Before There Was Kinsey: Mosher, Davis and Dickinson Surveyed Victorian Sex

Dr. Clelia Duel Mosher via Stanford University Archives

In everything-you-think-you-know-is-wrong news, Dr. Alfred Kinsey was not the pioneer of sex surveys.  Before Kinsey moved from a taxonomy of gall wasps to a taxonomy of human sexual behaviors, Dr. Clelia Mosher (pictured above), Dr. Katharine Davis and Dr. Robert Lou Dickinson had already collected survey data on early 20th century sexual attitudes and behaviors.

Dr. Katharine Davis

Dr. Katharine Davis worked in New York as a corrections officer and social reformer during the early 1900s. Sexual studies were not the focus of her career but in 1929 she published the results of 2,200 questionnaires filled out by educated women. The most interesting finding (according to me)? 71.8% of women felt that an abortion “should ever be performed”. Compare this to a current poll finding “57 per cent of respondents think abortion should be legal in all or most cases”.

The numbers were roughly the same in both studies but though Davis had more total responses, all those responses were women. I wonder if the inclusion of male respondents tipped the data in the most recent study? In a CBS/NYT poll, more men supported abortion than women (by a small margin) so modern attitudes may have become more conservative or women’s attitudes may have been influenced by witnessing higher maternal and child morbidity rates. Abortion might not seem like such a big deal when babies or mothers giving birth died more frequently.

Dr. Robert Latou Dickinson

An East Coast gynecologist and researcher during the early 20th century, Dickinson pioneered the practice of large-scale sexual histories. He studied sexuality in marriage, personal sexual histories of his female patients, was one of the first doctors to use vibrators on female patients and used his impressive drawing skills to catalog diverse appearances in sexual physiology, namely genitals.

In his survey of one thousand married women he found that they most frequently complained about failure to reach orgasm and that obstacles to sexual pleasure were primarily inorganic, ie. not physiological in nature. Essentially, attitudes towards sex impacted the ability to enjoy sex, findings on female sexual response echoed in later research. He also had a kick-ass middle name.

Dr. Clelia Duel Mosher

In the category of kick-ass full names and all-around character is Clelia Duel Mosher. While Davis and Dickinson toiled on the East Coast, Dr. Mosher conducted possibly the first known female sexual attitudes survey in 1892 in the Midwest. Her study was meant to fill her own knowledge gaps for a married life presentation for the Mothers Club of the University of Wisconsin.

She continued conducting surveys into 1920 but only created 45 profiles that remained buried with other paperwork until Carl Degler discovered the work in 1973, decades after Mosher’s death. The papers became a sensational peek into Victorian female sexuality, affirming that the public record of values often disappears in private conduct. The majority of women in the 45 profiles reported enjoying sex and experiencing sexual desire, contrary to popular belief.

Mosher achieved recognition in her lifetime for menstruation studies. Common knowledge at the time assumed women to be naturally frail but Mosher’s work proved that binding corsets, bad diet and socially prescribed physical inertia contributed to women’s breathing issues and menstrual pain. She was far ahead of her time and recommended abdominal and breathing exercises (called Moshers!) in addition to being physically active during menstruation.

Dr. Clelia Duel Mosher is a fascinating figure, though ultimately lonely because she was so far ahead of her time. I strongly recommend reading the in-depth American Heritage article on her or the recent Stanford article on her life and work.

Thanks to my friend David for sending me the Stanford article on Dr. Clelia Mosher that reminded me about pioneering sex researchers!

One thought on “Before There Was Kinsey: Mosher, Davis and Dickinson Surveyed Victorian Sex”

  1. ¿Pioneering sex researchers? For sex surveys, may I suggest “Kiss and tell” by Julia Ericksen (HUP, 1999). For a history of sexology, a look into “Science in the bedroom” from Bullough would help.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s