Photo of Deborah Tolman

Deborah Tolman

Training Location(s):

EdD, Harvard University (1992)

MS, University of Pennsylvania (1986)

AB, Harvard College (1983)

Primary Affiliation(s):

The Graduate Center of the City University of New York (2008-present)

Hunter College School of Social Work (2008-present)

Center for Research on Gender and Sexuality (2004-2009)

San Francisco State University (2003-2008)

Career Focus:

Gender development; adolescent sexuality; gender equity; feminist psychology; research methods.


Deborah Tolman was first exposed to feminist views through a roommate she had while an undergraduate student. As Tolman describes, her roommate was a "very committed politically active feminist." Although, at the time, Tolman did not identify as a feminist herself, reading the Hite Report on Female Sexuality catalyzed her feminism. Tolman majored in history and literature as an undergraduate at Harvard College, and developed a strong interest in sexuality. This interest in sexuality stemmed in part from her exposure to Victorian literature, where she was introduced to Victorian pornography. For Tolman, this perspective "raised questions about sexuality, sexual freedom, and choices." Eventually, she began connecting her research interests in feminism with her interest in sexuality.

Carol Gilligan's now-classic 1982 book In a Difference Voice resonated so powerfully with Tolman that it secured her decision to become a sexuality researcher. The book outlined the position that the experiences of men are different from the experiences of women and discussed the "need to listen to women speak about their own experience to start to understand and make sense of women's lives." Further, the relative lack of women's voice in psychological theorizing had resulted in a body of theory that was imbued, albeit invisibly, with a masculine voice. In 1986, Tolman received her Master's degree in sexuality education from the University of Pennsylvania. In 1992, she received her Doctor of Education degree at Harvard School of Education with Carol Gilligan as her advisor.

Tolman is a developmental psychologist who has devoted much of her research to adolescent sexuality. Given her experience with youth, as a camp counsellor and volunteer research assistant with children, Tolman became interested in adolescent pregnancy and young women having "the right to make their own sexual choices." Tolman also developed an interest in narrative psychology after being trained in narrative methodology by Gilligan during graduate school. According to Tolman, this method involves facilitating "people's ability to tell a full story about their experience." Essentially, people recount their lives as if it was a story. Together with Mary Brydon-Miller, Tolman compiled a handbook demonstrating how narrative and participatory action research methods are currently being used in psychology and how one can go about putting these methods to use.

Looking back over her contributions to the psychological literature thus far, Tolman feels most proud of the research that allowed her to learn about adolescent sexuality from a psychological perspective. Her work has sought to better understand women's experiences as they are framed by living in "a very patriarchically-organized world." Tolman's book, Dilemmas of desire: Teenage girls talk about sexuality (2002) was especially important to her because it was intended for, and has reached, the general public.

In terms of future research in psychology, Tolman would "like to see psychology embrace the power of what feminist research can bring to the field," and "would like to see feminist psychology be a standard part of the curriculum." According to Tolman, feminist psychology also needs improvement and conceptual development. Speaking as a mother of two sons, she feels that boys should be able to lead "more embodied, emotionally-ranging lives." So boys, as well as girls, should have "more humanity in relationships." As for feminist women who plan to work in the field of feminist psychology, she advises them to find mentors because "feminist psychology is a community" and "no one does anything by themselves."

Tolman is the founder and former director of the Center for Research on Gender and Sexuality (CRGS) at San Francisco State University. She is currently a Professor of Social Welfare and Psychology at the Hunter College School of Social Work and The Graduate Center, City University of New York. In terms of the future of psychology and feminism, she notes, "I would really like to see psychology embrace the power of what feminist research can bring to the field and what we know about people, and how we can make the world a better place."

by Florence Truong (2011)

To cite this article, see Credits

Selected Works

Kim, J., Sorsoli, L., Collins, K., Zylbergold, B., Schooler, D. & Tolman, D. (2007). From sex to sexuality: Exposing the heterosexual script on primetime network television. Journal of Sex Research. 44(2), 158-147.

Tolman, D. (2006). In a different position: Conceptualizing female adolescent sexuality development within compulsory heterosexuality. New Directions in Child and Adolescent Development. (L. Diamond, Ed.). Summer (112), 71-89.

Tolman, D. (Ed.). (2005). Feminism and Psychology, Special Section "Theory, research and practice for female adolescent sexuality: Emergent discourses of desire." 15(1).

Tolman, D., Hirschman, C. & Impett, E. (2005). There's more to the story: The place of qualitative research on female adolescent sexuality in policy making. Sexuality Research and Policy Studies (Special issue on Adolescent Sexuality). 2(4), 4-20.

Tolman, D., Spencer, R., Porche, M. & Rosen-Reynoso, M. (2003). Sowing the seeds of violence in heterosexual relationships: Early adolescents narrate compulsory heterosexuality. Journal of Social Issues, 59(1), 159-178.

Tolman, D. (2002). Dilemmas of desire: Teenage girls talk about sexuality. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.