Were they buttoned-down prudes or Bridgertonesque bed-hoppers?
Victorian is almost a synonym for a very buttoned-down, anti-sex kind of attitude—prim, proper, and devoid of any pleasure-seeking. But how true was this for the average woman in the nineteenth century? We know more than we would thanks to the efforts of one woman—a pioneering feminist and researcher who went largely unsung in her own time.
A Victorian Heroine
The excellently-named Clelia Duel Mosher, born in 1863, hated the general perception that women simply weren’t as good as men. At the time, it was generally accepted that women were not only incredibly weak but even breathed differently and less efficiently than the men around them. Mosher’s 1894 masters thesis from Stanford showed that everyone breathed in the same way, but that a combination of factors—dressing in tightly-binding corsets, having insufficient exercise, and essentially being repeatedly told how feeble you were because you were a woman—all added up to have a significant effect on Victorian women’s fitness.
Mosher wanted equality, and treating women as lesser beings prohibited that. Menstruation was treated like a debilitating disease, and menstruating women were forbidden from working—Mosher’s research showed that inactivity and poor muscular development were exacerbating everything. She wrote, "Equal pay for women means equal work; unnecessary menstrual absences mean less than full work."
Throughout her career, Mosher also took a keen interest in an area that very little research was being done into: women’s sexual experiences. Over 28 years, starting in 1892, Mosher interviewed dozens of women about their sex lives and got vastly more open, frank answers than one might expect.
Over half of the women, Mosher spoke to reported knowing nothing about sex at all until they got married. The others had picked things up from books, conversations with older women, or—brace yourselves—“watching farm animals”. Like Daphne from Bridgerton (set in the pre-Victorian Regency period), who only learns about the connection between sex and pregnancy after marriage, this was an era in which virginity and fertility were seen as all-important, but sex was barely discussed. These concepts were placed on a pedestal but never actually really explained to anyone.
The prevailing wisdom at the time is best summed up by the words of Dr. William Acton, who wrote in 1865: "The majority of women (happily for them) are not very much troubled with sexual feelings of any kind. What men are habitually, women are only exceptionally. [...] As a general rule, a modest woman seldom desires any sexual gratification for herself. She submits to her husband's embraces, but principally to gratify him; and, were it not for the desire of maternity, would far rather be relieved from his attentions."
Dr. William Acton was, obviously, an idiot. All of Mosher’s 45 subjects reported enjoying sex. 35 said they actively desired it, 34 said they experienced orgasms, and 24 said that having sex for no reason other than both partners enjoying themselves was completely valid. 34 out of 45 said they had sex at least once a week.
The mores of the time were inescapable, though—some of the women who told Mosher they enjoyed sex also said they worried that they shouldn’t. One was concerned that sharing a bed with her husband presented “temptation of too frequent intercourse”, so slept apart. One woman who didn’t enjoy sex confided in Mosher that she didn’t think men were “properly trained”. Mosher’s subjects went into detail about contraception, anxieties, relationships, emotions… all topics that nobody had ever deigned to look into.
Mosher died in 1940, having led quite a solitary life and with most of her work having gone largely unrecognized. Despite the pioneering nature of her sex survey, it was never published in her lifetime and lay forgotten in Stanford’s archives for decades before being accidentally rediscovered in 1973.
Her study is one of the most detailed resources we have about this whole enormous area of Victorian life that otherwise went almost entirely undocumented. It turns out the best way to learn how people feel is to ask.