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Bohmer et al's “Intersectional Masturbation: A Content Analysis on Female Masturbation Studies Through a Sex Positive and Intersectional Lens” (2022)

“Intersectional Masturbation: A Content Analysis on Female Masturbation Studies Through a Sex Positive and Intersectional Lens” [PDF]

Results showed that female masturbation scholarship is primarily sex-positive; however, the samples’ demographics still tend to be less marginalized and more privileged. Further, the results varied based on the articles’ country of origin.

[I]n one study focusing on masturbation as a migraine-relief intervention, women noted feeling guilty and shameful for masturbating, especially when they had a partner or spouse (Uca & Kozak, 2015).

Historically, male masturbation has been centered in the field of sexuality research (Kaestle & Allen, 2011), and when women are included, they are often heterosexual and cisgender (Meiller & Hargons, 2019).

White people have been the most commonly studied race in sex research within counseling psychology journals (Hargons et al., 2017). A study of sex research overall found that over 68%-88% of samples are from WEIRD (Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, Democratic) populations and are androcentric (Klein et al., 2021).

[D]ue to Calvinist influence in the United States, seeking out pleasure is generally seen as shameful, much less giving it to yourself (Wise, 2020).

In one qualitative study about shame and sexual embodiment, women described shame as the dominant shaping force of their sexual embodiment (Ussher et al. 2017). Some argue that societally, we are taught to be ambivalent to pleasure and that women experience more shame for seeking out pleasure when compared to men (Wise, 2020). Other research suggests that many women feel shame and guilt around masturbation (Bowman, 2014; Carvalheira & Leal, 2013). Hogarth and Ingham (2009) found that many women felt feelings of disgust, disinterest, and discomfort towards masturbation. When the shame of masturbation goes unchallenged, it can underpin a woman’s life and prevent her from maximizing her pleasure and connection to her body.

What research that does exist is narrowly focused on a few privileged identities, and excludes older women, women of color, trans and gender-diverse (TGD) folx with clitorises, and women with disabilities, to name a few.

Frank (2010) focuses on studies of black women’s masturbation and argues that they reinforced White Supremacist and deviant notions of Black women’s sexualities. This supports the notion that it is not simply the people who are studied that matter, but also how they are studied, as this has important implications for ongoing and overarching systems of oppression that impact women’s lives and sexualities.

Horne (2005) found that women who masturbated felt more entitled to sexual pleasure, either from themselves or a partner. Overall, the women in that study who gave themselves more orgasms had higher levels of healthy sexual self-development and a greater sense of sexual subjectivity, which is defined as their sense of sexual body-esteem, entitlement to pleasure from oneself and a partner, sexual self-efficacy, and sexual self-reflection (Horne & Zimmer-Gembeck, 2006). Huong (2018) studied women in Vietnam, where masturbating became a symbolic way for them to transition into modernity and break free of more domestic stereotypes women were thought to fulfill.

[M]otivations to masturbate may vary by race, sexual identity and orientation, and other aspects of identity, yet there is little research on what motivates women to masturbate outside of a partnered context (Bowman, 2014; Meiller & Hargons, 2019; see Kılıç Onar et al., 2020).

In the study of sexuality, those with more privileged identities from the aforementioned list are centered in the literature, thus contributing to a system of marginalization in science (Hargons et al., 2020). This leaves much of the literature focusing on White, cisgender, able-bodied, heterosexual men, severely limiting the results’ generalizability and applicability of the results to those not sharing those identities. This form of oppression demonstrates how individuals who hold marginalized identities are understudied, which is a significant point of concern.

[T]his content analysis focuses only on the last 20 years of masturbation research, under the assumption that previous research would be inherently less sex-positive. This was done not to skew data in favor of our hypotheses, but instead to offer a more recent, and therefore accurate, account of the current state of research on this topic. In summary, this content analysis sought to elucidate, within the topic of female masturbation, who has primarily been studied and whether authors used a sex-positive framework from 2000-2020.

Race. In total, 82.4% (n=70) of the studies reported the race of their participants. Of those that reported this category, 51.4% (n=36) of the studies had a majority (>50%) their sample made up of people of color, with the remaining 48.6% (n=34) had majority-White samples. Within the 41 international studies, 56.1% (n=23) had a majority of their sample made up of people of color, 41.5% (n=17) had a majority White sample, and 2.4% (n=1) did not report race, whereas within the 44 U.S. studies, 29.5% (n=13) had a majority of their sample made up of people of color, 38.6% (n=17) had a majority White sample, and 31.8% (n=14) did not report race.

Gender. Overall, 92.9% (n= 9) of the studies reported participants’ gender identity. Of those that reported this category, 100% had primarily cisgender samples and none had primarily gender-expansive samples. A total of 7.1% (n=6) of the studies omitted gender identity from their demographic reporting. All but one of these studies with this omission were from the US.

Sexuality. Out of our sample, 68.2% (n=58) of studies reported the sexual orientation of their participants and 31.8% (n=27) did not. Of the studies that reported this, 89.7% (n=52) had primarily heterosexual people sampled. The remaining 10.3% (n = 6) of the studies reporting this category focused on those with LGB identities. Within the 41 international studies, 4.9% (n=2) had a majority LGB sample, 61.0% (n=25) had a majority heterosexual sample, and 34.1% (n=14) did not report sexual orientation, whereas within the 44 U.S. studies, 9.1% (n=4) had a majority LGB sample, 61.4% (n=27) had a majority heterosexual sample, and 29.5% (n=13) did not report sexual orientation.

Ability Status. In sum, 51.8% (n=44) reported the ability status of their participants and of these, 90.9% (n = 40) had primarily able-bodied people. Only 4 studies had most of their sample comprised of people with differing abilities. Additionally, 48.2% (n=41) of the studies did not report this category. Within the 41 international studies, 4.8% (n=2) had samples comprised mostly of people with disabilities, 51.2% (n=21) had a majority able-bodied sample, and 43.9% (n=18) did not report the participants’ ability status. Within the 44 U.S. studies, 4.5% (n=2) had samples comprised mostly of people with disabilities, 36.4% (n=16) had a majority able-bodied sample, and 52.3 % (n=23) did not report the participants’ ability status.

Overall, 35.4% (n=29) of all of the studies that reported any demographics (n=82) in this analysis reported only privileged identities in their demographics while the remaining 64.6% (n=53) contained at least one reported category comprised of marginalized women. Additionally, 54.5% (n=6) of the sex-negative studies featured only privileged identities in the categories they reported.

72.2% (n=26) of the studies with primarily people of color were sex-positive, followed by 19.4% (n=7) sex-neutral studies, and 8.3% (n=3) sex-negative articles. Of the studies with primarily White people in them, 64.7% (n=22) were sex-positive, 20.6% (n=7) were neutral and 14.7% (n=5) were negative. Of those that reported the gender of their participants, 67.1% (n = 53) were sexpositive, 21.5% (n=17) were sex-neutral, and 11.4% (n=9) were sex-negative. In the studies with a majority of their sample being from the LGBTQ+ community, 83.3% (n=5) of the articles were sex-positive and 16.7% (n=1) were sex-negative. Additionally, 69.2% (n=36) of the studies with mostly heterosexual participants were sex-positive, followed by 19.2% (n = 10) and 11.5% (n=6) being sex-neutral and negative, respectively. Of the studies with primarily able-bodied people, 80% (n=32) were positive, 12.5% (n=5) were neutral, and 7.5 (n=3) were sex negative. Only four studies had differently-abled participants primarily, but of those, two were sex-positive, one was neutral and the last was negative.

The results also clarify that there is much to be done to increase sex positivity in the literature, with over a quarter of the most recent articles not taking a sex-positive stance. Additionally, a previous content analysis found counseling psychology literature was overwhelmingly sex-negative (Hargons, 2017), so our findings suggest that either including other fields improves the prevalence of sex positivity, or that the coding and methodology of the two studies simply yielded conflicting results.

Approximately 48% of articles used samples from outside the United States but had a higher overall percentage of studies reporting all demographics. This may suggest an emphasis of reporting full demographics in countries outside of the US, however it is unclear what may be driving this trend. Another theme that emerged, likely due to the sex positivity in the literature, was a focus on pleasure and enjoyment from masturbation (Goldey et al., 2016; Meiller & Hargons, 2019; Rowland et al., 2019), rather than the focus being on shame and guilt that one might feel from partaking in the activity. Lastly, case studies tended to be sex-negative compared to other methodologies (Gündüz, 2019; Martz, 2003; Uca, 2015). In our sample, there were six case studies, five of which were from the medical field. The more sex-negative messaging in these studies may be due to the more pathologizing nature of their field of origin and its focus on diagnosis rather than other factors.

[I]n all but one category (sexuality), international studies made up a smaller percentage of those omitting demographic information than did US-based studies. This may be a manifestation of the myth of the American melting pot, described as the idea that the US is made up of many diverse identities that blend together to form a united nation (Smith, 2012). Researchers may then internalize this myth, leading to the erasure and nondisclosure of unique identities that participants may hold, due to a cultural devaluation of difference and diversity.

Our findings partially confirm previous studies, which show that most masturbation research focuses on heterosexual White women (Kaestle & Allen, 2011). However, as mentioned above, our results differ in that White woman are no longer the majority. This change could be due to progress in sex research as more studies have centered Black sexuality and pleasure (e.g., Hargons et al., 2021; Malone et al., 2021; Thorpe et al., 2022a; Thorpe et al., 2022b). The remaining categories (gender, sexuality, ability status, and age) had fewer people of marginalized identities. None of the studies included non-cisgender women primarily, and this could be due to the search terms falling within the gender binary (i.e., “female” and “woman"). However, it could also be due to a lack of emphasis on this aspect of women’s identities and how that relates to masturbation. Diverse populations of female participants are necessary to unpack any potential identity-specific shame, guilt, and/or trauma surrounding female masturbation. Moreover, the literature rarely discusses people of color experiencing race-related stressors within systems of marginalization contributing to further levels of vulnerability within sexual relationships (Hargons et al., 2020).

There are also significant differences in masturbation frequency and experiences by sexual orientation, with lesbian women reporting more frequent masturbation compared to bisexual women, as well as bisexual women reporting masturbating more than heterosexual women (Traeen et al., 2002). Nevertheless, little is known about the masturbation practices of transgender women.

The voices of marginalized populations in sex research have often been silenced by focusing primarily on disease prevention (Hargons et al., 2020). The high percentage of the sex-negative studies that only feature privileged identities confirm this trend.

[W]e conceptualized privileged identities as White, cisgender, heterosexual, young, and able-bodied. This limits the analyses we can make of different forms of privilege and how this may present in cultures outside of the US. This was meant to standardize the coding; however, the authors recognize that privilege and marginalization are not simple concepts. Therefore, the generalizability of these results is limited.

It is crucial to recognize that women are not a monolith and having more diverse samples will reveal more accurate representations of women’s experiences. For this reason, including all of the intersections of race, class, gender, ability, and sexual orientation remains relevant to ensure broader representation in sex research. Finally, our analysis highlights that women holding privileged identities are the focus of current research on female masturbation. The marginalized women who are not studied are silenced, and their experiences of sexual enrichment remain hidden, limiting our knowledge of their sexual lives. An intentional focus on sex-positive research is needed for marginalized groups of women to promote their humanity and reduce the disparity in who is studied or favored related to female masturbation.

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