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The Mosher Report
The sexual habits of American women, examined half a century before Kinsey
June/july 1981 | Volume 32, Issue 4
Mosher’s own views on the matter of guilt are suggested in her brief conclusions. She was convinced that women had every right to experience and expect pleasure from sex, and she had little patience with marital guides that advised them otherwise. Blaming such misinformation for some women’s failure to adjust to marriage, she charged that “too often her training has instilled the idea that any physical response is coarse, common and immodest.…”
The final question which faced each subject asked, “What, to you, would be the ideal habit?” Mosher had asked earlier about their actual habits of intercourse, so any discrepancies are visible. One woman’s ideal was “once a month, when both are well . and in the day light.” In reality, this woman reported having intercourse three or four times a week and found it “delightful.” One forty-seven-year-old woman said that her ideal was: “Now, at my time of life, never. In the prime of life, for a man twice a week, for a woman twice a month.” How a husband and wife were to resolve this discrepancy wasn’t stated. Another older woman also said that her ideal was no intercourse at all, and claimed that even as a young woman she tried to avoid it. She was, perhaps understandably, hostile to intercourse: early in her marriage, her doctor husband had become addicted to morphine and, when under its influence, had forced her to have intercourse at least once a night.
Several postmenopausal women still enjoyed and desired intercourse. The only respondent who was divorced and remarried testified in 1913, at age fifty-three, four years after menopause, that “although my passionate feeling has declined somewhat and the orgasm does not always occur, intercourse is still agreeable to me. ” Remarried at age forty-six to an “unusually considerate man,” this very happy, childless woman advocated an ideal habit of “perhaps twice a month.”
Clelia Mosher demonstrated in her small, pioneering survey that despite the conflicting warnings of the marriage manuals of the Victorian age, most of the women she studied engaged in sex with neither reluctance nor distaste. Indeed, many of them frankly acknowledged their desire for intercourse and orgasm. In the face of their disregard of the repressive sexual code of their era, as Degler noted, these women offer encouraging proof of humankind’s essential common sense.
For her own part Clelia Mosher paid a price for her advanced views. That price was intense loneliness, particularly after her mother died. The personal papers that exist from her years of middle age reveal an introspective and pathetically lonely woman. She was caught between the practical nature of her work and an extreme romanticism that she carefully concealed. The same woman who marched resolutely across the Stanford campus, with perfect posture and sensible clothing, had sentimental dreams and fears that she poured out into a notebook. She wrote longingly of the friendships which sustained other women. There was a type of platonic friendship, she believed, that “supplies the working woman and compensates her for what she has missed in not marrying but cannot make up for her lost motherhood. ” Perhaps because of the intensity of her late-blooming career, Mosher had no such friend, and as she grew older she felt this lack more keenly.
At age fifty-two she wrote poignantly: “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 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.”
Her yearning becomes increasingly forlorn: “I think sometimes of some particular friend and I feel she understands as no one else does what is in my mind … then some day comes when I realize that what this friend is, does, feels is utterly foreign. I have imbued her with thoughts that have been in my mind, not hers, sympathies which have grown out of my desire for understanding … and with deep depression I realize she is the outward semblance of a creature of my imagination.”
A series of increasingly intimate letters suggests that Mosher finally discovered the friend she longed for. The painful truth, however, slowly dawns—these letters were written to no one. All doubts disappear in March, 1919, when Mosher begins to address them “To you, my friend who does not exist.”
Over the next few years, this invented companion became the only ear for Mosher’s troubles. The letters are filled with her quotidian difficulties, as well as her meditations and imaginative—and sensual—descriptions of nature. The letters make it clear that Mosher knew what she was doing. She even admitted to feeling self-conscious about the “correspondence,” but stated frankly, “I get a sense of companionship and you are spared the boredom of reading them. ”