2003). What does sexual orientation orient? A biobehavioral model distinguishing romantic love and sexual desire. Psychological Review, 110, 173–192.
Fahs, B. (2011). Performing sex: The making and unmaking of women’s erotic lives. Albany, NY: SUNY Press.
Fahs, B. (2014). Coming to power: Women’s fake orgasms and best orgasm experiences illuminate the failures of (hetero)sex and the pleasures of connection. Culture, Health & Sexuality, 16, 974–988.
Fahs, B., & Frank, E. (2014). Notes from the back room: Gender, power, and (in)visibility in women’s experiences of masturbation. Journal of Sex Research, 51, 241–252.
Farquhar, C. (1999). Are focus groups suitable for ‘sensitive’ topics? In R. S. Barbour & J. Kitzinger (Eds.), Developing focus group research: Politics, theory, and practice (pp. 47–63). London: Sage.
Fereday, J., & Muir-Cochrane, E. (2008). Demonstrating rigor using thematic analysis: A hybrid approach of inductive and deductive coding and theme development. International Journal of Qualitative Methods, 5, 80–92.
Fredriksen-Goldsen, K., Simoni, J. M., Kim, H., Lehavot, K., Walters, K. L., Yang, J., … Muraco, A. (2014). The health equity promotion model: Reconceptualization of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) health disparities. American Journal of Orthopsychiatry, 84, 653–663.
Frost, D. M., McClelland, S. I., Clark, J. B., & Boylan, E. A. (2013). Phenomenological research methods in the psychological study of sexuality. In D. L. Tolman & L. M. Diamond (Eds.), APA handbook of sexuality and psychology (Vol. 1, pp. 121–141). Person-based approaches. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.
Garcia, J. R., Lloyd, E. A., Wallen, K., & Fisher, H. E. (2014). Variation in orgasm occurrence by sexual orientation in a sample of U.S. singles. Journal of Sexual Medicine, 11, 2645–2652.
Garnets, L., & Peplau, L. A. (2006). Sexuality in the lives of aging lesbian and bisexual women. In D. Kimmel, T. Rose, & S. David (Eds.), Lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender aging: Research and clinical perspectives (pp. 70–90). New York: Columbia University Press.
Gerressu, M., Mercer, C. H., Graham, C. A., Wellings, K., & Johnson, A. M. (2008). Prevalence of masturbation and associated factors in a British national probability survey. Archives of Sexual Behavior, 37, 266–278.
Goldey, K. L. (2015). Multi-method approaches to understanding bidirectional links between sexuality and testosterone in women. Doctoral dissertation, University of Michigan. http://hdl.handle.net/2027.42/113340.
Goldey, K. L., & van Anders, S. M. (2012). Sexual arousal and desire: Interrelations and responses to three modalities of sexual stimuli. Journal of Sexual Medicine, 9, 2315–2329.
Graham, C. A., Sanders, S. A., Milhausen, R. R., & McBride, K. R. (2004). Turning on and turning off: A focus group study of the factors that affect women’s sexual arousal. Archives of Sexual Behavior, 33, 527–538.
Hermans, E. J., Putman, P., & van Honk, J. (2006). Testosterone administration reduces empathetic behavior: A facial mimicry study. Psychoneuroendocrinology, 31, 859–866.
Hinchliff, S., Gott, M., & Ingleton, C. (2010). Sex, menopause and social context: A qualitative study with heterosexual women. Journal of Health Psychology, 15, 724–733.
Hogarth, H., & Ingham, R. (2009). Masturbation among young women and associations with sexual health: An exploratory study. Journal of Sex Research, 46, 558–567.
Horne, S., & Zimmer-Gembeck, M. J. (2006). The Female Sexual Subjectivity Inventory: Development and validation of a multidimensional inventory for late adolescents and emerging adults. Psychology of Women Quarterly, 30, 125–138.
Insel, T. R., Winslow, J. T., Wang, Z., & Young, L. J. (1998). Oxytocin, vasopressin, and the neuroendocrine basis of pair bond formation. In H. H. Zingg, C. W. Bourque, & D. G. Bichet (Eds.), Vasopressin and oxytocin (pp. 215–224). New York: Springer.
Janssen, E., McBride, K. R., Yarber, W., Hill, B. J., & Butler, S. M. (2008). Factors that influence sexual arousal in men: A focus group study. Archives of Sexual Behavior, 37, 252–265.
Kaestle, C. E., & Allen, K. R. (2011). The role of masturbation in healthy sexual development: Perceptions of young adults. Archives of Sexual Behavior, 40, 983–994.
Kinsey, A. C., Pomeroy, W. B., Martin, C. E., & Gebhard, P. H. (1953). Sexual behavior in the human female. Philadelphia: W. B. Saunders.
Krueger, R. A., & Casey, M. A. (2000). Focus groups: A practical guide for applied research (3rd ed.). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
Laumann, E. O., Gagnon, J. H., Michael, R. T., & Michaels, S. (1994). The social organization of sexuality: Sexual practices in the United States. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Mah, K., & Binik, Y. M. (2002). Do all orgasms feel alike? Evaluating a two-dimensional model of the orgasm experience across gender and sexual context. Journal of Sex Research, 39, 104–113.
Mah, K., & Binik, Y. M. (2005). Are orgasms in the mind or the body? Psychosocial versus physiological correlates of orgasmic pleasure and satisfaction. Journal of Sex and Marital Therapy, 31, 187–200.
Mark, K. P., Fortenberry, J. D., Herbenick, D., Sanders, S., & Reece, M. (2014). The object of sexual desire: Examining the “what” in “what do you desire?” Journal of Sexual Medicine, 11, 2709–2719.
Masters, W. H., & Johnson, V. E. (1966). Human sexual response. Boston: Little, Brown.
McClelland, S. I. (2011). Who is the “self” in self reports of sexual satisfaction? Research and policy implications. Sexuality Research and Social Policy, 8, 304–320.
McClelland, S. I. (2013). “What do you mean when you say that you are sexually satisfied?” A mixed methods study. Feminism & Psychology, 24, 74–96.
McPhillips, K., Braun, V., & Gavey, N. (2001). Defining (hetero) sex: How imperative is the “coital imperative”? Women’s Studies International Forum, 24, 229–240.
Meana, M. (2010). Elucidating women’s (hetero)sexual desire: Definitional challenges and content expansion. Journal of Sex Research, 47, 104–122.
Montemurro, B., & Gillen, M. M. (2013). Wrinkles and sagging flesh: Exploring transformations in women’s sexual body image. Journal of Women & Aging, 25, 3–23.
Morgan, D. L. (2002). Focus group interviewing. In J. F. Gubrium & J. A. Holstein (Eds.), Handbook of interview research: Context and method (pp. 141–159). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
Morgan, D., Fellows, C., & Guevara, H. (2008). Emergent approaches to focus group research. In S. N. Hesse-Biber & P. Leavy (Eds.), Handbook of emergent methods (pp. 189–205). New York: The Guilford Press.
Nicolson, P., & Burr, J. (2003). What is ‘normal’ about women’s (hetero)sexual desire and orgasm?: A report of an in-depth interview study. Social Science and Medicine, 57, 1735–1745.
Opperman, E., Braun, V., Clarke, V., & Rogers, C. (2014). “It feels so good it almost hurts”: Young adults’ experiences of orgasm and sexual pleasure. Journal of Sex Research, 51, 503–515.
Pascoal, P. M., Narciso Ide, S., & Pereira, N. M. (2014). What is sexual satisfaction? Thematic analysis of lay people’s definitions. Journal of Sex Research, 51, 22–30.
Richters, J., de Visser, R., Rissel, C., & Smith, A. (2006). Sexual practices at last heterosexual encounter and occurrence of orgasm in a national survey. Journal of Sex Research, 43, 217–226.
Sanchez, D. T., Crocker, J., & Boike, K. R. (2005). Doing gender in the bedroom: Investing in gender norms and the sexual experience. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 31, 1445–1455.
Schick, V., Rosenberger, J. G., Herbenick, D., Calabrese, S. K., & Reece, M. (2012). Bidentity: Sexual behavior/identity congruence and women’s sexual, physical and mental well-being. Journal of Bisexuality, 12, 178–197.
Seal, D. W., Bogart, L. M., & Ehrhardt, A. A. (1998). Small group dynamics: The utility of focus group discussions as a research method. Group Dynamics: Theory, Research, and Practice, 2, 253–266.
Snowdon, C. T., Ziegler, T. E., Schultz-Darken, N. J., & Ferris, C. F. (2006). Social odours, sexual arousal and pairbonding in primates. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, 361, 2079–2089.
Spector, I. P., Carey, M. P., & Steinberg, L. (1996). The Sexual Desire Inventory: Development, factor structure, and evidence of reliability. Journal of Sex and Marital Therapy, 22, 175–190.
Sprecher, S. (2002). Sexual satisfaction in premarital relationships: Associations with satisfaction, love, commitment, and stability. Journal of Sex Research, 39, 190–196.
Tiefer, L. (1998). Masturbation: Beyond caution, complacency, and contradiction. Sexual and Marital Therapy, 13, 9–14.
Tiefer, L. (2004). Historical, scientific, clinical, and feminist criticisms of “the human sexual response cycle” model. In Sex is not a natural act and other essays (2nd ed., pp. 41–61). Boulder, CO: Westview Press.
Tiefer, L. (2012). The “new view” campaign: A feminist critique of sex therapy and an alternative version. In P. J. Kleinplatz (Ed.), New directions in sex therapy: Innovations and alternatives (2nd ed., pp. 21–36). New York: Routledge.
Toates, F. (2009). An integrative theoretical framework for understanding sexual motivation, arousal, and behavior. Journal of Sex Research, 46, 168–193.
van Anders, S. M. (2012a). From one bioscientist to another: Guidelines for researching and writing about bisexuality for the lab and biosciences. Journal of Bisexuality, 12, 393–403.
van Anders, S. M. (2012b). Testosterone and sexual desire in healthy women and men. Archives of Sexual Behavior, 41, 1471–1484.
van Anders, S. M. (2013). Beyond masculinity: Testosterone, gender/sex, and human social behavior in a comparative context. Frontiers in Neuroendocrinology, 34, 198–210.
van Anders, S. M. (2015). Beyond sexual orientation: Integrating gender/sex and diverse sexualities via sexual configurations theory. Archives of Sexual Behavior, 44, 1177–1213.
van Anders, S. M., & Goldey, K. L. (2010). Testosterone and partnering are linked via relationship status for women and ‘relationship orientation’ for men. Hormones and Behavior, 58, 820–826.
van Anders, S. M., Goldey, K. L., & Kuo, P. X. (2011). The steroid/peptide theory of social bonds: Integrating testosterone and peptide responses for classifying social behavioral contexts. Psychoneuroendocrinology, 36, 1265–1275.
van Anders, S. M., Hamilton, L. D., Schmidt, N., & Watson, N. V. (2007). Associations between testosterone secretion and sexual activity in women. Hormones and Behavior, 51, 477–482.
van Lankveld, J., Hubben, D., Dewitte, M., Dingemans, M. E., den Butter, C., & Grauvogl, A. (2014). The partner’s presence in the sex research lab differentially affects sexual arousal in women and men. Journal of Sexual Medicine, 11, 697–708.
Vares, T., Potts, A., Gavey, N., & Grace, V. M. (2007). Reconceptualizing cultural narratives of mature women’s sexuality in the Viagra era. Journal of Aging Studies, 21, 153–164.
Wade, L. D., Kremer, E. C., & Brown, J. (2005). The incidental orgasm: The presence of clitoral knowledge and the absence of orgasm for women. Women and Health, 42, 117–138.
Whalen, R. E. (1966). Sexual motivation. Psychological Review, 73, 151–163.
World Health Organization. (2006). Defining sexual health: Report of a technical consultation on sexual health, 28–31 January 2002, Geneva. Geneva: World Health Organization.
World Health Organization. (2010). Measuring sexual health: Conceptual and practical considerations and related indicators. Geneva: World Health Organization.
Yuxin, P., & Ho Sik Ying, P. (2009). Gender, self and pleasure: Young women’s discourse on masturbation in contemporary Shanghai. Culture, Health & Sexuality, 11, 515–528.
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.
Conflict of interest
The authors declare that they have no conflicts of interest.
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.
Outline of Focus Group Discussion Guide
What are some things about being sexual that make you feel pleasure? These could be pleasurable aspects of solitary sexuality, partnered sexuality, or both.
Venn Diagram activity (see Fig. 2).
What do you find pleasurable about partnered sexuality?
What are some motivations or reasons for engaging in partnered sexuality?
How do your feelings toward your partner affect your pleasure?
How do you measure your degree of pleasure in partnered situations?
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?
Are there circumstances that make partnered sexuality especially pleasurable for you?
What do you expect to get out of partnered sexuality?
What do you find pleasurable about solitary sexuality?
What are some motivations or reasons for being sexual by yourself?
Would there be a reason to engage in masturbation without orgasm? If so, what reason?
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?
How do you measure your degree of pleasure in solitary situations?
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?
Are there circumstances that make solitary sexuality especially pleasurable for you?
What do you expect to get out of solitary sexuality?
Are there times or situations when you would prefer to engage in solitary activity rather than partnered activity? If so, what are those situations?
Are there times or situations when you would prefer to engage in partnered activity rather than solitary activity? If so, what are those situations?
What is the role of fantasy in pleasure? Is this important during solitary situations, partnered situations, or both?
Can use of erotica contribute to pleasure? Is this the case for solitary sexuality, partnered sexuality, or both?
Are there things you identify as similarly pleasurable about both solitary and partnered sexuality?
What is one positive thing in terms of pleasure that you get from solitary sexuality that you don’t get from partnered sexuality?
What is one positive thing in terms of pleasure that you get from partnered sexuality that you don’t get from solitary sexuality?
Venn Diagram activity repeated (to see if participants’ feelings have changed during the course of the discussion).
Following recap from moderator’s notes: Have we missed anything, or are there any other thoughts that you would like to share?
About this article
Cite this article
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
- Partnered sexuality
- Solitary sexuality
- Sexual orientation