- Historic Sites
The Mosher Report
The sexual habits of American women, examined half a century before Kinsey
June/july 1981 | Volume 32, Issue 4
She sought the information so that she could better advise young women who came to her for help. Unmarried herself, but justifiably suspicious of material in marriage manuals written mostly by men, she was certain that married women themselves would be the best source of accurate information. In the brief introduction she says the survey gave “the investigator a priceless knowledge for the practicing physician and teacher; a background sufficiently broad to avoid prejudice in her work with woman.”
The material gives no clues as to who these women were or how she chose them. Undoubtedly some simply refused to answer such personal questions, so in this sense Mosher’s subjects, like Kinsey’s and Bite’s, were self-selected. Not all of them answered the questionnaires at the same time. Of the thirty-six which are dated, seventeen were completed prior to 1900, fourteen between 1913 and 1917, and five in 1920. Only one respondent was born after 1890. Thirty-three were, like Mosher, born before 1870, and of these seventeen were born before the Civil War. These, then, were largely women who grew up, married, and raised children in the nineteenth century.
Fortunately Mosher asked her subjects enough questions about place of birth and education to permit speculation about their social origins. Geographically, the women were fairly representative of late-nineteenth-century America. Educationally, they decidedly were not. Eighty-one per cent of those whose education is given had attended college or normal school, and the remainder had attended at least secondary school—this at a time when most people, male or female, did not even attend secondary school. Their alma maters included Cornell, Smith, Wellesley, Vassar, Radcliffe, Stanford, and the University of California. Most of the women were married to college graduates.
When asked about their work experience before marriage (Mosher assumed none worked after), thirty of the thirty-eight women who responded had worked. Not surprisingly, in view of the limited job opportunities open to women at that time, twenty-seven had been teachers. (The other three were a librarian, an accountant, and a bookbinder. ) These women were principally daughters of the upper-middle class.
The nine-page questionnaire that confronted Mosher’s subjects contained twenty-five multi-part questions, many of which sought genealogical and medical information, such as whether the respondent’s husband smoked, whether her mother found menopause difficult, and whether her grandparents were native-born. The second half of the survey, however, turned to matters of sex. Many questions required only a simple yes or no, but many women were moved to add comments providing detailed glimpses into their intimate lives—and what emerges is a study of the Victorian “marriage relation. ” Mosher was no doubt correct in claiming that such detail could only have been elicited by another woman.
The first of the sex questions asked, “What knowledge of sexual physiology had you before marriage? How did you obtain it?” Eleven women claimed they knew a great deal about sex before marriage. They had learned it, they wrote, from books, courses, friends, and relatives. One woman learned the facts of life from “medical texts, watching farm animals, and also from very frank talks with my mother.” Thirteen said they had some knowledge of sex. Declining to give her sources, one woman added defensively, “learned everything I knew from good sources and in a pure and sacred way. ” The majority, however, said that they had known little or nothing: “Not one thing,” said one woman emphatically. Another admitted, “I was so innocent of the matter that until I was 18,1 did not know the origin of babies.”
How did these naive Victorians fare in marriage? Mosher began her probe by asking them whether they “habitually” shared a bed with their husbands. About two-thirds of these women, some married as long as twenty-eight years, did sleep with their spouses. Some did so enthusiastically: “The first year I had separate beds, believing that was the right thing. I abandoned it entirely before the end of the year.” One wife did so “because I like to be near him,” and, she added, for “economic reasons.” Some did so reluctantly: “Personally, I prefer to sleep alone always. ” The remainder slept alone. One woman listed three reasons why she preferred that arrangement: “1. more comfortable, 2. more wholesome, 3. to avoid temptation of too frequent intercourse.”
Temptation? The stereotype of the Victorian woman leaves no room for sexual desire. Yet thirty-five of the forty-four women who answered the question said they felt desire for sexual intercourse. Asked at what time of month she most desired intercourse, one woman chided: “It has no time regulation any more than kissing my husband or baby has.” Another woman wrote that sex was not only agreeable to her but “usually quite delightful.”
Even more surprising is these women’s testimony to orgasmic experience. Mosher did not ask whether they ever had an orgasm but “Do you always have a venereal orgasm?”—thus assuming that orgasm was to be expected. While a few women did not answer and five wrote only “no,” leaving open the possibility that they occasionally experienced orgasm, thirty-four women indicated that they did experience it.