The Not Quite Adventures of a Professional Archaeologist and Aspiring Curmudgeon

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Wild Sex in the (Victorian) Working Class

If yous peak with a social scientist about the history of sex research, it is likely that you will be informed that we know very little about people's sex lives prior to the mid-20th century because

However, one Stanford professor performed sex research with women in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, but kept it under wraps. An article in the Stanford Alumni Magazine describes the work of Clelia Duel Mosher, who worked at Stanford studying women's health. The article describes how a man looking for family information in the 1970s found one of Dr. Mosher's packets of papers and looked inside to find... 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.

It's an interesting article and well worth reading. One thing that is clear from even as brief an introduction as this article is that most of our nations about how our ancestors thought about and practices sex are probably wrong. It's common to hear from certain corners that Kinsey "created" the "sexual deviance" of the modern age, but the truth of the matter is that he only got people to talk about what they were already doing, and people who look to a "golden past of sexual purity" are seriously deluded and relying on stereotypes and public affirmations rather than actual hard data. This work of Dr. Mosher's seems to indicate that this is just as true for the 19th century.

P.S. It is worth noting that Mosher's primary work was based in the obvious, yet surprisingly modern, line of examining actual (rather than culturally imposed) differences between men and women. Although many of her conclusions seem rather obvious to us in the here and now, she was fighting up-stream to try to get the people of her day to face some rather obvious facts in the face of prejudice. That takes guts.

(link to the Mosher article via Skepchick


Lisa said...

occasionally you will see shows on the History channel that talks about the history of sex. Evan and I recently watched one talking about sex in Ancient Egypt and they showed several drawings on walls that were sexual and papyrus that museums have kept hidden for many years out of embarrassment. And, Evan and I recently read an article on that was titled something like "7 sexual acts that are older then you thought."

Anthroslug said...

I remember once reading a book of Mark Twain's compiled letters in which he makes a few off-hand comments about how he and his wife haven't been seeing the outdoors so much lately, with the implication of what they were doing instead being very clear,a nd with it being equally clear that this was as much his wife's choosing as his own. This, of course, at the height of the Victorian era, when it is generally thought that people didn't think of sex as anything but a tool for reproduction.

I guess that it just shows that despite what we like to believe, the people of the past were more like us than unlike us.