Dissertations, Theses, and Capstone Projects

Date of Degree


Document Type


Degree Name





Deborah Tolman

Committee Members

Michelle Fine

Sara McClelland

Brett Stoudt

Subject Categories

Social Psychology


narrative analysis, embodiment, sexuality, feminist research, qualitative research, Listening Guide


The negotiation of sexual desire is argued to be a vital part of the development of women’s sense of agency and well-being. Whereas desire is a concept that is widely used, measured, and diagnosed, women’s experiences of desire are poorly understood. Heeding the calls of feminist psychologists for conceptual analysis, and the need to examine desire within the multiple intimate and sociopolitical contexts in which sexuality develops, my dissertation is a critical feminist analysis of young women’s desire, centered on their subjective and embodied experiences. Moving beyond questions of what women desire or how much desire they have, I explore how young women desire within complex social, relational, and psychological landscapes of injustice.

I conducted semi-structured clinical interviews with 24 young women (ages 18-29), in which I asked them to tell me stories about their experiences of sexual desire. I first examined how young women conceptualized and made meaning of their sexual desire, using a reflexive thematic analysis. I then utilized a Listening Guide analysis, through which I identified and traced voices of wanting and a voice of surveillance to explore the psychological logic young women use to navigate their embodied experiences of sexual desire. Through these two critical feminist analyses, I found evidence for, and elucidated, the heterogeneity of embodied desire. Young women’s experiences highlighted sexual desire as erotic and powerfully felt within the body, but messy and multifaceted, tied to yearnings for pleasure, power, connection, and security. Participants told me not only of how sexual desire felt within their individual bodies and minds, but of the conditions of institutional and social surveillance that served to shape and constrain how they felt with and about their sexual feelings. A key finding is that feeling desire created both conscious and unconscious dilemmas for young women as they navigate these conditions. Participants’ descriptions and stories of desire point to powerful possibilities for pleasure, agency, and joy, but also cannot be understood outside of the gendered social relational contexts that serve to shape and constrain how young women embody their sexual feelings. Findings highlight the tensions between pleasure and danger in young women’s experiences of sexuality, and the necessity of accounting for embodied experiences within larger social and relational worlds in the study of sexual desire. I conclude with questions raised by this study for research on sexual desire as well as girls and women’s sexuality more broadly.

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