Deserving Desire: The Development of Women's Sexual Subjectivity

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    • 00:04

      [Deserving Desire: The Developmentof Women's Sexual Subjectivity]

    • 00:11

      DR. BETH MONTEMURRO: Hi.I am Beth Montemurro.I am a Professor of Sociology at Penn State Universityin Abington.Today I'm going to be talking about howwomen's feelings about their sexuality change and evolve.And how women become more confident.I do this based on my research that Idid for my recently published book, Deserving Desire:

    • 00:32

      DR. BETH MONTEMURRO [continued]: Women's Stories of Sexual Evolution.So some of the points that I'm going to talk aboutare, what is sexual subjectivity?Sexual subjectivity is key in understandinghow women develop their desire and how their desire evolves.And then I'm going to talk about whyunderstanding sexual subjectivity is important.

    • 00:53

      DR. BETH MONTEMURRO [continued]: Then I'll talk about the evolutionof sexual subjectivity based on experiences of the womenthat I interviewed.And I'll talk about what factors stimulateor stifle the development of sexual subjectivity.[The Development of Sexual Subjectivity Among Women]This is going to be based on my research

    • 01:16

      DR. BETH MONTEMURRO [continued]: that I did with women between the ages of 20 and 68.I interviewed a diverse group of 95 heterosexual womento discover how and when they developed sexual subjectivity.I interviewed 95 women.And the youngest woman was 20, the oldest was 68.91 of the women were heterosexual.4 were bisexual.

    • 01:36

      DR. BETH MONTEMURRO [continued]: Half of the women were married at the time of the interview.1/4 had never been married.And 17% were divorced, 5% were separated, and 2% were widowed.72% of the women were white.14% were black.10% were Asian.2% were Hispanic.And 2% were Middle Eastern.Most of the women identified as middle class,

    • 01:57

      DR. BETH MONTEMURRO [continued]: though about 1/4-- 22%-- identified as working class.And another 1/4 as upper middle class.Because most research on teens and adolescentssuggest that girls feel like objectsin early sexual experiences, I wantedto know what happens after those teenage years.So this research that's out theresuggests that girls have these experiences where

    • 02:20

      DR. BETH MONTEMURRO [continued]: they're insecure.Or where they're not acting on their own desire.And I wondered, what happened?How do girls become more confident?Do they become more confident?What helps them develop that?And what impedes the development of that sexual confidenceor agency?[What is sexual subjectivity?]

    • 02:42

      DR. BETH MONTEMURRO [continued]: So the key concept here is sexual subjectivity.Sexual subjectivity is defined as possessingagency in sexual interactions, having sexual desire,and the ability to act on that desire.It's about being a willing and eager participantin sexual encounters, rather than a passive object.And it's also about having the ability to derive pleasure

    • 03:03

      DR. BETH MONTEMURRO [continued]: from one's body.It's about feeling in control of sexual decision-making.So somebody could be interested in sexor not interested in sex.But when they're a sexual subject,they feel empowered to act on their own desire.Whether it's being active or not being active.

    • 03:25

      DR. BETH MONTEMURRO [continued]: And that they act purposefully and confidently.[Why is understanding sexual subjectivity important?]It's important to study sexual subjectivity.Because the existing research on sexual subjectivityshows that young women and girls in their teens--

    • 03:46

      DR. BETH MONTEMURRO [continued]: in their early sexual experiences--they have this lack of sexual self-confidence.And that mostly they act as-- and aretreated as-- sexual objects.So they're vehicles to somebody else's pleasurerather than being in charge of their own pleasure.It's also important to understand sexual subjectivitybecause sexuality is linked to physical health

    • 04:08

      DR. BETH MONTEMURRO [continued]: and emotional well-being.So that what we find is that peoplewho have higher levels of sexual satisfactionhave higher levels of marital satisfaction, longerlasting relationships, and better physical health.Also, women with greater sexual agencyare more comfortable with their bodies.And feel more entitled to sexual pleasure.

    • 04:29

      DR. BETH MONTEMURRO [continued]: And so they tend to enjoy sex more.[The Development & Evolution of Sexual Subjectivity]So to figure out more, to understandabout how sexual subjectivity develops,I conducted in-depth interviews with these 95 women.And I asked them about how their confidence grew over time.

    • 04:52

      DR. BETH MONTEMURRO [continued]: And what I found was that it evolves over women's lives.And that messages about sex that weget in adolescence, or in our teenage years,and really throughout our lives, sexual experiencesand sexual relationships can havecumulative negative or positive influenceson women's sexual development.

    • 05:13

      DR. BETH MONTEMURRO [continued]: And I identified six phases in the developmentof sexual subjectivity.I am going to talk about each one.The first phase that I identifiedis called developing a stance.When you develop a stance, it's whereyou take a position on sex.So it could be that you take a position that sex is good.You could take the position that sex is bad.

    • 05:34

      DR. BETH MONTEMURRO [continued]: And these stances are developed as the result of messagesthat people absorb from family, from religion, from peers.All of these come together and shape the stancesthat girls have about sex.So in developing a stance, what girls are doing

    • 05:54

      DR. BETH MONTEMURRO [continued]: is that they are creating their own view on sex.It's not just mirroring what their parents have told them.Or what their religion says about sex.It is, as they become a subject, it'sthinking about how they personally feel about sex.And I identified several stances.The stances are that sex is taboo,

    • 06:16

      DR. BETH MONTEMURRO [continued]: meaning that it's forbidden.You can't even talk about it.And you shouldn't even talk about it.Sex is bad.The distinction between sex is tabooand sex and bad is that sex is bad means that you could talkabout it, but you know that it's somethingthat you shouldn't do.And that it would be sinful, for example,

    • 06:38

      DR. BETH MONTEMURRO [continued]: to feel that sense of desire, or to be interested in sex.Another stance that I identified was that sexis a mystery to investigate.And this one was really interesting.So this was when girls learned what sex was,but they had little information beyond just a basic definition.And so, they sought out to figure out what

    • 06:58

      DR. BETH MONTEMURRO [continued]: it was by looking at books.Or for women who were younger, looking on the internet.Or just trying to talk to people or find information,so that they could learn more about sex.Another stance was this idea that sex is confusing.And girls who had this stance were often

    • 07:19

      DR. BETH MONTEMURRO [continued]: girls whose first sexual experience was nottheir choice.So girls who were sexually assaulted,girls who were molested often had sexual experiencesbefore they had any sense of sexual desire.And so, for them, there was this confusionbetween what they were told they should feel,what they actually felt, and what

    • 07:42

      DR. BETH MONTEMURRO [continued]: thought sex was supposed to be.The last two stances are that sex is for love or marriage.And that sex is natural.So this next stance, sex is for love or marriage,was when girls felt that sex was good or was OK.But only under the right conditions.So that they thought that if they were in a lovingrelationship, or that if they waited until they got married,

    • 08:05

      DR. BETH MONTEMURRO [continued]: sex was perfectly fine.And then the final stance was sex is natural.And this was often something that girlshad when they were raised by parents who workedin the medical profession.Or from certain religious backgrounds, like Judaism,where sex was normalized.And so they saw it as a natural part of growing up.

    • 08:28

      DR. BETH MONTEMURRO [continued]: Their parents were open with them about it.And so, they didn't feel the sense of it being bad.It was just a natural part of life.And as you can see in this table,I show you the different numbers of womenwho had each of these stances based on age.And from that, we can see generation.

    • 08:49

      DR. BETH MONTEMURRO [continued]: And what's really interesting is if you look at these totals,that women in their 50s and 60s were much more likelyto view sex as bad or taboo than women in their 20s and 30sand 40s.So that older women were more likely to havethese negative stances, which isn't particularly surprising.Because they're growing up in a generation where sex was taboo.

    • 09:13

      DR. BETH MONTEMURRO [continued]: Sex was bad.And that younger women were more likely to see sexas a mystery to investigate.Or as natural.Or as for love are marriage.And the younger women could investigate this mystery,right?They grew up in a time where they had accessto resources which allowed them to discovermore information about sex.

    • 09:33

      DR. BETH MONTEMURRO [continued]: The older women didn't have the internet to go to.They didn't have books to go to sothat they would be less likely to have that type of a stance.And the stances are important because they shape women'sexperiences going forward.If a woman views sex as positive or as natural or as a mysterythat they've investigated successfully,

    • 09:55

      DR. BETH MONTEMURRO [continued]: and that they feel armed with informationwhen they go into their early sexual experiences,they tend to be more confident.They tend to have more sexual subjectivity.If they go into these first experiences viewingsex as taboo or bad or confusing,they're more likely to be disadvantaged.Because they have to reconcile the guilt that theyfeel about what they're doing with what they think

    • 10:18

      DR. BETH MONTEMURRO [continued]: they're supposed to be doing.So the second phase in the developmentof sexual subjectivity is learning through doing.And so, as it sounds, this is wherewomen start to gain experience.And start to cultivate either a sense of confidenceor a lack of confidence, based onthese early sexual experiences.Young women who have unfavorable early experiences

    • 10:39

      DR. BETH MONTEMURRO [continued]: may find that that sex is taboo or bad stance is legitimate.And they may be slow to engage in subsequent sexual activity.So if they have these bad experiences,bad first experiences, they may feel like,OK, yeah, I was right.Sex is bad.And so, I shouldn't be doing it.And develop less confidence going forward.

    • 11:00

      DR. BETH MONTEMURRO [continued]: Alternatively, if they have good experience,even women who had a sex is taboo or bad stancemay start to change their view.If they find that sex feels good-- which most of themdo once they get some experience-- that theymay think, well, wait a minute.Why did I think this was so bad in the first place?

    • 11:24

      DR. BETH MONTEMURRO [continued]: The third phase, then, is validation, affirmation,and encouragement.With this phase, you go from developing your stanceto having your first view on sex to havingthese early sexual encounters and early sexual experiences.Where you learn through doing.Then, this third phase is validation, affirmation,and encouragement.

    • 11:45

      DR. BETH MONTEMURRO [continued]: In this phase, this is where peoplestart to have early sexual relationships.Not just casual experiences, but relationships.Where they start to learn about their own desire.They start to learn about their bodies.They start to learn about sexual pleasureand sexual satisfaction.And if they have a partner who validates and affirms

    • 12:07

      DR. BETH MONTEMURRO [continued]: and encourages them to enjoy sex,who encourages their sexual satisfaction, whocares about their sexual pleasure,then they're more likely to become more confident.This enhances their sexual subjectivity.In contrast, if they have a partner whois not that interested in their desire or their satisfaction,

    • 12:31

      DR. BETH MONTEMURRO [continued]: if they have a partner who is primarilyfocused on their own sexual satisfaction,then they're less advantaged going forward.They feel less confident.For example, I talked to one woman who was in her 50s.And she had been married for about 25 years

    • 12:51

      DR. BETH MONTEMURRO [continued]: to a man who had no concern, or no interest,in her sexual pleasure or satisfactionthroughout their entire marriage.They both grew up in a generation in whichyou didn't talk about sex.And in which it was really-- peopledidn't believe that women had sexual needs or sexual desires.

    • 13:13

      DR. BETH MONTEMURRO [continued]: And it was more about just going alongwith what their partners or their husbands felt.And so, she really felt her sexual subjectivitystifled by this relationship.She didn't feel validated.She didn't feel affirmed.And she didn't feel encouraged.And so, she didn't really know what to feel about sex.

    • 13:34

      DR. BETH MONTEMURRO [continued]: And this disadvantaged her until she actuallyleft the relationship.And had a chance to think about what she wanted,not just about pleasing somebody else.The fourth phase in the developmentof sexual subjectivity is self-discovery through roleand relationship changes.And when this happens, after you'vehad these first relationships-- So when people get married,

    • 13:58

      DR. BETH MONTEMURRO [continued]: that would be a role change and a relationship change.When people get married, they maystart to learn things about their sexualitythat they didn't know before.And in some cases, this relationshipchanged from being married to single for older women.In some cases, it encouraged them to feel more confident.

    • 14:19

      DR. BETH MONTEMURRO [continued]: So women who got married in 1950s or 1960s-- some of themearlier than that-- they grew up in a timewhere premarital sex was seen as bad.And even though plenty of people were having it,you couldn't talk about it.If you talked about it, if people knew that you had sex,then that would be a bad thing.You would be judged.

    • 14:40

      DR. BETH MONTEMURRO [continued]: You would be shamed for that.And so marriage, then, legitimatedtheir sexual activity.It made it OK.And so that allowed women to be more confident.They felt like, OK, well, I should be having sex now.I'm married.So this is a good thing.So that was one role change.Younger women who got married-- by younger women,

    • 15:01

      DR. BETH MONTEMURRO [continued]: I mean women I interviewed who were in their 20s and 30s, whocame of age after 1960-- grew up at a timewhere premarital sex was seen as OK when it wasin monogamous relationships.So some women who had been promiscuousprior to getting married actuallyfelt a sense of validation once they got married.

    • 15:24

      DR. BETH MONTEMURRO [continued]: That it wasn't just about having sex or not having sex.But it was about having the right kind of sex.So they felt a sense of stigma for the sexthat they'd had before they got married.But once they got married and they were with one partnerand that was in this socially sanctioned situation,that they felt good about the sex that they were having.The other role change that women experience

    • 15:47

      DR. BETH MONTEMURRO [continued]: that affect their sexual subjectivity was motherhood.So when women became mothers, usually in the immediate timeperiod when they first became mothers,this had a negative impact on their sexual subjectivity.Because they were not interested in having sexwhen they were young mothers.

    • 16:08

      DR. BETH MONTEMURRO [continued]: They just didn't have time.They were too tired.And so, that role, motherhood, diminishedtheir sexual subjectivity.In contrast, in this fifth stage of the developmentof sexual subjectivity-- which isself-discovery through embodied changes--that when women went through the physical experienceof motherhood, for some this enhancedtheir sexual subjectivity.

    • 16:29

      DR. BETH MONTEMURRO [continued]: So I interviewed women who talkedabout how they felt stronger.How they realized the power of their body in their abilityto carry a child, to create life.And that made them feel better about their bodies.It also made them feel a little bit moreconfident, because they had this sense of,

    • 16:50

      DR. BETH MONTEMURRO [continued]: look at what I can do.And look at this contribution I can make.So women who became mothers felt more confidentphysically after they went through childbirth.And this was because they felt like, look at my body.Look at the power of my body.Look at what I can do.

    • 17:10

      DR. BETH MONTEMURRO [continued]: And that they also recognized the commonalityof their bodies.They didn't feel the same sense of taboo about their bodiesas they had before going through childbirth.Some of the women talked about how they were in the hospital.Pretty much everybody sees every part of their body.And so, they learned to kind of letgo of this sense of shame or embarrassment.

    • 17:30

      DR. BETH MONTEMURRO [continued]: And so, they ultimately recognizedthe power of their physicality and what theycould do with their bodies.The second part of self-discoverythrough embodied changes happened with womenas they aged.So when some women went through menopause,this menopause stifled the developmentof sexual subjectivity.Because they were feeling physically disinterested

    • 17:54

      DR. BETH MONTEMURRO [continued]: in sex.Whether it was because they had night sweatsor because they didn't lubricate in the same waythat they did prior to going throughmenopause, and it made it more physicallypainful for them to have sex.Or because they had this sense of mourningof their sexual self when they just accepted that they were

    • 18:16

      DR. BETH MONTEMURRO [continued]: past their reproductive prime.And so, some of the women talked about feelinglike less of women, or less of a full woman,after going through menopause.But some women found menopause to be a positive experience.Especially women who were single or who weren't-- Yes,who were single and who were dating in their 50s and 60s.

    • 18:39

      DR. BETH MONTEMURRO [continued]: Because they didn't have to worry about getting pregnant.They didn't have to worry about having a period.And so, they felt this sense of freedomassociated with menopause, which made them feel more confident.And one example that was really poignant and strikingwas a woman who had been sexually abusedthroughout her life.

    • 19:00

      DR. BETH MONTEMURRO [continued]: And she had struggled with feelingentitled to sexual pleasure, feelingpresent in sexual encounters.When she got to menopause, she felt a sense of relief.Because menopause, she said, got her off of the hook.She didn't feel ruled by these hormone fluctuations.

    • 19:24

      DR. BETH MONTEMURRO [continued]: She didn't feel a sense of confusion or betrayalfrom her body.That she felt like, OK, I can let that part of my life go.And I can move on and I can feel good.So the final phase in the developmentof sexual subjectivity is self-acceptance.And so, I found this mostly among women

    • 19:44

      DR. BETH MONTEMURRO [continued]: in their 50s and 60s.And these were women who said, I'm at the point in my lifewhere I have accomplished a lot in my life.Whether it is professionally or personally.In some cases, it was accomplished a lot as faras the career success.In others, it was in mothering and taking care of a family.

    • 20:06

      DR. BETH MONTEMURRO [continued]: These were women who said, you know what?I am a valuable person.I have a lot to contribute.I have contributed a lot to society.I don't care what people think about me anymore.And once they let go of this desire to please other people,to look a certain way for other people,they started to feel great about their sexuality.

    • 20:28

      DR. BETH MONTEMURRO [continued]: Because they felt like, I have value.My value extends so far beyond my sexuality.So far beyond the way that I look.That people are going to like me or they're notgoing to like me.And they can take it-- they said,take it or leave it at this point.[Conclusion]

    • 20:50

      DR. BETH MONTEMURRO [continued]: So in this case study I examined the evolution and developmentof sexual subjectivity.I showed how women gain self-acceptance.And how different experiences stifle or enhancethe development of sexual subjectivity.So in thinking about this, some questions that youmight want to consider.How did you learn about sex?

    • 21:12

      DR. BETH MONTEMURRO [continued]: What experiences do you think enhanced sexual subjectivityamong young women in today's society?And what experiences stifle it?Do you think it's different from the experiences of the womenI interviewed?Do you think women growing up in this generationwill develop sexual subjectivity earlier in their livesthan the women I interviewed?And why or why not?Then, what about men?How do you imagine the development

    • 21:33

      DR. BETH MONTEMURRO [continued]: of sexual subjectivity for boys or for men?Do you think boys learn to be sexual subjects in the same waythat girls do?Do you think that they have experiences as sexual objects?Are boys and men ever sexually objectified?What changes in society do you thinkare influencing the way we look at boy's and men's sexualityin contemporary society?

Deserving Desire: The Development of Women's Sexual Subjectivity

View Segments Segment :


Professor Beth Montemurro presents her research into how sexual subjectivity develops over the life course. She interviewed nearly 100 women and charted their ages and views on sex. Montemurro also explains the different stages in the development of sexual subjectivity, which include early sexual experiences, age-related change, and partner response.

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Deserving Desire: The Development of Women's Sexual Subjectivity

Professor Beth Montemurro presents her research into how sexual subjectivity develops over the life course. She interviewed nearly 100 women and charted their ages and views on sex. Montemurro also explains the different stages in the development of sexual subjectivity, which include early sexual experiences, age-related change, and partner response.

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