History Hoydens


Historical Romance Writers Dishing the Dirt on Research

23 April 2010

Who Knew? Victorian Ladies Liked Sex!

I ran across this interesting article and thought it was post-worthy here...a story about Clelia Mosher, a Victorian-era Stanford Professor who conducted a sort of Kinsey report before Kinsey...She surveyed educated married women about sex and interestingly, had her results been published the study would have upended the long- held wisdom of the time-- that women didn't like sex and shouldn't rightly enjoy.
You can read the whole article here: http://www.stanfordalumni.org/news/magazine/2010/marapr/features/mosher.html. I'ts nicely written and reports first-hand accounts of how Victorian women felt about sex. Apparently, they found great pleasure in it and thought it natural...although one who didn't like it faulted her poorly-trained husband.

From the article by Platoni: "One woman, born in 1867, wrote that before marriage she believed sex to be only for reproduction, but later changed her mind: "In my experience the habitual bodily expression of love has a deep psychological effect in making possible complete mental sympathy & perfecting the spiritual union that must be the lasting 'marriage' after the passion of love has passed away with the years." Wrote another, born in 1863, "It seems to me to be a natural and physical sign of a spiritual union, a renewal of the marriage vows."

Dr. Mosher herself is an interesting character---a mannish, lonely academic who wrote in her journals to an imaginary friend. She never married and probably never experienced that to which she dedicated so much of her life's research. But she was a trail-blazer for her time---disproving myths about menstruation, women's perceived frailties and raging against corsets and the heavy skirts.

The article: The Sex Scholar, written by author Kara Platoni is well worth the read and has gotten AP attention in the media. Posted here is an image of Dr. Clelia Mosher, born in the 1860s, a woman who served as a nurse in WWI and achieved the rank of full professor for her work on "women's hygiene" at Stanford in 1928. She is as interesting as her research.

I bet this study is no revelation to the romance writer, or reader...or even to women today in general. So why did we think Victorian women were prudish? history scholars tell us it's because sex education came to the Victorian woman via published so-called "health-books" written by men of the time and were treatises intended to discourage sexual interest--- and because disdain for the act was one of the rare ways women of the Victorian upper and middle class could set themselves apart from the lower classes and "earn respectability."

Dr. Mosh's report is worth a read just for the insights a historical writer could gain from hearing the voices of Victorian women convey their thoughts on sex.

Has anybody ever read other first hand accounts from Victorian women that reflects their attitude on sex?

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Blogger Nicola Cornick said...

What an interesting post and a very useful article. Thank you! I have come across a first hand account of Victorian women's attitudes to sex. I've been doing some research on the Craven family in the Victorian period for my work at Ashdown House and discovered that Lady Craven and her sister Lady Clarendon wrote coded letters to each other about their husbands' proficiency in bed! At first we couldn't understand the code but managed to work it out. We did wonder if the letters were coded because the ladies were aristocrats and talking openly about such matters was frowned upon.

11:36 PM  
Blogger Erastes said...

Queen Victoria herself wrote quite openly about her sex life - and enjoyed it immensely, she did however complain later about the many years spent pregnant!

She wrote of her wedding night: "It was a gratifying and bewildering experience. I never, never spent such an evening. His excessive love and affection gave me feelings of heavenly love and happiness. He clasped me in his arms and we kissed each other again and again."


4:41 AM  
Blogger Unknown said...

This is a great resource! I mean, come on, we all know that whatever the "party line" in any era, humans haven't changed: most of them enjoy sex.

8:05 AM  
Blogger Leslie Carroll said...

Kathrynn, I'd heard the name Clelia Mosher, but knew nothing about her until now. Thanks for this fascinating post! What is unusual of course is not that Victorian-era women liked sex, but that there was one among them who was moved to explore the sociology and psychology of it.

8:37 AM  
Blogger Laura Vivanco said...

On the other hand, Marie Stopes's Married Love, published in 1918 (which falls within the period of 1892-1920 within which Mosher collected her survey results), would perhaps give you a rather different picture. She writes that "In my own marriage I paid such a terrible price for sex-ignorance that I feel that knowledge gained at such a price should be placed at the service of humanity" which is why she wrote the book. And there's this:

It has become a tradition of our social life that the ignorance of woman about her own body and that of her future husband is a flower-like innocence. And to such an extreme is this sometimes pushed, that not seldom is a girl married unaware that married life will bring her into physical relations with her husband, fundamentally different from those with her brother. When she discovers the true nature of his body, and learns the part she has to play as a wife, she may refuse utterly to agree to her husband's wishes. I know a case in which the husband, chivalrous and loving, had to wait years before his bride recovered from the shock of the discovery of the meaning of marriage and was able to allow him a natural relation. There are known not a few cases in which the horror of the first night of marriage with a man less considerate, has driven the bride to suicide or insanity.

That girls can reach a marriageable age without some knowledge of the realities of sex would seem incredible: but it is a fact. One highly educated lady whom I know intimately told me that when she was about eighteen she suffered many months of agonizing apprehension that she was about to have a baby, because a man had snatched a kiss from her lips at a dance.

When girls so brought up are married it is rape for the husband to insist on his "marital rights" at once. It will be difficult or impossible for such a bride ever after to experience the joys of sex-union, for such a beginning must imprint upon her consciousness the view that the man's animal nature dominates him.

and she suggests that

it is perhaps hardly an exaggeration to say that 70 or 80 per cent. of our married women (in the middle and intellectual classes) are deprived of the full orgasm through the excessive speed of the husband's reactions, i.e., through premature ejaculation (ejaculatio precox) or through some mal-adjustment of the relative shapes and positions of the organs.

However, as the modern introduction to the online edition states,

Stopes' book on human sexuality is of great interest and importance as a historical document describing the state of sexual knowledge in the early 1900's. [...] However, readers should not rely on the 1918 edition of "Married Love" as a manual for sexual physiology or birth control!

11:18 AM  
Blogger Diane Whiteside said...

Any mention of Victorian sexuality always reminds me that America's Comstock Act was passed in 1873. While we think of it today as designed to outlaw mailing birth control materials, it actually did so by defining anything to do with birth control as obscene.

It also defined many other items as obscene. Prosecutions were sought against publishers of Homer and Ovid, for example.

You've got to wonder about a law so successful that it quickly resulted in more than 4,000 convictions...

Even if it did quickly stop the practice of mailing condom advertisements - and samples! - to young ladies the minute their engagement announcement appeared in the paper.

12:42 PM  
Anonymous Kathrynn Dennis said...

Cool, Nicola. I will definately look into the Craven family.

Erastas, like Kalen said, what a fabulous resource. Thanks for the tip!

Laura, I hadn't heard of Married Love. Thanks for the reference. The excerpts are sort of sad. I feel for those women...and sadly, some of their comments remind me of the kind of anxiety my mom said her 1958 gynocologist instilled in her about what would happen on her wedding night. Bummer. I am glad to live in a different era.

9:42 PM  
Anonymous Kathrynn Dennis said...

Hi Diane, I once (years ago) posted here on the Comstock Act...a dreadful, dismal law. Reading about it now still makes me wonder about the powerless women of the time must have felt.

I'd love to see the demise of that law worked into to a romance story line!

9:59 PM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

Fascinating post, Kathrynn! The findings aren't surprising, but that the research was conducted is. Why weren't Dr. Mosher's results published?

12:58 AM  
Anonymous Maryan said...

Mosher was not unusual. Woo-hoo! She lived and worked at a time of women's social upheaval (the term "awakening" is far too overused). And like most professional--particularly educators--women, she would've been required to remain unmarried if she wished to continue working. Well into the 20th century, female teachers were sacked if they married.

Why wasn't her work published? Mosher also would've known about Comstock laws and what happened to Margaret Sanger (and other radicals). For her, it would've been publish-and-perish. She would've been ruined, professionally and socially.

Oddly enough, many colleges employed female professors, and many of them were involved in all kinds of writing and research, just as now. But the patriarchy hadn't yet adjusted to a female intellectual (it has difficulties still). -sigh!-

12:46 PM  
Anonymous Kathrynn Dennis said...

I think her work wasn't published too, in part because she felt it wasn't good enough, worthy enough or on a crediable enough topic to bother. I think she wrote something to that affect about why she put it away and never bothered.

A shame, really. And so sad that she had the means to achieve the success she always wanted and didn't see it.

8:05 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I do think that part of article does come from the fact this study takes in the later years of the Victorian period focusing on women Born in 1860's. As the country go closer to close of the century attitudes towards sex became more relaxed leading up to the end of the century being known as the Gay Nineties". While I think it is true some women always enjoyed sex, I wonder if the results would have been different taken earlier in the period.

12:17 AM  

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