What comes to mind when you picture Victorian-era sex? Corsets? Marriages of convenience and social bartering? Repression? Maybe, like, a lot of repression?
Turns out, how we view that time in sexual history might be more than a little warped. We can start to get a better idea of what women of the time really thought about sex by looking at the work of Clelia Duel Mosher, MD. Years before Alfred Kinsey was even born, Dr. Mosher was already researching and discussing the sexual tendencies of Victorian-era women. (This, it should be noted, is in addition to her research that proved women breathe from the diaphragm, just like men, and that it was the corset and a lack of exercise that was to blame for many women’s health issues.)
Her sexual survey work started in the 1890s and spanned 20 years, during which time she talked to 45 women at length about their sexual habits and preferences, from how often they had an orgasm to whether they experienced lust independent of their male partners (Spoiler alert: They totally did).
Unfortunately, the report was never published in Dr. Mosher’s lifetime. It’s only thanks to Carl Degler, an author, professor, and historian, that we know of it at all. He stumbled upon Dr. Mosher’s papers in Stanford University’s archives in 1973 and published an analysis of her findings the following year.
As others have noted, Dr. Mosher’s research has played a major role in changing how historians think of Victorian attitudes around sex. Then, like today, a variety of perspectives on the subject existed. While this one report doesn’t sum up everything there is to know about how people had sex at this time, it certainly deepens our understanding of Victorian women, who are all too often painted in broad strokes at best.
Below, we’ve listed some of the most interesting findings from Dr. Mosher’s groundbreaking survey.
Not having an orgasm sucked back then, too.
One of the survey’s respondents said, "when no orgasm, [she] took days to recover." In what might be an early description of blue balls for the vagina, another woman described a lack of climax as feeling "bad, even disastrous," and added that she underwent "nerve-wracking-unbalancing if such conditions continue for any length of time."
Yet another woman had something to say about the 19th-century orgasm gap, claiming that "men have not been properly trained" in this area. It seems that women have been taking their own sexual pleasure seriously for hundreds of years — even if the culture at large hasn’t.
Sex wasn’t just for procreation.
In keeping with Victorian stereotypes, one woman said "I cannot recognize as true marriage that relation unaccompanied by a strong desire for children," and compared a marriage where the couple only has sex for pleasure to "legalized prostitution." But several others disagreed completely.
One woman said that "pleasure is sufficient warrant" for sex, while another added that babies had nothing to do with it: "Even a slight risk of pregnancy, and then we deny ourselves the intercourse, feeling all the time that we are losing that which keeps us closest to each other."
One woman even explained that sex helped keep her marriage strong: "In my experience the habitual bodily expression of love has a deep psychological effect in making possible complete mental sympathy, and perfecting the spiritual union that must be the lasting ‘marriage’ after the passion of love has passed away with years."
Period sex was pretty cool.
Over a century before we threw around the term "bloodhound" like it was nothing, at least one trailblazing woman believed that sex was always on the table — whether or not it was your Time of the Month. She added that she was fine with getting down at all hours, too: "during the menstrual period…and in the daylight." If anyone reading this just happens to be this woman’s lucky descendent, we’d like to send her a posthumous high-five through you.
Why This Is More Than A History Lesson
In his analysis, Degler writes that of course "there was an effort to deny women’s sexual feelings and to deny them legitimate expression" back then, but the women who participated in the survey "were, as a group, neither sexless nor hostile to sexual feelings." They didn’t let any societal expectations or restraints stop them from having those feelings — and acting on them.
Though we may not live with the same barriers (or dress code) that women did back then, it’s reassuring to know that these women defied their time’s moral code to speak frankly about their sexuality. As frustrating as it is, women still deal with stigmas surrounding sex today, whether they’re at risk of being called prudes or sluts, or being discriminated against because of their sexual orientation. This is what we’ll remember most about Dr. Mosher’s work — that, in the face of whatever shame you may be harboring about your own sexuality, or whatever pressures you may be feeling, you are most likely totally normal and definitely not alone. So why hide it? After all, you never know whom you might end up proving wrong a couple hundred years down the line.
The gap between what we learned in sex ed and what we’re learning through sexual experience is big — way too big. So we’re helping to connect those dots by talking about the realities of sex, from how it’s done to how to make sure it’s consensual, safe, healthy, and pleasurable all at once. Check out more here.
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