Monday, 5 April 2010
Sex and the Victorian Girl
When it came to sex Victorian women just lay back and thought of England, so the common preconception goes. It’s always rather surprised me this, as indeed has the image of Queen Victoria herself as an avatar of prudish disapproval when it came to matters of sexual pleasure. After all, we know that when she was young she took great pleasure from the physical side of her marriage to Prince Albert, something she is none to coy about in her letters to Lord Melbourne, the Prime Minister of the day!
It’s good to have further evidence, then, that women were just as expressive in sexual matters in the Victorian and Edwardian age as they are now. Details of nineteenth and early twentieth century bedroom habits have come to light in a sex survey, one of the earliest of its kind, begun some fifty years before Kinsey, which lay for decades unread in a university archive.
The work of Dr Celia Duel Mosher, the survey, carried out between 1892 and 1920, took the form of an intimate questionnaire completed by some forty-five American women, mostly middle-class college and university graduates, asking for details of their experience of sex, marriage and contraception. Though public discussion of sexual experience was still subject to a social taboo, when it came to private experiences the respondents were expressive and candid.
The comments in the report I read are refreshingly uninhibited. Thirty-five of the sample said that they desired intercourse and twenty-four said that mutual pleasure was the reason for making love. One woman wrote “The highest devotion is based upon it, a very beautiful thing, and I’m glad nature gave it to us”, while another said she and her husband enjoyed “intercourse for its own sake…we wish it for ourselves and spiritually miss it.” Spiritually?! :-))
Though most of them knew nothing at all, or almost nothing about sex before marriage, they were quick to learn. Some even got to the point of being less than pleased by their husband’s performance, one going so far as to say that she thought that men had not been properly trained! I find this all so beguiling because I came across an old sex manual in a second-hand bookshop not so long ago, published in the early 1900s, I think, in which the author –a man, of course –wrote that women were not expected to derive any pleasure at all from physical love!
This fascinating insight into the appetites of an age gone was deposited in the archives of Stanford University in California, where it lay in an unmarked file after Dr Mosher’s death in 1940. It was rediscovered by chance in 1973 and has now been brought to wider attention by an article in the Stanford Magazine.