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...
...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.
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