Stories from the world's first sex survey

This woman, Clelia Duel Mosher, conducted the world's first sex survey—a series of interviews with 45 American women, most of whom were born before 1870. She conducted the surveys off and on between 1892 and 1920, but never published on them. They were found in 1973, and present an interesting take on Victorian and Edwardian-era women's sex lives, something we usually only hear about from decidedly biased sources from that time period that often claim women didn't like sex at all.

The surveys show that wasn't the case. More interestingly, they tell the story of changing expectations about marriage and sex.

Slightly more than half of these educated women claimed to have known nothing of sex prior to marriage; the better informed said they'd gotten their information from books, talks with older women and natural observations like "watching farm animals." Yet no matter how sheltered they'd initially been, these women had—and enjoyed—sex. Of the 45 women, 35 said they desired sex; 34 said they had experienced orgasms; 24 felt that pleasure for both sexes was a reason for intercourse; and about three-quarters of them engaged in it at least once a week.

Unlike Mosher's other work, the survey is more qualitative than quantitative, featuring open-ended questions probing feelings and experiences. "She's actually asking these questions not about physiology or mechanics—she's really asking about sexual subjectivity and the meaning of sex to women," Freedman says. Their responses were often mixed. Some enjoyed sex but worried that they shouldn't. One slept apart from her husband "to avoid temptation of too frequent intercourse." Some didn't enjoy sex but faulted their partner. Mosher writes: [She] "Thinks men have not been properly trained."

Their responses reflected the cultural shifts of the late 19th century, as marriage became viewed as a romantic union, not just an economic one, and as people began to dissociate sex from procreation, says Freedman. One woman, born in 1867, wrote that before marriage she believed sex to be only for reproduction, but later changed her mind: "In my experience the habitual bodily expression of love has a deep psychological effect in making possible complete mental sympathy & perfecting the spiritual union that must be the lasting 'marriage' after the passion of love has passed away with the years."

Read more about the survey and Clelia Mosher in the Standford Alumni Magazine.

Thanks to Jennifer Ouellette for linking to this story!


      1. Well, damn.

        Are you going to tell me now that they didn’t put live bees in tubes to make a vibrator???


        (jk, i’ll send you an invite)

          1. I just want you to know that I had a very witty and probably inappropriate response to you but I decided not to post it.

            And now, I don’t know if i’m more disappointed that I didn’t post my actual reply, or that I posted about the omission.

    1. I was just reading the chapter in Sex @ Dawn about this and accidentally ordered a book called the Technology of Orgasm. The curse of Amazon + beer. But yeah, apparently for many decades it was entirely normal for the ladies to play doctor. Neither were willing to admit that it was just a game, hence the diesel powered sex toys! (for real, I didn’t believe it either but they scienced the fuck out of orgasms!!)

  1. The Iron Law of the History of Sexuality is that your great-grandmother was a dirty, dirty girl. She did things you haven’t heard about after twenty years on the internet, and she wasn’t even particularly kinky for her day. 

    The corollary is that if you live to be very old, you’ll get to see three or four generations discover for the first time in human history all the deviant perversions that we’ve all been doing all along.

    1.  No idea about my great-grandmother’s kinks, but she was definitely engaging in them before marriage, as my grandmother was born 6 months after my great-grandparents got married… no matter what some people would like to believe, pre-marital sex happened before the 1960s.

      1. It used to be common knowledge that the first pregnancy could be really, really short. Or really, really long… especially if the woman was grieving (husband deployed in war or the woman was a widow). Um… yeah… that must be the explanation.

        It might sound silly now, but before ultrasound and accurate dating of pregnancy, knowing the variation of normal pregnancy wasn’t that easy. And, since of course no respectable woman would have allowed a child to be conceived out of wedlock, of course the only reasonable explanation would be that the variance of the length of a normal pregnancy could be quite large.

  2. As soon as I saw this, and verified the dates on some other surveys to confirm that she was the first, my main question was: how did she not end up getting destroyed for this work like Magnus Hirshfield and Wilhelm Reich did, how did she not end up being labeled public enemy number one like Richard Freiherr von Krafft-Ebing and the Kinseys did, for asking these same questions?

    Fourth paragraph in the article: “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.” Ah. See, that’s the thing about forbidden lore: you’re not punished for knowing it, you’re punished for telling anybody else.

    1. They published widely. And Reich had some pretty out-there theories about sex as a tool for social control, and was persecuted, rightly or wrongly, mostly as a scam artist as a way of delegitimizing his threatening socio-psychological theories. Krafft-Ebing had a lot to say, any was too much, about homesexuality. I don’t know about Hirshfield, but those are the obvious answers about Reich and K-E.

    2.  I suspect she was also very careful about who she asked her questions.  The data set may be skewed in favor of more liberal woman who are willing to talk at all about sex.

  3. ‘Slightly more than half of these educated women claimed to have known nothing of sex prior to marriage”,  “Yet no matter how sheltered they’d initially been, these women had—and enjoyed—sex.”

    My wife and i didn’t have sex before we got married, we had no problem figuring out how our parts matched up and we have what i consider a healthy and happy sex life, we are open with each other and don’t have shame with each other

    according to tv, movies, & pop culture in general what we did is considered backwards, puritanical, and repressive,,,

    but it seemed to work out just fine for us, sounds like it worked out fine for alot of our great grandparents too

    1. Having worked in OB/GYN, I can tell you that plenty of people have no idea how the parts work. They spend years trying to get pregnant via the wrong hole. They get pregnant and don’t even realize that they’ve had sex until they deliver the baby in the ER parking lot.

      1. we haven’t tried to have kids yet, maybe we will find out were doing it all wrong when/if we try, lol

        Honestly though, if a couple cant figure these things out fairly quickly, maybe no one should correct them, maybe they shouldn’t be having kids

        1. If nobody has told them about sex, or how sex works, how are they really to know? You said you figured it out… but I’m pretty sure you figured out the same way most of us do… we did have at least some information. But for some, that information isn’t told, or is told on wedding day in very… round about ways.

          And if they have only been told censored versions of how babies are made, and are living really sheltered lives… how are they to know that it doesn’t work that way.

          Even for people living our lives in the middle of information right at our finger tips… do assume that a lot of what you think you know is in reality wrong… or at least such simplified versions of the truth that it is pretty far removed from the truth. Especially what comes to reproduction, what we learn in school is pretty crap information.

      2. That’s one of those stories I hear people say and all I can think is “bullshit.”  But then my best friend (who makes lenses for eye wear as a living) told me a story.  While picking up orders from a local optometrist, a person came in holding a broken lens with the missing piece pointed up.  He noticed they were very specific about keeping it pointed up.  The next day he inquired to the staff what was going on.  The woman behind the desk told him that occasionally they have people come in who believe there is special prescription fluid inside the lens that makes what you see correct….(they were just trying not to spill any of the magic liquid.)  Since hearing that story I never discredit other stories of stupidity.

        1. i worked (in a grocery store) with a woman who didn’t know she was pregnant until she went into labor

          somehow i wasn’t surprised, she was pretty close to being a character from idiocracy

          1. Going into labor without knowing you are pregnant might sound like something only truly stupid or in denial persons would do. But… I’ve seen enough stories, even where the mother has had previous pregnancies and isn’t overweight either, to believe that it really does occasionally happen that sometimes the pregnancy is so uneventful and doesn’t really show that even the mother doesn’t realize it.

      3. Okay, this is blowing my mind a bit. They didn’t know which hole was which, or they didn’t know that women have vaginas, or ???

        1. Probably both.  Trying to get pregnant via anal sex isn’t even that unusual.  The urethral one was a bit of an outlier, and no it’s not an urban legend.

          The percentage of men who think that women urinate via their vaginas isn’t that much higher than the percentage of women who think that.

          1. And still, when certain things happen, and human midsections of opposite sex come into contact… It’s actually more difficult and takes more precautions to NOT get pregnant*. Such is life, I guess.

            *with normal functioning reproductive organs, of course.

          2. Ha I remember being quite shocked in 3rd grade when my best friend walked in on a 6th grade sex ed class and reported back to me on just how many “holes” were down there. 

          3. It’s also classic psychoanalysis that “hysterical” women have very distorted body images and literally have no idea what comprises their lady parts. Probably most of them were raped as children, and they try to sever their connection to that part of their body. It often indicates something tragic.

          4. I was married to a victim of child sexual abuse who didn’t realize she had a urethra in addition to a vagina.

            I teach classes on erotic literature and literature addressing gender, and several students have come to me over the years expressing some major confusions about the basic mechanics of reproduction. It seems to me that many college freshmen don’t understand some fairly basic things, as well as believing some common myths, like “you can’t get pregnant the first time.”

        2. “When I had them both together again I gave them a demonstration of intercourse with the rubber models I’ve got in my office. I’ve got these rubber models in my office with all the reproductive organs of both sexes that I keep locked up in separate cabinets to avoid a scandal.”

          Catch 22 – Heller

  4. That’s odd.  Most of my sources indicate that Victorian-era sexuality focused on spanking.

  5. I note that this article twice mentions that this survey provides evidence of “change” and “shift”. But how do we know if this is the first survey? Mightn’t it be that our prejudices, or the “official” statements of the time were never that reflective of what women actually thought and experienced?

    1. The article says exactly that…that most of the records of the time were ‘prescriptive, not descriptive’….that they were putting forth an ideology that they wanted to be true, rather than what actually was.  And that abstinence was a mark of privilege.

  6. “and as people began to dissociate sex from procreation”
    Hmm… wouldn’t this be a Victorian construct, really? And I would guess more among the upper class people. At least some of the folk songs can be pretty raunchy, and I would be pretty surprised if people at all times haven’t enjoyed sex for other purposes than reproduction. That’s why many societies and religions spend so much time trying to control the sexuality of its people.

    1. Actually, sex being tied to procreation is fairly recent in the history of our species.

    2. It’s been theorized that control of sexuality is more about social control. The theory goes like this: sex is the strongest, most basic drive you can deny without killing your subject. By saying that sex is wicked, you induce strong feelings of guilt and shame. Those feelings of unworthiness make your subjects tractable. I don’t know the author of this theory, but it seems plausible to me, especially as many such behaviors are emergent rather than planned. It’s likely a case that those driven to power were/are sexually atypical in some way and stumbled on this successful social adaptation.

  7. Married people having sex on average once a week?  Some serious sampling bias overlooked the “a couple times a year” cohort.

  8. I teach sexuality and for those interested in reading more, here is another article about Ms. Mosher. I tracked this down several years ago after seeing her name and research mentioned in a sexuality textbook. This is the only time I have seen her work referenced in any of the sexuality textbooks I’ve been sent to consider for my classes. I assign this for students to read when we cover early sexuality research and they have really enjoyed hearing about this remarkable woman. It is great to see her getting some more attention.

  9. This should all be less surprising than it is. As the article points out, there is the fact that people back then were much more commonly aware of other animals, humans included, having at it than we are now. Mom and Dad did it in a creaky bed in a cramped house, the farm animals did it, the horses of cab drivers got 3-foot-long erections, and so on. They were much closer to all of that than we in our antiseptic world are, even without Skinemax.

    Secondly, look at the flowery way they talked about their feelings. Some of that is repressed emotion, but a lot of it is an ornamented language rich in euphemism for sexual passion and intensity. We just see the former in books and movies about the era.

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