Forget Kinsey: Victorian Woman Was The Original Sexpert


For all the scholarly credit shot Kinsey’s way, new research proves that Stanford hygiene professor Dr. Clelia Duel Mosher was doing it well before he was.

Recently rescued from posthumous obscurity, Mosher’s sex surveys are a big discovery. Done in the early 20th century when Mosher was teaching in Stanford’s hygiene department, they provide a frank look at the sexuality of Victorian women – or at least the admittedly well-educated population available as subjects. Mosher polled women on everything from sex ed to birth control, and the attitudes displayed are by no means prudish. As Kara Platoni’s excellent piece from the Stanford Magazine explains,

One, born in 1844, called sex “a normal desire” and observed that “a rational use of it tends to keep people healthier.” Offered another, born in 1862, “The highest devotion is based upon it, a very beautiful thing, and I am glad nature gave it to us.”

Another writes that, “My husband and I . . . believe in intercourse for its own sake-we wish it for ourselves and spiritually miss it, rather than physically, when it does not occur, because it is the highest, most sacred expression of our oneness.”

While these surveys, never made public in Mosher’s lifetime, are sure to be of invaluable use to scholars in a number of disciplines, I was at least as intrigued by the figure of Mosher herself, who comes off as an incredibly impressive pioneer, and also a somewhat tragic figure who demonstrates the loneliness of being a trailblazer. The daughter of a doctor, Mosher put herself through college and later graduate school, and quickly found a niche in the male-dominated world of medical research. Says Platoni,

Thanks to a steady supply of young female research subjects, Mosher’s scholarly aim soon became clear: to prove that women were not inferior to men, and that frailties chalked up to sex were really the effects of binding garments, insufficient exercise and mental conditioning. Her master’s thesis, for example, showed that women breathe from the diaphragm, as men do, rather than from the chest, as was believed at the time. She concluded that this so-called biological difference was really due to tight corsetry.

While there’s no word in the piece on Mosher’s political interests – if any – these findings can’t have been incidental in the early 20th century suffrage cause, which rested heavily upon proving intellectual equality. But although Mosher was highly-regarded and did important work at the highest level, she still appears to have been a lonely figure, writing heartbreaking letters to imaginary friends and the following in her journal:

I am finding out gradually why I am so lonely. The only things I care about are things which use my brain. The women I meet are not so much interested and I do not meet many men, so there is an intellectual solitude which is like the solitude of the desert-dangerous to one’s sanity.

One hopes she could take a some comfort in knowing she was helping to spare future women a similar sense of isolation.

The Sex Scholar [Stanford Magazine]

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