The sex lives of Victorian ladies: More fun than you might have thought

Historians at Stanford have uncovered the earliest known survey of sexual behavior. Similar in style to the more-famous Kinsey Reports, the survey began in 1892 and focused exclusively on women. While more than half of the subjects said they'd known nothing about sex before marriage—about what you'd expect thanks to Victorian stereotypes—almost all of them seemed to be making up for lost time, both actively desiring and enjoying sex, even those who thought they probably oughtn't.


  1. Ah, the Naughty Nineties.

    I think much was “known” about sex well before 1892, but by the time scientific rigor could be applied, Victorian prudery was in full swing. Here I think we begin to see its assumptions beginning to crack.

    Some of these ladies might have survived to become cougar-flappers of the 1920s…

  2. “I think much was “known” about sex well before 1892″

    I agree. It would explain where all those people living in 1892 came from.

  3. I’m not certain of the truth of this, but I recall reading somewhere that nipple piercings were relatively common among Victorian-era women.
    I think we have a warped view of the era because public prudery was considered polite. I still consider it polite except with close friends, or when mediated through the anonymity of teh interwebs.
    In the case of this researcher, it sounds like she got to know many of these women that she surveyed and thus made it past the level of polite conversation.
    It’s funny reading their descriptions of how awesome sex is. It seems that back then it took three sentences and a lot of big words just to say they love to fuck. We live in simpler times now.

  4. Behind closed doors, humans have been f’ing FREAKS since the dawn of time.

    Also, didn’t i read something about a Victorian era steam powered vibrator/dildo?

  5. I was introduced to porn via a 500 page anthology of Victorian porn called “The Pearl”. It had limericks, prose, poetry and woodcut-style illustrations …. stunning! I have not seen anything raunchier in the intervening 30 years,if that gives you a measure.

    1. Thanks for reminding me about The Pearl. I’ve got that volume, and a book which summarizes some of the other things going on in sex at the time… and I have someone I need to lend these to. ;-J

      Given the basic principle that “everyone lies about sex”, it’s somewhat impressive when anyone manages to conduct a reasonably credible survey of what people are actually doing.

      Yes, modern America is certainly far more hung up about sex than the Victorians were. I’m still baffled by the concept that graphic consentual sex is considered more offensive/harmful than graphic violence.

  6. Am I the only one wondering how Mosher chose to *describe* orgasms in her survey when she was asking the women about whether they’d ever experienced them?

  7. Couldn’t possible future historians extrapolate what they will about the schizophrenic attitude that our current era has about sex and come to the same conclusions we have about Victorians?

    Admittedly, user-fed media such as the net has done much to spread the acceptance of sexuality (thanks Dan Savage!), but up until quite recently, and even now in supposedly ‘high-brow’ media, coverage of nudity and sexuality is overwhelmingly puritanical and disapproving. I can’t be the only person that looked at the mainstream media’s treatment of Janet Jackson’s ‘wardrobe malfunction’ and thought ‘..and what..?’

    It’s the media that survives that dictates history’s understanding of an era’s ‘zeitgeist’; Victorians were probably as sexual as we are, but because that knowledge was spread by word of mouth, the only image that we have of them is that of the (heavily censored) mainstream media.

    I wonder what will happen when goes the way of angelfire and all future historians are left with is newspaper editorials with which to judge us…

    1. If by “Us” you mean Americans, then I suspect the extensive eyerolling and exclamations of “What a bunch of uptight hypocrites” from the rest of the world may help round out the picture some ;)

      The REST of us are also somewhat bemused by the American obsession with denying that Americans look at breasts and various other body parts – despite being one of the major centers of both porn production and porn consumption.

      1. I’m an American and have no such obsession with denial.

        Might want to check your generalizations at the door. They clash with the furniture.

        1. He wasn’t talking about Americans, but about american medias. Wich are, as far as I have seen, vastly more puritanical and censored than, say, French media.

          Also, what a fascinating character. Reminds me of Lovelace.

        2. I agree with you about the assumptions. People from across the world love to make assumptions about America and whole most often they are true, they still get a big stroke job off agreeing about what they believe to be true about us without really knowing when they take complete offense to Americans delving into any stereotypes about them. Talk about hypocritical! Can dish out but not take in?
          Let us not forget America took is queues in the 19th century from Victorian England! The originator of the period!
          I still believe there is a great difference between being non sexual and just not talking about it because I personally have no need or desire to make my sexual behaviour every one else’s business. Perhaps I just see it as a Victorian and most voyeuristic modern people have a time grasping this concept that sex is OK in private? Call me what you want but I don’t think not having to obsess about sex and talk openly about it makes me a repressed prude. If anything it makes sex something to be desired all the more!

  8. “‘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.”

    That’s what she said.

  9. I enjoyed the article thoroughly and appreciate the link to it, but the post here makes it sound as though this is a new discovery. Rather, the article makes it clear that it was discovered in 1973 and that the discovery was made public in 1974.

  10. I remember when I first read about Havelock Ellis, and discovered that Kinsey wasn’t doing anything terribly ground-breaking-he just got a heck of a lot more publicity than Ellis had gotten.

  11. I bet it was to do with the ‘forbidden’ aspect as well as the loong waiting period of teasing etc. GO great grandma!

  12. Just wondered (cough) on behalf of a friend what was ‘The Pearl’ about and how to get a copy.

  13. The Pearl was a Victorian British magazine (with a run of only a few years) which published smutty/scatological/B&D material of the time — serialized stories, poetry, parody song lyrics, jokes, etc. Think of Playboy’s taste in fiction, make it a bit more explicit, then add the conventional delicacy of the time which permits a detailed sex scene but requires circumlocutions on particular words considered offensive in print. Not surprisingly, the early issues are much better written than the later ones.

    There is (or was?) a thick paperback anthology volume available which I believe covers the full run. I’d have to dig out my copy to get publisher info; I suspect websearch might find that info faster.

  14. Much of the “knowledge” about Victorian sexual practices is a conglomeration of lies, wishful thinking, urban legends, bad data collection, or derived from the equivalent of the “Penthouse Letters” of the day. (Just think about the “science” used to promote tobacco as safe, or global warming as mythology.) Most of the work is on dead trees, and thus not quotable here, but see:

    She debunks the claim that nipple piercing by Victorian women was commonplace.

    The eponymous Prince Albert is also a myth, albeit one cooked up on modern times–circa 1960–by the Californian body piercer Doug Malloy to legitimize the practice by creating a fake history. Here’s his pamphlet which created the whole legend:

  15. have a small but select collection of victorian erotica – Fanny Hill, Man with a Maid, My Secret Life, Venus in India, The Pearl Collection and so on. They are more titillating than porn. Picked them up almost 40 years ago for a pittance but have given me years of pleasure .

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