Sex in the Victorian Age: The Female Scholar Who Predated Kinsey

Today in 1953, Dr. Alfred Kinsey released his book Sexual Behavior in the Human Female. While Kinsey is lauded as the father of American sexology, Dr. Clelia Mosher preceded him decades earlier with her groundbreaking Victorian sex survey.

Alfred Kinsey’s controversial book, Sexual Behavior in the Human Female (co-authored with Pomeroy and Martin). A companion to his first book, Sexual Behavior in the Human Male released in 1948, it is frequently described as the first study of its kind. A systematic and scientific investigation into the sexual attitudes and behaviors of nearly 6,000 women, this 880-page book reads more like a medical school text than a salacious romance novel but even with an expensive (for its time) $8.00 price tag, it quickly jumped to the bestseller list. 

Thousands of readers were learning about women’s sex lives and this sent quite a shockwave through 1950s America. Kinsey’s research systematically debunked so many myths about women’s sexuality including the fact that most women masturbate, a significant amount engage in premarital sex, and some even partake in same-sex behavior. And because Kinsey was a respected sexologist with a prestigious academic career (he founded the Institute for Sex Research at Indiana University in 1947, now known as the Kinsey Institute for Research in Sex, Gender, and Reproduction), most people were confident that reading his research was acceptable. After all, it wasn’t smut, it was science.

While Kinsey is often lauded as the father of American sexology and many see his 1950s research as the beginning of scientific inquiry into the sex lives of American women, Dr. Clelia Duel Mosher began her investigation several decades earlier. In fact, it is much more likely that Mosher’s Victorian sex survey (and not Kinsey’s) is actually the very first scientific investigation of American women’s sexuality. So why don’t we celebrate “M-Day” instead of “K-Day”? Because Mosher’s research was locked away in a dusty, forgotten file box in the basement archives of Stanford University—that is until Pulitzer-Prize winning historian Carl Degler unearthed it in the 1970s. When Degler stumbled upon the files, his astonishing finding revealed not only never-before-seen nuanced details about the sex lives of Victorian women, but also, the existence of the oldest sex survey in American history predating Alfred Kinsey’s well-known research by several decades (98% of the women surveyed in Mosher’s study were born before 1890).

Clelia Mosher Photo

Clelia Duel Mosher (pictured here in 1892) conducted the oldest sex survey in American history predating Alfred Kinsey’s well-known research by several decades. (Photo: Stanford Historical Photograph Collection)

From 1892 to 1920, Dr. Mosher, an accomplished scholar with an extensive publication record on women’s health, conducted interviews with 45 women. She asked them about their sexual attitudes and practices and found that sexual expression was both common and enjoyable for these Victorians. Most experienced vaginal orgasms and over 1/3 said they “always” or “usually” had them during sexual intercourse. Over half thought that pleasurable sex was important for both men and women and nearly all used at least one method of fertility control. 

Overall, the historical value of Mosher’s sex survey is undeniable, but because this sample was quite small and it was only published posthumously, it never received much recognition. It would have been forgotten altogether if Degler had not happened upon it fortuitously more than three decades after her death. It makes you wonder, what other fascinating treasures are lurking in the basement archives of the ivory tower?

Clelia Mosher Photo

Mosher in her later years. Her pioneering research adds to the complex picture of Victorian women’s sexuality in ways that continue to challenge modern stereotypes. (Photo: Stanford University Archives)

Mosher’s findings show us that not all Victorian women fit the archetype of frigid, sexless beings, in fact, the majority of her sample enjoyed sex. As a result, Mosher’s research adds to the complex picture of Victorian women’s sexuality in ways that continue to challenge modern stereotypes. Perhaps her research is worthy of an “M-Day” celebration…only time will tell. 

Meredith G. F. Worthen is an Associate Professor of Sociology and elected faculty member of the Women’s and Gender Studies Program at the University of Oklahoma. Her work examines feminism, gender, deviance and LGBTQ identities. She is also the creator of The Welcoming Project.