More than half a century before Alfred Kinsey started to study the surprising diversity of human sexual behaviour, Stanford professor Clelia Mosher surveyed Victorian-era women on their bedroom behaviour but buried the results. Her report, its accidental discovery, and the sex lives of 1890s women are covered in a fascinating article for Stanford Magazine.
Mosher was an amazing woman by all accounts and took a scientific approach to testing some of the ‘received wisdom’ of the day, such as that women were inherently weaker and that menstruation was necessarily disabling.
As part of her work, she surveyed women on their experience of sex and sexuality, much as Kinsey would do many decades later.
Slightly more than half of these educated women claimed to have known nothing of sex prior to marriage; the better informed said they’d gotten their information from books, talks with older women and natural observations like “watching farm animals.” Yet no matter how sheltered they’d initially been, these women had‚Äîand enjoyed‚Äîsex. Of the 45 women, 35 said they desired sex; 34 said they had experienced orgasms; 24 felt that pleasure for both sexes was a reason for intercourse; and about three-quarters of them engaged in it at least once a week.
Unlike Mosher’s other work, the survey is more qualitative than quantitative, featuring open-ended questions probing feelings and experiences. “She’s actually asking these questions not about physiology or mechanics‚Äîshe’s really asking about sexual subjectivity and the meaning of sex to women,” Freedman says. Their responses were often mixed. Some enjoyed sex but worried that they shouldn’t. One slept apart from her husband “to avoid temptation of too frequent intercourse.” Some didn’t enjoy sex but faulted their partner. Mosher writes: [She] “Thinks men have not been properly trained.”
The whole article is an amazing read, both because Mosher was clearly such a pioneering researcher in a largely male dominated world and because her survey overturns many of our stereotypes about Victorian sexuality.
One thought on “Beneath the petticoat”
I stumbled across her work some years
ago, browsing a university library. I
came across the 1970’s publication of
her then recently discovered work.
It was fascinating. I wanted to
incorporate a character based on her
into the novel I was working on then
(which became The Singing
Fire) but it
ended up on the cutting floor. Her
study is worth a read.