Deborah Tolman, EdD

Qualitative Researcher and Gender Expert


Deborah Tolman has over twenty years of experience in qualitative research on gender and adolescent sexuality. She has an EdD in applied developmental psychology from the Graduate School of Education at Harvard University, a Masters’ degree in sexuality education from the University of Pennsylvania and an AB degree from Harvard College. She was trained in and has contributed to scholarship on feminist perspectives on female and male adolescent development and adolescent sexuality, as well as social psychological perspectives on gender, adolescence and sexuality.  In particular, as a doctoral student, she worked with Dr. Carol Gilligan, a prominent developmental psychologist whose work on reframing morality to include care as well as justice concerns, brought girls’ experiences to the attention of psychology. 

Tolman was part of the team that developed a special way to analyze narrative interviews that focuses on preserving the actual words and expressions of how participants convey their experiences and how they use “discourses,” socially condoned practices, expressions and thoughts and feelings, to convey and understand their experiences. She has adapted this method of interviewing and analysis specifically for sexuality research. Tolman has studied adolescent girls’ experiences of sexual desire (aged 15-17), primarily using narratives elicited through individual interviews and analyses of those narratives to understand how girls experience themselves, their bodies, their identities and how they navigate heterosexual and same-sex sexual encounters and relationships. 

She has conducted studies of teen boys and girls’ experiences of heterosexual relationships with a focus on how their beliefs about gender shape and inform their interactions and experiences, in particular, how traditional gender beliefs are “audible” in the reproduction of gender inequities in relationships. She is currently beginning new research on how self-sexualization is related to and part of how girls and young women are able to engage in healthy sexual decisions and have experiences in which they feel entitled to their own bodies.