The XX Factor

What Victorian Women Thought About Sex

When I think of the late Victorian era, I think Louisa May Alcott, Thomas Hardy, and Oscar Wilde, and I think of men and women with restrained sexuality and highly unrestrained taste in architecture and antimacassars.  If I’d read more of the work of Clelia Mosher, profiled in Stanford Magazine , who conducted the first known sex survey of American women in 1892, I’d have thought even more about that “restrained sexuality” image, and exactly who was restraining it. (Clelia-look,  Nina , there’s a name that’s due for a resurgence.) The women surveyed, most born before 1870, record what women “caught between traditional feminine norms and 20th-century freedoms” thought about sex, and it turns out that they did indeed think about it-and most enjoyed it, with three-quarters engaging in it “at least once a week.”

Besides presenting a great opportunity for present-day couples to compare the frequency of their sex lives with those of married Victorians, revisiting Mosher’s survey (which was first discovered in 1973 and most written about during the 1980s) offers a reminder that we should never judge a culture based on what we’re told. Those much-mocked women’s health books of the era (described in the Stanford article) insisting that women were not “troubled” by sexual feelings were, as researchers now say, “prescriptive rather than descriptive,” reflecting the way their authors wanted to see the world. Instead, women were indeed troubled: by a lack of birth control, which forced unwanted abstinence on them, and by men who were “not properly trained.” I’m reminded of claims that Muslim women in some countries don’t want to drive or “lower themselves” to work outside their homes. Sounds like the wishful thinking of an oppressive society. Some desires are both universal and timeless, and I’d put freedom right up there next to sex on the list.