Sex Is Like a Renewal of Marriage Vows

Dr. Mosher
Photo Courtesy of Stanford University Archives
When I read this article in Stanford Magazine on Clelia Duel Mosher, my jaw dropped. Like a lot of people, I have this sense that real sex – the dirty kind, the kind that women enjoy as much as men – was somehow invented in the '60s, with the free-love hippies and the birth control pill.

(I know this can't really be true, because my mom and my grandma have the horrible, horrible habit of telling me how great their sex lives are/were, but let's not talk about that. Ever.)

It turns out that women in Victorian times – the 1800s – loved sex just as much as today's women do. They often had to figure out how to do it all on their own, and then figure out how to get their husbands to do what they wanted, but they still managed, which is quite a testament to women's sexy power, if you ask me.


Here's the story: A woman named Clelia Duel Mosher, born in 1863,  saved up her pennies and sent herself to college and then med school, finally ending up at Stanford after a few false starts at different schools. Along the way, since she was, after all, a woman studying biology and medicine, she was asked to talk to a local "Mother's Group" about sex and reproduction. But she had no – er – practical knowledge, so she began collecting anonymous surveys of the women she spoke to. She collected 45 of these surveys throughout the 1890s and later, and what she found out is inspiring.

"Of the 45 women, 35 said they desired sex," the article says. "34 said they had experienced orgasms; 24 felt that pleasure for both sexes was a reason for intercourse; and about three-quarters of them engaged in it at least once a week." Compare that to today's numbers – some experts say only 22 percent of women reliably have sex with a partner. That's not that different, given the amazing amount of information we now have. It seems we've always wondered how it works, and it can take a lot of figuring out, no matter where or when you live.

The article quotes women from the survey as saying "men have not been properly trained" (sound familiar?) and calling sex "a natural and physical sign of a spiritual union, a renewal of the marriage vows." So sweet!

Compare that to the sex advice books of the time, which insisted that women didn't have sexual feelings, or if they did, they were pretty much freaks. What Dr. Mosher found was a treasure trove, and like a lot of treasure, it got buried – in the Stanford archives, where the research sat in an envelope until a historian found it in 1973, and it was published and shared with sex researchers (more than 30 years after Dr. Mosher's death).

Hey, at least it was found. And I, for one, am glad that the great benefits I get from sex – closeness with my husband, not to mention the delicious endorphins – aren't just the realm of our post-hippie world.

I like the way these women think ... don't you?

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