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Intimate Justice Review

February 15, 2011

“Sexual satisfaction” is a term taken for granted, a phrase whose meaning is vaguely understood but rarely explicitly defined. This is acceptable in casual conversation, but for empirical research, unclear terms lead to weak data and inconsistent results. Professor Sara McClelland at the University of Michigan evaluated how researchers empirically and subjectively measure and describe satisfaction among subjects, and the problems inherent in the techniques presently used. She takes issue with how satisfaction has been heretofore measured in studies, and suggests a new “intimate justice” framework with which to evaluate sexual satisfaction in terms of a larger social context.

Normally, satisfaction is either measured according to physiological response, or by using a single question: “How satisfied are you with your sex life?” McClelland suggests that a more appropriate first question would be, “How much do you expect?” Expectations differ between social groups according to privilege and to stigma: researchers Diamond and Lucas found that sexual minority youth developed low expectations vis-à-vis romance. Growing up in a social environment of discrimination created poor expectations and feelings of helplessness regarding their romantic lives. Thus, asking if a subject is satisfied or not is not nearly precise enough; a better question would be, “What did you expect?” and then, “Did you get it?”

The intimate justice framework focuses on the sociopolitical conditions surrounding sexual development in a given society, psychological self-evaluation, and norms concerning justice. “These dimensions ask us to attend to the development of intimate and sexual expectations in disparate socio-political conditions and to address the inherent challenges of assessing normalizing conditions of injustice in research settings,” (pg 673). In other words, the intimate justice framework asks us to take into account the variation in expectations among social groups created by an unjust world, especially when we perform research.

Professor McClelland’s framework takes an anthropological approach to assessing the relationship between satisfaction and injustice. The processual method of anthropology, as opposed to the structural method, is concerned both with what the investigator observes, and with the subject’s interpretation of their own behavior. Letting the subjects give their definition of “satisfaction” decreases chances of misunderstanding between the researcher and the participant – they begin to speak the same language, as it were. While most research calls for controls, pure conditions, and unambiguous terms, the intimate justice framework requires awareness of inequality in the outside world, and advocates a holistic approach to research in order to give greater context and more precise understanding of what it means to be sexually satisfied.

McClelland, S. 2010. “Intimate Justice: A Critical Analysis of Sexual Satisfaction.” Social and Personality Psychology Compass 4:663-680.

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