The Victorian Era Sex Scholar: Secret Results
April 1, 2010
In 1973, historian Carl Degler was combing the University archives, gathering research for a book on the history of the family. Sifting through the papers of Dr. Clelia Duel Mosher, who taught in Stanford’s hygiene department around the turn of the 20th century, he came across a mysteriously bound file. Degler nearly put it aside, figuring it was a manuscript for one of Mosher’s published works, mostly statistical treatises on women’s height, strength and menstruation. But instead, he recalls, “I opened it up and there were these questionnaires”— questionnaires upon which dozens of women, most born before 1870, had inscribed their most intimate thoughts.
In other words, it was a sex survey. A Victorian sex survey. It is the earliest known study of its type, long preceding, for example, the 1947 and 1953 Kinsey Reports, whose oldest female respondents were born in the 1890s. The Mosher Survey recorded not only women’s sexual habits and appetites, but also their thinking about spousal relationships, children and contraception. Perhaps, it hinted, Victorian women weren’t so Victorian after all.
Indeed, many of the surveyed women were decidedly unshrinking. One, born in 1844, called sex “a normal desire” and observed that “a rational use of it tends to keep people healthier.” Offered another, born in 1862, “The highest devotion is based upon it, a very beautiful thing, and I am glad nature gave it to us.”
The survey’s genesis—like its rediscovery—was a fortuitous accident. Mosher started it in 1892 as a 28-year-old biology undergraduate at the University of Wisconsin; she had been asked to address a local Mother’s Club on “the marital relation” and as a single, childless woman seems to have used data collection to fill gaps in her knowledge. Afterward, Mosher continued conducting surveys until 1920, using variations on the same form and amassing 45 profiles in all. Yet Mosher never published or drew more than cursory observations from her data. She died in 1940, and the survey was entirely forgotten when Degler unearthed it.
“I remember I was so surprised when I first opened it and saw what was there,” recalls Degler, 89, the Margaret Byrne Professor of American History, emeritus. “I said to the librarian there, ‘Did anyone ever use these papers before?’ I was sure that they’d been used before. [The subject] was something that was so instantaneously interesting at this point. And they said no, no one ever had looked at any of the papers, and certainly not at that survey. That’s one of the great experiences of my life as a historian…”