In the late 1960′s, William Masters and Virginia Johnson ran a pioneering sexuality clinic where they carried out all the research that culminated in their ground-breaking books Human Sexual Response and Human Sexual Inadequacy (note: wonderfully cheery tome for Christmas presents, this last!) They went on to start the practice of sex therapy as we know it today.
There’s a recent HBO series about their life and work called Masters Of Sex (the second season is playing on SBS online, Australian readers). I’ve seen the first season and enjoyed it – lovely 50’s costuming and set design as well as good writing and performances. But then I came across the book the series is based on: Masters of Sex by Thomas Maier, and it was just a cracking read.
Much of the research the pair undertook was through direct observation of thousands of sexual episodes – from masturbation to intercourse. Watching 382 female and 312 male volunteers over nearly a decade, they amassed huge amounts of data that exploded many long-held myths and misconceptions about sexual behaviour. Their methods and findings were astonishing and shocking, set as they were against the prudish conservatism of the 1950’s.
Masters and Johnson were the first to map a general framework of sex: their ‘four stages’ of intercourse. They observed and described an excitement phase of initial arousal, a plateau phase, orgasm and a resolution phase. They filmed and studied the nature of female orgasm (debunking the Freudian myth of ‘mature’ and ‘immature’ orgasm), examined sexual function in older people, looked – to a limited extent - at homosexual sexuality, and tried to unpack the nature of sexual dysfunction.
Their findings are really interesting in terms of sexology and American culture, but their own relationship runs as an fascinating counterpoint to the story.
After a time, Masters and Johnson began using themselves as subjects in their research. Eventually, Johnson divorced his wife and they married. Theirs is a relationship that tells a poignant story about sexual politics in the pre-feminist era. Masters is the one who suggests that their professional relationship expands to include the sexual. Johnson, a divorced single mother of two, is involved in the most satisfying work of her life. She is, to a degree, trapped in the exchange, and later in life, admits that she was never romantically attracted to Masters. ‘Bill did it all – I didn’t want him,’ she says. ‘I had a job and I wanted it.’
Virginia Johnson is, for me, the most interesting character in this story. A beautiful and charismatic woman, she is fiercely intelligent and although not a medical doctor, an indispensable partner in Masters research. A woman who made the most of the restrictive time and culture she lived in, and eventually produced a major body of scientific work.
You could not invent the rollicking tale of Masters and Johnson. It’s a great read, and if you’d like a little historical sauciness as you do the washing-up, you can listen to an interesting interview with the author Bill Maier on the NPR program Fresh Air here.
Sex Tips From 1972: The Hairy Joy Of Hairy Sex (It’s sexual. And it’s hairy.)