Sunday, May 31, 2009

"Women, Sex, and Masters and Johnson" -- Reaction to Book and Podcast

Women, Sex, and Masters and Johnson
May 17, 2009 by Michelle Smith

I found an interview withThomas Maier, the author of Masters of Sex, a book about legendary sex researchers William Masters and Virginia Johnson. Masters, a gynecologist, and Johnson, a psychologist, observed an estimated 10,000 live sex acts in there Washington University research lab. In the process they discovered valuable insight into the “sexual response cycle” and sexual dysfunction.
After talking to my female friends, I’ve come to the conclusion that women and their sexual selves are not always well understood. Apparently, that opinion is shared by many and I found this part of the interview interesting:
“…the biggest revolution of Masters and Johnson’s work has to do with discovering and underlining the power of female sexuality. Rather than being the weaker sex, their studies showed conclusively that women could be multi-orgasmic and possessed a greater sexual capacity than men. Their clinical proof shattered Freud’s theories about women and sex, and replaced Freudian psychoanalysis with a far more practical and effective sex therapy that was adopted around the world and created the modern sex therapy field.”
Even in my forties I’ve heard people voice opinions that made it sound as if they felt a woman with a good sexual appetite was in some way wrong or slutty. I’ve never held with that idea.
I make jokes about my past, jokes I’m not sharing here, but the point is that sex is a celebration of life, in my opinion.
Sex between two consenting adults, with nobody getting hurt, where’s the bad in that?
This sounds like a very interesting book. If I get a chance to read it, I’ll review it here.

The Buffalo News: Editor's Choice -- "Masters of Sex" Review

Editor’s Choice
MASTERS OF SEX: The Life and Times of William Masters andVirginia Johnson by Thomas Maier(Basic Books, 412 pages, $27.50). Among the many and various troubles with sex is that you can seldom trust anyone’s stories about it. No human activity is more subject to ridiculous locker room braggadoccio; nor, by the same token, is there any topic more given to post-facto score-settling (when you consider the tales of exes that have been taken as truth by contemporaries and posterity alike, it’s enough to make you wonder if history—at least of the glandular variety—has EVER been valid.)
Alfred G. Kinsey could only search for truth in anecdotes and culture. That’s why the world so desperately needed William Masters and Virginia Johnson, the researchers and therapists who investigated what happens during sex as scientists, wrote about their findings and treated what went wrong as “dysfunctions” (their word, bless them) to be set right. To make a science out of prurience and therapy out of what was usually assumed part of the oldest illicit profession obviously took very unusual people.
Masters once confessed “I’m sort of a bastard. I’m no good with people. Never have been and never will be. By choice and by design, I’m not a people person” which provided exactly the sort of clinicality that people could trust when he and his partner Virginia Johnson started telling the world about the subject that is responsible, at the very least, for all of us being here.
Writing a readable but serious biography of Masters and Johnson was no easy task. The natural impulse is to drain such passionate clinicality of personality and leave a hollow crusade in its place. Maier’s book resists it constantly. It’s about heroes and flaws and a couple of people whose lives underlay a good half of what we know for sure about what we all think we know so much.
—Jeff Simon

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Reviews and Blurbs So Far

Masters of Sex "offers a wonderfully written and totally absorbing look at an amazing couple." – Booklist, *starred review*

“Maier’s sedulously researched and deeply absorbing biography suggests that love is far more elusive than an orgasm … Set against a larger cultural landscape that spans the domesticated ‘50s and liberated ‘60s on up to the present, stopping on the way to evaluate the effect of Masters and Johnson’s work on everything from feminism to perfumes, Masters of Sex is a richly informed and elegantly organized account of the two people behind the logo that stood for new sexual horizons”. – Daphne Merkin in Tina Brown’s website “The Daily Beast.”

“The strangely chilling story of two sexual pioneers… Perhaps influenced by its steamy subject matter, Masters of Sex, Thomas Maier's new book about the couple's career, may strike some readers as unusually graphic for a biography, but this unsettling story of sex and science in theory and practice is ultimately more cautionary than titillating.” O – The Oprah Magazine.

“Absorbing …Masters of Sex is this spring's true must-read book for those looking to revisit the heady, early days of the sexual revolution.” – The American Prospect.

“As the story of Masters and Johnson makes clear, rescuing sex from the ancient mists of myth, mystery and religiosity left America a happier and healthier place. And yet Maier's book also suggests that our subsequent attempts to liberate sexual pleasure from the grip of fusty, old-fashioned love had much the opposite effect.” – Newsweek.

“There are plenty of fireworks here... An excellent writer and a top-notch reporter, Maier excels at providing intriguing details without veering into titillation, and the reader comes away with a great appreciation for the pioneering forthrightness of Masters and Johnson—especially considering it’s a field of study that still makes some uneasy.” – Penthouse.

“If there is a moral to this tale, it is perhaps that the human heart remains as much of a mystery as the sex organs once used to be.” – The Economist.

“Award-winning biographer Maier (Dr. Spock: An American Life) delivers the first in-depth look at a complex couple who helped revolutionize the study of human sexual response. Academics and amateur sexperts alike will rejoice.” – Library Journal.

Masters of Sex is a terrific book about the unlikely couple who touched off the sexual revolution. More than a biography, this is an intimate history of sex in the twentieth-century.” -- Debby Applegate, Winner of the 2007 Pulitzer Prize in Biography for The Most Famous Man in America: The Biography of Henry Ward Beecher.

"The subject of this book--sex and love--should interest just about everyone. As a bonus, Thomas Maier is a very fine writer, an accomplished biographer, and an astute reporter. If you read only one biography this year, it should be this first-ever look at the secretive lives of Masters and Johnson." -- Nelson DeMille, bestselling author of "The Gold Coast "and "The Gate House"

"A well-written and insightful account of Masters and Johnson, who, in a clinical sense, probably knew more about sex and marital love than any other couple in America." -- Gay Talese, author of "Thy Neighbor's Wife "and "A Writer's Life"

“It’s hard to imagine any sex researcher or serious student of sexuality who wouldn’t profit from reading this book. The information revealed in Masters of Sex has never surfaced before—and besides being a real contribution to the history of science, it’s a totally captivating read!”—Pepper Schwartz, Ph.D., Past President of the Society for the Scientific Study of Sexuality, and author of Prime: Adventures and Advice About Sex, Love and the Sensual Years

“As recounted in Masters of Sex, a new biography of the pair by Thomas Maier (Basic Books), Masters' and Johnson's approach - and their willingness to risk social and professional stigma by doing such work - gave the world its first frank, authoritative portrait of human sexual behavior.” – The Boston Globe.

Monday, May 25, 2009

Penthouse Review

Masters of Sex
May 14th, 2009 By Penthouse Magazine
Tags: Full Frontal, Reads

Masters of Sex: The Life and Times of William Masters and Virginia Johnson, the Couple Who Taught America How to Love
-By Thomas Maier
(Basic Books)

It’s not an exaggeration to say that Masters and Johnson, a pair of researchers who started out at Washington University in St. Louis, are responsible for much of our modern thinking about sex. Maier’s history provides an in-depth look at the twin paths of their professional research and personal relationship (they were married from 1971 to 1992), while dishing about the duo’s work as sex therapists for Hollywood stars, such as the incredibly sexy Barbara Eden of I Dream of Jeannie fame, and Senator Jacob Javits. There are plenty of fireworks here, from the pair’s controversial prescriptions of sex surrogates to the revelation that Masters developed his “squeeze method” of delaying ejaculation from observing the action in whorehouses. An excellent writer and a top-notch reporter, Maier excels at providing intriguing details without veering into titillation, and the reader comes away with a great appreciation for the pioneering forthrightness of Masters and Johnson—especially considering it’s a field of study that still makes some uneasy.

Saturday, May 23, 2009

Oprah's Book Club: Recommends "Masters of Sex" by Thomas Maier

Masters of Sex
By Thomas Maier
432 pages; Basic Books

It's shocking to realize how little we knew about the physiology of sex—female sexuality, in particular—until the 1950s, when gynecological surgeon William Masters set up a semiclandestine laboratory at a university in St. Louis and, together with his assistant, Virginia Johnson, employed the latest technology (a plastic penis equipped with a camera!) and volunteer subjects to record what happens during the act. Illuminating the previously misunderstood and underestimated female orgasm, their findings (published in the 1966 best-seller Human Sexual Response) were an important factor in heating up the sexual climate of the 1960s. The increasingly successful researchers helped many grateful couples, who flocked to their clinic with their most intimate problems. But science failed to do much for Masters and Johnson themselves. Sex with her boss was understood to be part of the job description for Virginia Johnson, an attractive divorced single mother, yet when Masters finally left his wife for her, their marriage was a chilly professional partnership, sadly devoid of love—a mystery their experiments had left unexplored. Perhaps influenced by its steamy subject matter, Masters of Sex, Thomas Maier's new book about the couple's career, may strike some readers as unusually graphic for a biography, but this unsettling story of sex and science in theory and practice is ultimately more cautionary than titillating.
— Francine Prose

Friday, May 22, 2009

Masters and Johnson Treated Presidential Candidate, Gov. George Wallace, After 1972 Assassination Attempt

Excerpt from "Masters of Sex" by Thomas Maier

Gov. George C. Wallace of Alabama wanted the White House in the worst way. In 1963, Wallace became the face of the Old South when he attempted to prevent de-segregation at the University of Alabama. “I say segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever,” Wallace promised in his inaugural, after having sworn privately to “outnigger” any political opponent. Like a proud little rooster with slick, black hair, Wallace stood in front of the school, as nationwide television cameras rolled, defiantly blocking the entrance of two black students into the all-white public institution until federal marshals finally intervened. The publicity allowed the one-time boxer to launch a 1964 brief bid for the Democratic presidential nomination, appealing to the prejudices of a nation. When Alabama law prevented him from running for another gubernatorial term, he prompted his wife, Lurleen, to succeed him but she died in 1968 of cancer while in office. That same year, Wallace ran for President as a “law and order” candidate on an independent party ticket, winning five states and 14 percent of the total vote. By 1970, Wallace was preparing for another presidential run when he fell in love with Cornelia Ellis Snively, the young, shapely niece of former Alabama Gov. James E. “Big Jim” Folsom. Although aides warned him to keep the romance under wraps, Wallace married his raven-haired Cornelia in January 1971. At the time, a Gallup poll listed Wallace as one of America's most admired men, placing seventh just ahead of the Pope. “There was a lot of physical attraction, very passionate kind of love between us,” Cornelia later explained. “I had known him all my life.”
Wallace’s presidential ambitions were cut down by a bullet, however. In May 1972, as Wallace campaigned in the Maryland primary, a would-be assassin named Arthur Bremer pumped five 38-caliber bullets into his body, covering Cornelia in blood as she tended to her husband’s wounds. One shot severed Wallace’s spinal chord, leaving him paralyzed. Meanwhile, Wallace had won both the Maryland and Michigan primaries. Some wondered if his presidential quest could continue as a cripple, just like Franklin D. Roosevelt after suffering a polio attack. But Wallace’s body never fully recovered. His presidential dreams were dashed and his personal life in tatters. By the time he contacted Masters & Johnson, Wallace worried if he could perform sexually ever again.
“Cornelia was trying so hard to do anything she could do to help him,” Virginia recalled. “He was a good old boy, but he was a sweet man. I liked him. He wouldn’t have been good to be married to, though -- a downhome Alabama boy who was very difficult. Cornelia had a hell of time with him because he was not dealing terribly well with his condition.”
George Wallace’s sad case was exactly the kind that Bill Masters wanted to study as his next scientific mission – the neurophysiology of human sexual response -- if only he could somehow find the money. With the advent of computers and other high-tech medical equipment in the 1970s, Masters felt such medical research would be a worthy successor to their previous published work with heterosexuals as well their upcoming book on homosexuality. Understanding the brain’s role in sex -- the symposia of nerve endings and synapses in reaching physical fulfillment and the accompanying mental functioning behind it – seemed a natural next step. “He felt that it would have great applicability in terms of stroke victims, neurologic disease and spinal chord injured patients,” recalled Kolodny, who often heard Masters mention it. “ I’m sure he was quite right, if we had been able to get the funding, we would have been able to do very important work there. We never did get that funding. It was constantly a struggle to come up with money.”
After the call came from Wallace’s personal physician in Montgomery, both Masters and Johnson agreed to visit the Governor’s mansion, offering their assistance. The sense of desperation with the Wallaces was great enough that they wanted only the best known sex therapists in the land. “Wallace sent a state plane for us and we went to Alabama – he wasn’t traveling at the time,” Johnson recalled. “We went down there twice and then Cornelia came up once by herself” to the St. Louis clinic.
Bill later explained to Kolodny the severity of Gov. Wallace’s spinal chord damage and concluded there was little he could do as a physician. Masters said the Governor was impotent, with the bullet having claimed his sense of manhood. “The rates of sexual dysfunction are way high with spinal chord injuries,” Kolodny explained. “It was clear that there was no magic wand that was going to rescue the situation. It was a case of helping them cope, to do the best they could.” Even Gini’s therapeutic touch didn’t seem to help the Governor and his First Lady. “He was willing to do anything,” she recalled, who instructed them on the most basic “sensate” movements designed to stimulate. “There was just no possibility – it was physiologically impossible. But she [Cornelia] was willing to do anything for him. She was a superb human being and she was just lovely, one of the best.”
Despite their braveness in seeking medical help, the Wallaces became increasingly frustrated with each other. “He began to accuse her of having affairs with state troopers,” recalled Alabama journalist Wayne Greenhaw, in a PBB television documentary later made about the Governor’s troubled life. “She accused him of talking to his old girlfriends on the phone all the time, uh, and trying to lure them over to the mansion. They, uh, tapped each other’s phones. And then sooner or later, you know, it just turned so nasty.” In 1978, the Wallaces filed for divorce. Cornelia moved his belongings out of the Governor’s manson and told the press that she’d done everything she could to save her marriage.
In St. Louis, Masters and Johnson reminded their staff to keep quiet about this special case involving the wounded presidential candidate. While sometimes the tape-recordings and files about celebrity couples from Hollywood, television or local politics were given discreetly to Kolodny to compile in the statistical profile of their patients, it wasn’t so in this case. “Whatever was done with the Wallaces, a file was never compiled,” Koldony recalled. “It didn’t fall into any of the ordinary categories.”

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Early Word: Librarians Don't Be Shy

Masters of Sex
On the Daily Beast, Daphne Merkin writes about the cleverly titled Masters of Sex, a biography of Masters and Johnson, the pioneers of sex research, Masters and Johnson, calling it

…a richly informed and elegantly organized account of the two people behind the logo that stood for new sexual horizons.

The review is as fascinating as the book sounds.

Several libraries have not yet ordered it.

American Prospect: "Masters of Sex is this spring's true must-read book for those looking to revisit the heady, early days of the sexual revolution."

Sex Work
Two new biographies -- one of Helen Gurley Brown and the other of sex researchers William Masters and Virginia Johnson -- offer cautionary tales about mixing sex and the workplace.

DANA GOLDSTEIN | May 14, 2009 | web only
Bad Girls Go Everywhere: The Life of Helen Gurley Brown by Jennifer Scanlon, Oxford University Press, 288 pages, $27.95
Masters of Sex by Thomas Maier, Basic Books, 432 pages, $27.50

"I've never worked anywhere without being sexually involved with somebody in the office."
So said Helen Gurley Brown, editor of Cosmopolitan magazine for over 30 years, in a 1982 interview. When the reporter asked Gurley Brown if she had any ethical or feminist compunction about sleeping with a boss, she replied, "Why discriminate against him?"
This kind of glib, manufactured-to-shock statement was typical from Gurley Brown, who had nearly two decades of experience in advertising by the time she wrote her 1962 best-seller, Sex and the Single Girl. Gurley Brown knew how to market herself. One of three female copywriters at Los Angeles advertising firm Kenyon and Eckhart, Gurley Brown worked for a string of unsuccessful male bosses, yet never earned a promotion herself. At one point, management decided that despite her high-quality work, she was "overpaid," and cut her salary in half.
Frustrated, Gurley Brown focused on dating and began to pen vignettes about her personal life. At 31 and already considered an old maid by the standards of the 1950s, she wrote, almost proudly, that "every last one" of her boyfriends and lovers was married. Her response to the indignities of the glass ceiling wasn't to make a fuss demanding equality but to convince her male companions (often co-workers turned lovers) to buy each and every dinner, pay in full for every vacation, and shower her with luxurious gifts. In Sex and the Single Girl, Gurley Brown, by then 40 years old and married to super-rich movie producer David Brown, warned young women not to sell themselves short by going Dutch on dates. "Don't you dare!" she admonished.
In an adoring new biography, Bad Girls Go Everywhere, Jennifer Scanlon reopens the old debate about whether Gurley Brown can really be considered a feminist. That, of course, depends on one's definition of feminism. Undoubtedly, through her books and in the pages of Cosmopolitan, Gurley Brown encouraged young women to enjoy sex and to embrace, at least during their 20s, the single life. Her frank discussion of sexually active dating was offensive to many early-1960s readers and certainly pushed the culture toward accepting that even "good girls" engage in premarital sex. Considering Gurley Brown's influence, Scanlon, who previously wrote a cultural history of Ladies Home Journal, the staid magazine for housewives, goes to great lengths to portray Gurley Brown as a proto-second-wave feminist -- a sort of libertarian Betty Friedan, more concerned with fun than with whining about women's "victimization."
But it is only after immersing oneself in the back catalog of Ladies Home Journal that one could really mistake Cosmopolitan as radically feminist. Like Hugh Hefner, Gurley Brown was not just a magazine editor but the purveyor of a fantasy-lifestyle brand. The product Gurley Brown sold didn't purport to fix, or even address, the real economic and career anxieties facing midcentury American women. Rather, Cosmo proffered an escapist alternate reality in which every woman could distract herself with a work-related dating life as glamorous as the one Gurley Brown experienced in the Hollywood of the 1940s and 1950s. For Gurley Brown, Scanlon writes, the office was "a decidedly sexy environment," not the site of daily humiliations for women relegated to serving as "office wives," making coffee and picking up laundry for frequently lewd, condescending male bosses. Knowing that Gurley Brown experienced these privations in her own career only makes her wildly optimistic view of the intersection of sex and work seem more peculiar.
A far more sophisticated take on the complications of mixing sex and work can be found in Thomas Maier's absorbing new joint biography of sex researchers William Masters and Virginia Johnson, Masters of Sex. Masters and Johnson were the first scientists to monitor the workings of the human body during actual copulation -- yes, they watched volunteer subjects, hooked up to heart-rate and blood-flow monitors, have sex on lab tables. The team revealed Freud's sex theories as the misogynist bunk they were: The clitoral orgasm isn't less "sophisticated" than the vaginal one; both types of orgasms involve the same nerve endings, and clitoral orgasms prove far stronger. As Maier writes, Masters and Johnson, in their groundbreaking works Human Sexual Response (1966) and Human Sexual Inadequacy (1970), portrayed human females as veritable "sexual Olympians," capable of hours of multi-orgasmic masturbation and sex.
The details of how Masters and Johnson conducted and funded their research are as fascinating as one would expect, given the subject matter. Masters, already a celebrated OB-GYN and fertility expert, began his mid-career transition to sex research in the 1950s, watching through peepholes as prostitutes entertained their customers. In exchange for their cooperation, he provided the women with free medical examinations and negotiated with local police to hold off on vice arrests for a week.
It was Johnson, however, originally hired by Masters as a lowly research assistant, who realized that "ordinary" women could be cajoled into having sex for the sake of science, not least because they were eager to strike a blow against male misconceptions of how the female body works. Much of Masters and Johnson's later data on the female orgasm came from watching women masturbate with the assistance of a mechanical, thrusting dildo with a camera on its tip, nicknamed "Ulysses" by the clinic's staff. Johnson, thoughtfully, would warm the phallus with a damp washcloth before experiments began. And in addition to watching married couples have sex, the duo convinced subjects to mate in the lab with complete strangers, wearing nothing but silk face masks designed and sewed by Johnson's elderly mother.

Masters, known as cold and businesslike, relied almost totally on the attractive, effervescent Johnson to interact with volunteers. When he divorced his wife in 1971 to marry his longtime business partner, the media portrayed the pairing as a real romance, proof that there could be no sex without love. The truth of the Masters-Johnson partnership, however, was far more sordid. By Johnson's own account, and that of friends and colleagues, Masters hired the divorced mother of two under the implicit understanding that she would become his sexual partner -- for the purposes of research, Masters claimed. "Sex for Virginia Johnson would become part of her job," Maier writes matter-of-factly. And indeed, Johnson told Maier herself in an interview, "No -- I was not comfortable with it, particularly. I didn't want him at all, and had no interest in him." Johnson engaged in sex with Masters, she claimed decades later, because as a single-mother, "I had a job and I wanted it."

The couple's marriage was precipitated by Johnson receiving a marriage proposal from Hank Walter, a fragrance company executive who worked with the pair on pheromone research. (Like Helen Gurley Brown, Johnson had a history of getting involved with men at work. Her second husband and the father of her two children was a band leader in whose group she sang.) Realizing this relationship would take Johnson away from their profitable sex-therapy clinic, Masters persuaded her to marry him instead, as an investment in the Masters-Johnson brand.

Throughout Masters of Sex, it is difficult to discern exactly what Masters and Johnson meant to each other. Johnson's recent statements on the matter may not be completely trustworthy; after 20 years of marriage, Masters, suffering from Parkinson's disease, left Johnson to reunite with the sweetheart of his adolescence. What's more, Johnson, by all accounts, including her own, was enthusiastically committed to Masters' research, which became her own life's work.

Though she didn't even hold a bachelor's degree, Johnson is credited with developing the innovative therapy technique, "dual therapy," that Masters and Johnson used to counsel married couples suffering from sexual dysfunction. Inspired by the work of behaviorialists such as Albert Ellis, Ivan Pavlov, and B.F. Skinner, Johnson posited that instead of engaging in years of often ineffective Freudian analysis, much sexual inadequacy could be "cured" by simple sex-education. Masters and Johnson charged up to $10,000 for a two-week course of dual therapy. They each took the sexual history of each member of the couple, comparing notes to identify sexual hang-ups and arrive at the truth of what was -- or wasn't -- going on in the marriage bed. Couples were then taught specific sexual techniques for overcoming problems such as premature ejaculation and vaginismus, a condition in which a woman's vagina tenses up, physically preventing penetration. Masters and Johnson claimed an 80 percent success rate.

Though Masters, late in life, said, "There's no question I was a male chauvinist," he went to great lengths to ensure that Johnson was credited for her contributions to their work. Perhaps he was motivated by a desire to show there was nothing professionally untoward in promoting his un-credentialed assistant to the level of full-fledged clinic co-director. Regardless, he removed the M.D. designation after his own name on the cover of the couple's second book, making the team appear even more egalitarian.

If something is missing in Maier's psychologically astute depiction of the Masters-Johnson relationship, it is a lack of depth in his portrayal of the sexual revolution in which Masters and Johnson played key roles. Maier often makes pre-Masters and Johnson America seem like a sexual backwater, ignoring the publication, years earlier, of popular books such as Sex and the Single Girl. And he gives little context with which readers can evaluate whether Masters and Johnson were correct in their supposition that about half of all postwar married couples experienced inadequate sex, especially wives. Indeed, given that recent research shows 95 percent of all Americans have had premarital sex, ever since the 1950s, one wonders if sexual ignorance was quite as widespread as people pretended it was.

Masters and Johnson's reputation was sullied by their publication, in 1979, of a book that claimed, without evidence, that homosexuality was a lifestyle choice that could be reversed through therapy. Countless Christian fundamentalists continue to cite Masters and Johnson to lend their sexual "conversion" narratives a scientific sheen. Still, the couple's positive legacy of legitimizing the study of sex -- and, most radically, reclaiming female sexuality from the Freudians -- cannot be overstated. They are assured a place in the history of sex and feminism. Alas, despite Jennifer Scanlon's protestations, Helen Gurley Brown carries not half their weight in cultural significance. Masters of Sex is this spring's true must-read book for those looking to revisit the heady, early days of the sexual revolution.

The Economist: "If there is a moral to this tale, it is perhaps that the human heart remains as much of a mystery as the sex organs once used to be."

So long in coming
May 14th 2009
From The Economist print edition

Masters of Sex: The Life and Times of William Masters and Virginia Johnson, the Couple Who Taught America How to Love
By Thomas Maier

Basic Books; 384 pages; $27.50 and £15.99
Buy it at

WHEN William Masters was an associate professor of obstetrics at Washington University in the early 1950s, he wanted to see the library’s one textbook on human sexual physiology. No dice. The book was regarded as possibly pornographic, and thus reserved for full professors. Actually, he would not have learnt much even if the librarians had been persuaded to slip him the volume in a brown paper bag. In those days people’s sex organs were pretty much terra incognita, as a new biography of Masters and his research partner, Virginia Johnson, vividly explains.

Human sexual behaviour had been studied, since the late 1940s, by Alfred Kinsey, another American researcher. But Kinsey’s work was sociological, not medical. He reported what people said they did to themselves and to each other. He did not investigate how any of it actually worked. The goings-on in the Masters and Johnson laboratory, by contrast, were audacious, rigorous and weird. Female volunteers masturbated with “Ulysses”, a Plexiglass motorised dildo containing a camera, while wearing paper bags over their heads to preserve modesty. Hundreds of wired-up couples copulated under conditions of intense scrutiny. Over 12,000 orgasms were logged in the research for Masters and Johnson’s first book, “Human Sexual Response”, which was published in 1966. “Why”, asked a laudatory editorial in the Journal of the American Medical Association, without a trace of irony, “was this study so long in coming?”

The researches of Masters and Johnson demolished Freudian ideas of female sexuality: there was nothing inferior about a clitorally induced orgasm. And women, unlike men, were naturally multi-orgasmic—given the right techniques. After their first book, Masters’s and Johnson’s work began to focus on treatments for sexual dysfunction. Here, as Masters acknowledged, it was the medically unqualified Ms Johnson who contributed most. Today’s talking and touching therapies for couple’s sexual problems are largely based on her ideas, just as the development of Viagra and its ilk owe much to the physiological research of Masters.

Early on in their partnership, Masters (who was married) persuaded Ms Johnson (a twice-divorced mother of two) to sleep with him. He argued that this would help to avoid the worse sin of becoming sexually involved with their patients. She agreed, because she wanted to keep her job. By 1970, the tables had turned and it was Masters who feared an end to their professional partnership. Ms Johnson was on the brink of marrying a rich patron of their institute, so Masters suddenly divorced his wife, in an apparent bid to keep Ms Johnson from leaving. Ms Johnson married Masters the next year. It is not clear why she did so, as they were not in love; she said she did not know why she married her first husband, either. At the end of 1992, Masters suddenly decided it was time to change partners again, divorced Ms Johnson, and then married a long-lost sweetheart of his youth, whom he believed (mistakenly, as it turned out) had jilted him a half-century earlier. If there is a moral to this tale, it is perhaps that the human heart remains as much of a mystery as the sex organs once used to be.

Masters of Sex: The Life and Times of William Masters and Virginia Johnson, the Couple Who Taught America How to Love.
By Thomas Maier.
Basic Books; 384 pages; $27.50 and £15.99

Gelf: Q & A about "Masters of Sex" and Biography writing

MAY 16, 2009
When Masters Met Johnson
Biographer and investigative reporter Thomas Maier chronicles the couple and their research that revolutionized American attitudes toward sex.

Sara Michael

It's fitting that Thomas Maier's latest biography opens with the scene of a 15-year-old girl, later to be known to the world as Virginia Johnson, losing her virginity to her high-school sweetheart in the back of a Plymouth sedan. How else could you launch into the intimate story of one of America's pioneers of human sexuality?

Johnson is one half of the pair credited with shattering long-held myths about the physiology of human sexual response in the 1960s. In Masters of Sex, Maier's intimate portrait of William Masters and Virginia Johnson, the author examines the lives of this secretive couple who brought sex to the lab and were among the first to study the physiology of the orgasm.

"Had Bill Masters still been alive he would have put the kibosh on this."
Thomas Maier. Photo by Joyce P. McGurrin.
Maier peppers the biography with at-times graphic yet clinical scenes of human sexuality, like the one of a masked woman masturbating with a Plexiglas dildo outfitted with a camera, or that of the methodical sex surrogate coaxing her client suffering from sexual dysfunction. But more than recount Masters's and Johnson's clinical approach and perhaps questionable therapies, Maier chronicles in great detail the lives of this extraordinary pair, based on many on-the-record interviews, most extensively with Johnson. Maier ultimately tells the story of a couple's complicated relationship and of a woman who he calls a "pioneer of female sexuality."

In the following interview, which has been edited for length and clarity, Maier talks about how he got Johnson to open up and how—even with the word "sex" in the title—he's having a hard time getting his book into reviewers' hands. (You can hear Maier speak, along with Science of Sex creators Anne Machalinski and Christie Nicholson and OKCupid co-founder Christian Rudder, at Gelf Magazine's Geeking Out reading series on May 21st at the Jan Larsen Art Studios in Brooklyn, New York.)

Gelf Magazine: I understand this is really the first biography of Masters and Johnson. What made you decide to write about them?

Thomas Maier: They really are the last big American figures of the 20th century for which there was not a biography. I think that is true.

Gelf Magazine: But that's not what drove you to dig in?

Thomas Maier: No, what prompted me was that I interviewed Masters in 1994, on the day of his retirement. I have been a reporter for 25 years at Newsday and there was a point where I was doing a lot of health and science coverage, so I just happened to do that. I was writing a book on Dr. Benjamin Spock, the baby doctor, at that time, and I thought this would be an awfully interesting story. I had written this book about the Kennedys and I was going to do this book on [former New York Yankees owner] George Steinbrenner. I actually have a letter from Steinbrenner that said he was going to cooperate, and what happened was, in March of 2005 I got the letter saying, "Let's talk in September or October." Well September and October roll around, and it turns out he has kind of faded out on me, so Steinbrenner was not available.
So I revisited the idea of Masters and Johnson, and the idea of a man and a woman studying love and sex, who had not married, but then get married and then get divorced—all set against the background of the American sexual revolution. It seemed to me to be an intrinsically fascinating story, and it was much more than I ever imagined.

Gelf Magazine: Why did you think it was important to tell the story of the couple behind this research?
Thomas Maier: I think their lives represent a lot of the eternal dramas, contradictions, and dynamics of male-female relationships. They were a full-blooded heterosexual couple. If they made a movie of it I could definitely see people like Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie playing them, or in an earlier generation, a Richard Burton and Liz Taylor. Virginia Johnson, she became available after a couple of false tries. I finally gained her cooperation in November 2005.

Gelf Magazine: Tell me more about that. I understand she was hesitant to be interviewed.

Thomas Maier: Oh, she was extremely hesitant. For instance, Mary Roach, who wrote a book called Bonk that was a bestseller last year about sexuality—the impetus for that book was the mechanical dildo Masters and Johnson used in their sex experiments. Mary Roach is a science writer who has a very humorous style, and she tried to get Virginia Johnson's cooperation and Johnson wouldn't do it. The thing I think that helped was I sent her a copy of my Dr. Spock book, and the relationship of Ben Spock and his wife Jane—it was a 50-year relationship, a long-term relationship that didn't end well. Spock wound up divorcing Jane. And Virginia had met Jane Spock, and she read my book and it rang true with her. There were also a fair number of similarities with her relationship with Bill Masters, because in the end Bill divorces her and goes looking for his lost love, and Virginia goes looking for her lost love, which is the "the boy with the fiery red hair," whose name she wouldn't tell me.

Gelf Magazine: But you found that out.

Thomas Maier: I found it out from Lowell Pugh, who was the funeral-home director in a little town called Golden City, Missouri, where Virginia grew up. Its population at the time was 800, and she lived five miles outside of the Golden City.

Gelf Magazine: And everybody knew everything.

Thomas Maier: Everybody knew everything, and Lowell immediately knew it was Gordon Garrett, and it was predicted in the yearbook that Virginia Johnson would get married to him. So at the beginning of the book, the first time I interviewed Virginia, one of the audacious questions I asked—politely of course—was, "When was the first time you had sex? What was that like? When did you lose your virginity?" And she told me the story of "the boy with the fiery red hair."

Gelf Magazine: I couldn't believe she told that story, and in such detail. Were you surprised she opened up to you like that?

Thomas Maier: No, she is in a way a chatterbox. Masters was intensely secretive. Had Bill Masters still been alive, he would have put the kibosh on this. And you know he did write a 100-page memoir that was never published. He wrote it in the last few years of his life. He was suffering from Parkinson's and the reliability of some of the stuff… There were some questions about it, but it was on paper, and it was something he did with a professional writer, but it was never published. That was given to me by the family. But it was really Virginia's story.

Gelf Magazine: You clearly interviewed a lot of people, and the book has some very rich details. And all of it was on the record. How did you start this and get to the right people?

Thomas Maier: Well, I have been an investigative reporter for 25 years. One of the things you learn is concentric circles. You kind of approach people who know the person you want to write about and get closer and closer to the person. I went to a couple of different doors trying to get Virginia's cooperation, and then one day I stumbled upon her telephone number and I called her. And I found a woman who was 79 or 80 when I called her at home. She had really become a recluse—she had all her marbles—and she just started chatting.
Our first interview was about three hours over the telephone. Then I came out to St. Louis, but a lot of it was very long marathon telephone calls in a confessional or in a chatty way, talking about her life. She did a lot of fan dances initially. She would tell some of the story but she wouldn't give a names.
She was reluctant. The thing she was most reluctant about was not Gordon Garrett, believe it or not. The most sensitive area had to do with a key pivotal point in the relationship of Masters and Johnson. It occurred at the height of their fame, when they were on the cover of Time magazine. Their second book [Human Sexual Inadequacy] had come out; it created the therapy that would create the modern-day sex-therapy industry. It turned Freud on his head. They were making money in ways certainly Virginia had never dreamed of.
And Virginia wanted to get married to a man named Hank Walters, who was then the head of International Flavors and Fragrance. His firm got involved as a patron of Masters's and Johnson's work. He wanted to marry Virginia, and Virginia wanted to marry him and she wanted out [of the experiments with Masters]. She felt her work was done, and she wanted to find happiness.
There is a scene in the book where she is out with Hank, and Masters puts two and two together. They had had an affair—Masters and Johnson—and in fact sex was part of the requirement of the job. By the time she met Hank Walters, it had kind of fizzled. There was never really that emotional tie between them.

Gelf Magazine: Which is interesting considering what they were studying. Did that surprise you, that there wasn't a close connection or love between Masters and Johnson?

Thomas Maier: Absolutely. It's an amazing story. Bear in mind, couples from around the world who had problems expressing the most physical form of love in a marriage were coming to them for help. They had found a process that for 80 percent of the people that came to them found some kind of success.
So Masters finds out she is having an affair with Hank Walters, and he says, "I will divorce my wife of 20 years" [and he divorces his wife] to basically keep the partnership together, and convinces Virginia to get married to him. She makes fundamentally a business decision. And so she gets married to Masters, but it's essentially a loveless marriage.

Gelf Magazine: Do you feel like you really got to know this couple, or are there pieces missing you wish you could have filled in more?

Thomas Maier: I think I have more people on the record talking about their lives than I think anybody would have imagined. I don't think people quite realize how difficult this really was. This whole staff—they were trained by Masters not to say anything.

Gelf Magazine: It sounds like it was a pretty long process, researching and writing this book. Was there anything that was different in writing this book than your previous books?

Thomas Maier: My books have been essentially biographies, but my first book about Si Newhouse, the media baron, was done without his cooperation. It's really a biography of his organization. The Kennedys biography was a biography about a family, a four-generation family.
The book I had written previously that was by far the closest to this is the Spock biography. It was the story of a marriage. Jane Spock had really introduced Ben Spock to Freudian psychology and he popularized Freudian psychology through that baby book, and in this case, with Masters and Johnson, it's the story of a man and woman who became more equal. It's the story of a man and a woman in a long-term relationship, and who made who. Bill Masters made Virginia Johnson on one level, but she made him.

Gelf Magazine: Any idea of what her impression is of the book?

Thomas Maier: She likes it. I am amazed. You know, she has been written about a lot. So there is a level of professionalism that somebody has about that. They are accustomed to being written about. But I was very concerned. She didn't read the book until it was published, so I was really very concerned about how she would respond.

Gelf Magazine: Masters and Johnson did some perhaps ethically questionable things for this research. Could sex research have been done any other way?

"I am not sure the ethics committee of the average hospital would approve their research."Thomas Maier: It's an interesting question. They were not only ahead of their time. Although Masters was pushing the envelope, he did so still in the parameters of the medical profession. One thing was, there's a section in the book called "Volunteers." The second part of that chapter has to do with Thomas Gilpatrick, who at one point has sex with a 19-year-old girl who was pregnant, and sure, as I am writing it, there is a line there where I kind of signal to the reader that I realize this is certainly questionable by today's more stringent ethical standards. I am not sure the ethics committee of the average hospital would approve their research. I certainly raise all the questions appropriately, but bear in mind I am writing a biography in a somewhat literary way. I kind of give a wink to the reader, saying, "I am raising the question; I am bringing this up, because I do question some of the way this is done." But in the context of his time, Masters was pretty careful in trying to be professional.
Gelf Magazine: How is the couple perceived today by sex researchers?

Thomas Maier: There is a group called the Society for Sex Therapy and Research, and the new president is a guy named Michael Perelman. He actually spoke at Masters's memorial service. My book is open-eyed, obviously, but I think they had a tremendous impact.

Gelf Magazine: Your book is very graphic in parts—enough to make a reader blush, really. But is there any other way to write a book about this topic?

Thomas Maier: If you look at the reviews, they are all over the place about that. Oprah's magazine said it was pretty graphic for a biography, but the other two or so reviews were done by men who thought it was almost a little restrained and dry—and I said, "what?" I do think most of the clinical stuff I talk about was certainly using clinical language. It's never vulgar. It's in context of medical terms and, frankly, I think the aspect of sex that involves human plumbing and stuff can be almost comedic. It has to be given certain due reverence and there is a level of comedy to it.
I don't think it's overly graphic at all. I think it speaks about sexuality in a mature way without any vulgarity. There isn't any other way to do it, and I certainly thought about it a great deal. I was very mindful for a guy who just wrote a book about presidential politics.

Gelf Magazine: What was the hardest part of researching and writing this book?

Thomas Maier: Well, the most difficult part is right now. I think I have written a marvelous book and it's very difficult to get reviewed. Newspapers are falling apart. The same apparatus that was in place 10 years ago with my Spock book just isn't reviewing anymore, including my own newspaper. Newsday is not reviewing the book. So I think that is without a doubt the most difficult thing for me right now.

Gelf Magazine: How are you getting around that? Are you just pounding the pavement?

Thomas Maier: Yes, to some extent. This week, I am at Harvard Medical School. I arranged for myself to go out to the National Academy of Sciences, and next week I am in Los Angeles. I arranged for the New York Academy of Medicine thing we had with Gay Talese here in New York. So I have done a lot more public relations than I had imagined. In fact, I probably should get going on my next book. I have kind of resolved to not let myself spend as much time between books as I did with this one. I have had five years between books and I really didn't intend for that to happen.
It's very odd. Here is a biography that is really the first biography of the last big cultural figures of the 20th century who had a huge impact on people's lives. I haven't said it, but I think Virginia is a hugely important figure in terms of female sexuality. She is really the pioneer of female sexuality. She turned Freud on his head; she was the one who made their experiments happen. Her charm, her wit, her intelligence, her uncanny ability with human nature—convincing 700 people to literally engage in sex and be observed with these instruments attached to them, under CIA-like secrecy. It's just one of the most extraordinary stories.

Boston Globe: Masters and Johnson and Sex and Love - The New Debate

The new romantics
Should we get the doctor out of the bedroom?
By Drake Bennett, Globe Staff | May 17, 2009
A half-century ago, the researchers William Masters and Virginia Johnson brought sex into the laboratory. For thousands of years, sex had been the object of philosophical inquiry and religious stricture, occupying everyone from shamans to psychoanalysts, and giving the world an oceanic supply of marital and extramarital strife. But it hadn't really been studied, not in the clinical, moment-by-moment manner that Masters proposed.
The problem, believed Masters, a stern ob-gyn at Washington University in St. Louis, was that you couldn't study sex solely by asking people about it, because they were so often unaware of - or dishonest about - what was going on in their own bodies. Along with Johnson, an assistant who soon rose to the rank of co-researcher, Masters brought people, singly and in pairs, into examining rooms and observed them closely with the tools and technologies of modern medicine as they passed into and out of sexual arousal.
As recounted in Masters of Sex, a new biography of the pair by Thomas Maier (Basic Books), Masters' and Johnson's approach - and their willingness to risk social and professional stigma by doing such work - gave the world its first frank, authoritative portrait of human sexual behavior. Masters and Johnson made the medical investigation of sex legitimate, and inspired a generation of researchers. They helped clear away much of the shame and myth that had perpetuated a communal ignorance about human sexuality.
But in the age of Viagra, a few sex therapists and sex researchers are now arguing that this legacy has gone too far. The model of sex research that Masters and Johnson pioneered, with its focus on physiology and the language of function and dysfunction, has led inexorably, these critics argue, to a mindset where sexual functions are seen as simply physical ones, with cures that are pills or creams or gels or patches. As this view has become mainstream, they argue, it has reduced a complex cloud of desires and preferences to questions of blood flow and hormone levels, and has created a world where we feel deficient when our own desires don't match up with the norm. At its worst, they warn, it is pushing us into a sort of sexual arms race as people engage in sex acts that hold little interest for them, partake of a growing pharmacopeia of sex drugs, even get formerly unheard-of cosmetic surgeries to measure up to a fictional sexual ideal.

"It's misleading, it leads people to have inappropriate expectations and to make inappropriate choices," says Leonore Tiefer, a therapist and an associate professor of clinical psychiatry at New York University. "When things don't go right I think it's a mistake to rush off to the doctor and say, 'Gee, I'm not happy with my sex life.' It makes as much sense as going to a policeman to ask how to scramble eggs."

Tiefer is the most vocal of a loose coalition of sex therapists and researchers who, in books and at conferences and with their own sex therapy clients, are pushing for a more "humanistic" model of sex. They want sexuality to be seen through the lens of preference, not function and dysfunction, and sexual problems to be understood less as physiological breakdowns than reflections of the dynamics of the relationships in which they occur. Tiefer has dubbed it the "New View" campaign. What worries its members more than anything else is the race to develop a female sexual dysfunction drug, a so-called "pink Viagra." If a successful one makes it to market, these critics worry, perfectly healthy women will be medicating themselves to approximate a false norm. And damaged relationships in which deep emotional issues trigger sexual problems will be that much more likely to break apart, or to limp along with the root problems unaddressed.

But while plenty of sex researchers share these concerns about the "medicalization" of sex, at least to some degree, many caution that we shouldn't throw Masters & Johnson overboard just yet. Many people - starting with the earliest clients of Masters' and Johnsons' own sex therapy clinics - will testify that the medical approach has made their lives much happier by turning sex into something that can be discussed frankly in the doctor's office. For its critics, the question is whether that approach has begun to create as many dysfunctions as it cures.

Compared with the mid-century world of Masters and Johnson, ours is awash in sex.

To the list of usual suspects blamed or credited for this - Elvis, Helen Gurley Brown, the birth-control pill, the Internet - one might add Viagra, which in recent years has had an outsized role in shaping how we think and talk about sex, love, and the relationship between the two. The drug, first released 11 years ago, has not only helped millions of men revive sex lives diminished by age or disease, it has also made sexual dysfunction a topic of public discussion, with Bob Dole endorsing the drug and with commercials coyly broaching the topic of erectile dysfunction to prime-time television audiences.

But to New View critics, the benefits of Viagra and similar pills have to be balanced against the fact that they have made our sex lives seem like something that can - and should - be fixed with a drug. The use of erectile dysfunction drugs has spread far beyond their narrow original indication to become a gray-market "quick fix" for men who have nothing wrong with them aside from mild anxiety about their sexual performance, or who want to amp up their performance to abnormal levels. Anyone with an Internet connection is familiar with the unending bombardment of spam playing off just those desires and worries.

Eager to replicate the outsized profits that erectile dysfunction drugs have brought, several pharmaceutical firms are in hot pursuit of a women's version. Because female sexual desire is far less straightforward than men's, success has been thus far elusive, but there are several candidates in the pipeline. Whether any of them will work well enough - and without significant adverse health effects - to gain FDA approval remains to be seen. (In Europe, a testosterone patch to boost sex drive in post-menopausal women has been approved, but its efficacy is debated.)

For critics, the problem is not whether a women's Viagra will work, but what happens if it does. They argue that the very concept of "female sexual dysfunction," the condition that such drugs would be targeting, is not an actual medical condition so much as a creation of the pharmaceutical industry. While surveys show that 20 to 40 percent of women describe themselves as having a lack of interest in sex (the higher figures tend to come from studies funded by pharmaceutical companies), only about a quarter of those women describe that as a problem. It's hard to call something a disorder or a dysfunction, some sex researchers argue, if the people who experience it don't tend to see it that way.

"The problem is that we don't have any real base rate of what normal desire is for a woman, so it's incredibly open to interpretation," says Marta Meana, a professor of psychology at UNLV who studies female sexual health.

As a result, Tiefer and others fear, women will feel pressure - perhaps from their husbands, perhaps just because they feel stigmatized in their low-wattage desire - to boost their sex drive through drugs, and to risk whatever side effects come with them.

A more fundamental problem, though, is that turning to a pill or some other medication leaves unaddressed larger issues in people's lives - anything from household resentments to a deeper lack of trust in a partner - that might be manifesting themselves in the bedroom.

Mainstream models of sexual disorders, argues Tiefer, simply ignore the ways those dynamics can work their way into sex. "There's nothing in [those models] about romance or power dynamics or taking out the garbage," she says.

This focus on the physiological, others suggest, also means certain kinds of potentially useful sex research just don't get done. Amy Allina, program director at National Women's Health Network, points out that little is known about how a couple's sex life is altered by a major personal crisis. "We don't really know - and this is a timely one - how unemployment affects a couple's sex life," she says.

Among the researchers working on the puzzle of human sexuality, there are many who, unsurprisingly, object to the characterization of the field as dominated by crude materialists focused only on the body and in thrall to the pharmaceutical industry.

"With respect to sex research as a whole, I don't think that's a fair characterization. There are quite a lot of people who do not believe that physiology trumps psychology," says Meredith Chivers, a female sexuality specialist and assistant professor of psychology at Queen's University in Ontario.

There's strong resistance, as well, to the idea that we'd do better by setting aside questions of bodily function so we can focus more completely on the dynamics of relationships. "Sex does have a physiological component, and the more we know about the physiology the better," says J. Michael Bailey, a psychology professor at Northwestern University who studies sexual orientation and arousal. And to be sure, medical solutions can bring their own emotional benefits, as for couples where the desire survives but some physiological obstacle - erectile dysfunction, or pain during sex - stands in the way of a full sex life.

But even the scientifically minded will often acknowledge that parts of the New View critique have it right: when we treat sex as simply another metabolic process, we're turning a matter of personal taste into a medical norm, and making it easier to ignore the ways that sex can be a barometer of other, deeper difficulties in a relationship. At a time when the number of options for sex treatment and enhancement is growing fast - not only pills and patches, but physical therapy for the pelvic floor and procedures like vaginal cosmetic surgery - it's an important conversation for society to have.

These are concerns that, despite the nature of their research, even Masters and Johnson shared. Johnson in particular, according to their biographer Maier, was careful both in presenting their research and in applying it in therapy to emphasize the emotional backdrop of sex. Johnson, who carried on an affair with Masters for years before he left his wife to marry her - later on he would divorce her for a childhood sweetheart - was well aware, Maier says, that people "can become walking encyclopedias about sexual information, but can remain woefully ignorant of the needs of their partner."

Drake Bennett is the staff writer for Ideas. E-mail

© Copyright 2009 The New York Times Company

Orange County Register: Would Masters and Johnson Be Possible Today?

Orange County Register,
Hot topic at UCI: Sex, sex and more sex
May 17th, 2009, 5:00 am · posted by Gary Robbins, science writer-editor

Acclaimed biographer Thomas Maier will visit Beckman Center at UC Irvine on Wednesday (map)to give a public talk about his new book, “Masters of Sex,” the inside story of William Masters and Virginia Johnson. Masters and Johnson, as they were known to the public through their books, were among the most influential human sexuality researchers of the 20th century, conducting pioneering studies in St. Louis that examined everything from the four stages of the sexual response cycle to impotency and homosexuality, and sexual dysfunction. Masters, a gynecologist, and Johnson, a psychologist,conducted some of their work in secret at Washington University, and the couple, who later married, claimed to have observed at least 10,000 live sex acts in laboratory settings.
Maier, who was widely praised for his book, “Dr. Spock: An American Life,” will give his free talk at 7 p.m. Wednesday as part of the DistinctiveVoices@Beckman series. There will be time for questions and answers, and a book signing. Maier answered a series of questions by email.

Q: I was surprised to read that lots and lots of people in the conservative Midwest in the 1950s were eager to participate in Masters and Johnson’s sex experiments at Washington University. What does this say about the American psyche of that era?
A: As conservative as Americans are about sex, the success of this project probably says more about the persuasive powers of Virginia Johnson, one of the most fascinating women of the 20th century. As partner to Dr. William Masters, a renowned ob/gyn at the school, she convinced some 700 people to volunteer to be observed having sex. Virginia was a twice-divorced mother of two who went back to college at age 32 and wound up working with Masters, first as a mere assistant. But her intuitive genius and her charisma convinced many to volunteer — including nurses and faculty wives — who would never have gotten involved in such a clinical sex study.
Their 10 year study became the biggest sex experiment of its kind in U.S. history and pioneered medicine’s dominant role today in matters of sex.
Q: Masters is quoted in your book as saying, “At a very early age, I
learned something most men never learn — that I knew nothing at all about female sexuality.” Do you think that’s true of most men today?
A: Yes, by and large. Although we live in a society drenched in sexual information and images, many men (and women) seem clueless about love and what makes the opposite sex tick. Masters and Johnson spent much of their career explaining the clinical aspects of human intimacy, but they later realized that love and matters of the heart were equally important in a meaningful relationship.
As the first and only biographer of Masters and Johnson, I was struck by how many couples today still are “dysfunctional” — unable to find happiness in their sex lives. I was also surprised how much the yearning for love played such a dramatic role in both the lives of Virginia Johnson and William Masters. At first, they were unmarried partners as a team, then they married, and ultimately divorced after 20 years. At the end of this book, they both go off looking for the lost loves of their youth.
Q: Masters and Johnson literally observed thousands of couples having sex so that they could research everything from the nature of orgasms to impotency. What do you think the public reaction would be if a school like, say, UC Irvine, publicly announced that they were opening a lab where they were going to monitor live sex acts. Has the public’s attitude about sex
evolved much since the late 50s? Was there really a revolution in the truest sense of the word?
A: I think Masters and Johnson’s large sex study couldn’t be replicated today for a number of political and cultural reasons, including ethical restrictions on the testing of human subjects. Government never provided any research funding for Masters and Johnson’s work — even though their revolutionary therapy successfully, almost miraculously, helped married couples within two weeks with a 80 percent success rate. But the biggest revolution of Masters and Johnson’s work has to do with discovering and underlining the power of female sexuality. Rather than being the weaker sex, their studies showed conclusively that women could be multi-orgasmic and possessed a greater sexual capacity than men. Their clinical proof shattered Freud’s
theories about women and sex, and replaced Freudian psychoanalysis with a
far more practical and effective sex therapy that was adopted around the world and created the modern sex therapy field.

Virginia Johnson. Image courtesy of Washington University
Q: Early in the book you talked about Virginia Johnson losing her virginity at 15 and having a fair number of partners. I came away thinking she was promiscuous for that era. Is that an accurate assessment or am I flat wrong?
A: Virginia was a bright, cheery young woman who knew how to appear as a “nice girl” but was always independent minded about her own sexuality, much like we see among young women today or characters like Carrie Bradshaw on Sex and the City. I was fascinated by Virginia because she showed the same gumption as a man in matters of sex and love, and her independent-mindedness was essential in focusing Masters and Johnson’s work that rewrote everything we know about female sexuality. But she was always very professional in the lab with staff and patients, and I think in marriage she was more faithful than her partners, including her 20-year marriage to Dr. Masters. In the final analysis, Virginia Johnson had more to do with defining the sex lives of today’s average American woman than far more famous figures like feminist Gloria Steinem.
Q: Masters and Johnson clearly knew and learned more about sex and intimacy than other Americans of their time. And yet, their marriage ended in divorce. Did that lead you to believe that sex actually becomes an increasingly less important aspect of married life over time?
A: No, for reasons that readers can learn in my book, Masters and Johnson agreed to marry each other for essentially business reasons at the height of their fame. Previously they had a long-running sexual affair while Masters was still married to his first wife and Johnson was divorced. But both later said that they had a loveless marriage after they wed in 1971 and presented themselves to the world as America’s experts on sex and love. When Masters and Johnson divorced 20 years later, they both went searching for the lost loves of their youth. Ironically, Masters and Johnson’s sex study showed that people can have active sex lives well into their 80s if they are so inclined.
Q: But didn’t the fact that they married for essentially business reasons make them something of a fraud? In many ways, they counseled people on vital aspects of marriage. But they had a loveless marriage.

Masters and Johson
A: The intensity of Masters and Johnson’s relationship — both personally and professionally — makes it impossible to question their sincerity. Most of the people they treated and helped were married couples whose sex lives together were troubled. Although they both claimed that their marriage was more a business partnership than a love affair, I think careful readers of this book will wonder if they really did love another. Indeed, the enigma of love between two people is a big part of this story!
Q: I’m going to put you on the spot, Thomas. Would you allow credible researchers like Masters and Johnson observe you having sex to help advance science’s understanding of human sexuality?
A: No, I wouldn’t personally get involved in such a study, even under the banner of “participatory journalism.” But plenty of young men and particularly women agreed to do so for Masters and Johnson, and helped millions of people, particularly married couuples with troubled sex lives, gain a much better understanding of their own sex and loves lives together.
Follow Sciencedude on Twitter at grobbins and add him as a face on Facebook.
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Saturday, May 9, 2009

Nick's Picks: Fine Books and Collections Magazine

Nick's Picks: An Ecclectic Quartet
Masters of Sex: The Life and Times of William Masters and Virginia Johnson, the Couple Who Taught America How to Love, by Thomas Maier; Basic Books, 411 pages, $27.50

If the subject is about how a single book has the power to impact the way people think and comport themselves in intimate relationships, then you have to include the release in 1966 of Human Sexual Response by William Masters and Virginia Johnson, a blockbuster with international consequences that was followed four years later by a powerful followup, Human Sexual Inadequacy. Prior to these books, what people knew about the mechanics of sexual relationships came from text books. Their first-hand reports of human sexuality, reported clinically in their books--Masters and Johnson observed 10,000 sexual acts in pursuit of their data--changed the entire paradigm. Thomas Maier--the biographer previously of another inhabitant of this exclusive group of attitude-changing authors, the baby doctor Dr. Benjamin Spock--has written a compelling profile of the two pioneers that concentrates on their own relationship and working patterns. Altogether a fascinating book.

Radio Podcast Interview about Masters and Johnson on KWMU

Here's an interview with Don Marsh, host of St, Louis on the Air, produced by a local NPR station.

"Masters of Sex" author to attend book signing in Central West End

KSDK -- The author of "Masters of Sex; The Life and Times of Williams Master and Virginia Johnson, the Couple who Taught America How to Love" will be in the Central West End to sign copies of his book.
Thomas Maier will be at Left Bank Books at 399 North Euclid on Thursday at 7:00 p.m.
Maier joined NewsChannel 5's Jennifer Blome to discuss his book. Click on the video link to watch the interview.

Playboy Praises "Masters of Sex" in New Review

By J.R. Nelson
Author: Thomas Maier
Publisher: Basic Books
Number of Pages: 432 Pages
Cover Type: Hard Cover
If it's hard to imagine a truly adequate sex-ed class before William Masters and Virginia Johnson, it’s probably because there wasn’t one. Masters and Johnson literally wrote the book on how we get it on. Pioneers in the physiological study of human sexuality and the treatment of sexual dysfunction, their bestselling 1966 classic Human Sexual Response and its follow up, Human Sexual Inadequacy, were sparks that helped ignite the sexual revolution.
As Thomas Maier reports in his new biography of the duo, Masters of Sex, the journey of Masters and Johnson after that initial success was a hard one. Some of their work, including research on homosexuality and converting/reverting gays and lesbians and a later book on AIDS, have been justifiably controversial. In addition, the duo’s 40-year relationship was complicated; their marriage and professional partnership ended in bitterness. As Maier reveals in delicate detail, mysteries of the heart are not as easily solvable as those of the loins, even for the experts.
Famous as caricatures for their “white lab coat” exactitude and clinical prose, Masters and Johnson deftly informed and comforted millions. Maier offers an intimate, engaging look at a couple who helped free lovers from repression, suppression and Freudian myth and helped bring what was most human about us into the light.

Friday, May 8, 2009

Mother's Day Story of Virginia Johnson - the Working Mother who Became America's Sex Expert: Now on Kindle and Audio As Well as Hardcover

What better gift for Mother's Day than the intimate story of Virginia Johnson, a twice-divorced mother of two, who went back to college and became the world's leading expert on sex and love -- particularly female sexuality. Before Madonna, Dr. Ruth, Gloria Steinem and Sex and the City's Carrie Bradshaw, Virginia was leading her own life an independent-minded woman who blazed her own path with Dr. William Masters.
All of this can be found in "Masters of Sex", the 400-page biography of Masters and Johnson, which is offered on Kindle, as well as in hardcover and audio versions.

Masters and Johnson's Legacy in St. Louis - How Biggest U.S. Sex Experiment Took Place, Why Does Washington University Not Honor Them?

Masters and Johnson's Legacy in St. Louis- "Masters of Sex" by Thomas Maier discussed on Charlie Brennan's radio show on

Monday, May 4, 2009

Harvard Bookstore, Friday May 15th, 3PM- "Masters of Sex" by Thomas Maier

Harvard Book Store is pleased to welcome award-winning author and investigative journalist THOMAS MAIER for a discussion of his new biography of William Masters and Virginia Johnson, Masters of Sex.

DATE: Friday, May 15th
TIME: 3:00 PM
LOCATION: Harvard Book Store
1256 Massachusetts Avenue
TICKETS: This event is free; no tickets are required

Masters and Johnson's "Gay Conversion" True? - Panel Discusses at Launch for "Masters of Sex"

The controversy surrounding Masters and Johnson's theory of "gay conversion" is discussed at the book launch for "Masters of Sex: The Life and Times of William Masters and Virginia Johnson, The Couple Who Taught America How To Love," by Thomas Maier (Basic Books), which took place April 27, 2009 at the New York Academy of Medicine. In the biography, Maier raises strong doubts that many so-called conversion cases -- claiming to change patients from homosexuality to heterosexuality -- were embellished and fabricated. During this panel discussion, moderator Laurie Garrett questions Maier and panelist Dr. Robert C. Kolodny, former associate director of the Masters and Johnson Institute, about concerns these "gay conversion" were made up, and about the consequences of this theory. They are joined on the panel by writer Gay Talese (his comments that evening can be seen on other video related to this one.)

Sunday, May 3, 2009

Boston Globe Reviews "Masters of Sex"

Carnal knowledge
Birds do it, bees do it, but it took Masters and Johnson to explain how we do it
By Michael Washburn | May 3, 2009
MASTERS OF SEX: The Life and Times
of William Masters and Virginia Johnson,
the Couple Who Taught America How to Love
By Thomas Maier
Basic, 411 pp., illustrated, $27.50

You know you want it - we all do, even though most have remained in the dark about what it actually is. Desire does make its demands, yet for all the staggering influence sexuality exerts on human history, we've more or less remained condemned to a misinformed sexual adolescence. As case in point: For years, original "sexologist" Elizabeth Osgood Willard's proclamation that an orgasm was more debilitating than an entire day's labor in the fields was considered scientifically valid.
Knowledge, thankfully, advances, though often in suspect ways. Over the past 100 years or so, the study of human sexuality examined the extravagantly theoretical (Richard von Krafft-Ebing's fetish for the abnormal and Freud's baroque interpretations of our polymorphous perversity) and the titillatingly sociological (Alfred Kinsey's then-prurient cataloging of sexual preference) before seriously addressing fundamental biological processes.
In this latter realm of inquiry, William Masters and Virginia Johnson are to be thanked for explaining what actually goes on when we get it on. Through their empirical research as well as their sober presentation of potentially inflammatory subject matter, Masters and Johnson, argues Thomas Maier in the over-titled "Masters of Sex: the Life and Times of William Masters and Virginia Johnson, the Couple Who Taught America How to Love," brought the "sexual revolution to suburban malls and the everyday lives of Americans." En route to the mall they managed to dispel quite a bit of sexual hokum, as well as provide shoddy scientific support to sexual reactionaries.
Masters' and Johnson's reputation rests on their first book, "Human Sexual Response," based on research conducted in secret at their clinic on the campus of St. Louis' Washington University. The book's primary intended contribution to sexology remains the four-stage human sexual response cycle: 1) excitement phase, 2) plateau phase, 3) orgasmic phase, and 4) resolution phase. To us 21st century sexual sophisticates, this cycle appears only slightly more impressive than if Masters and Johnson had spent 10 years studying how to chew gum, but in the turbulent years of the late 1960s, providing a scientific imprimatur to intimacy was transformative, if potentially scandalous.
To support their theory of sexual response, Masters and Johnson observed thousands of orgasms and their attendant physical characteristics. (Not that a teenager would want to steal his father's copy. By design, "Human Sexual Response" is not a sexy read. "Masters of Sex" adheres to this rhetorical tactic.) Their research methods - which included a prosthetic penis with an attached video camera and close observation of people, usually prostitutes or strangers who had volunteered, engaged in intercourse or masturbation - were innovative, to say the least. Methodologically speaking, there was no other way to proceed, but public knowledge of such methods would have proved scandalous. Outrage, especially with regard to their observations about female orgasm, did, in fact, break out upon publication.
Masters' and Johnson's work lent tremendous, if unintended, support to the sexual revolution. "Masters and Johnson," Maier quotes Jane Gerhard as saying, "crafted an account of female sexuality that inadvertently threw into question the pervasive understanding of heterosexuality as innate and fully satisfied through intercourse with a penis." In short, since women were able to achieve multiple orgasms while men were forced to withstand a "refractory" period, the sexual equality, if not dominance, of woman was established.
This was unintentional. Although adopted as supporters of the sexual revolution, Masters and Johnson were not crusaders for sexual progressivism, and soon their work was adopted by opponents of sexual freedom. "Homosexuality in Perspective" furnished the most obvious example of this. The book argues that "we learn our sexual preferences and orientations," and that willing homosexuals could undergo "conversion therapy" at the Masters' and Johnson clinic. "Homosexuality," writes Maier, had "ramifications that lasted for decades. . . . religious conservatives and right-wing commentators seized on Masters and Johnson's research to contend that a gay and lesbian lifestyle was a matter of personal choice and not by divine design." To this day, anti-gay factions invoke this component of their work.
The book's tripartite narrative - Masters, Johnson, and "Masters and Johnson" - attempts to weave the tale of the researchers' lives along with their research. This is a lot to ask, and the book suffers from a lack of depth when it moves beyond the research and the "Masters and Johnson" brand to deal with the individuals.
Masters was the stern scientist more interested in watching the game than socializing. His interest in sex seemingly extended only so far as it could be empirically observed and measured, though for much of his first marriage he indulged in late-night participant-observer sessions with Johnson, then his assistant.
As a single, struggling mother without a college degree in the 1950s and 1960s, Johnson's rise from assistant to co-researcher and media celebrity was impressive. "Masters of Sex" proves ambivalent with regard to her. Maier seems unsure whether Johnson was an ambitious master of her own agenda or whether she fell victim to a culture that didn't take women seriously.
One of the book's pat ironic conclusions is that the couple who knew sex inside and out were louts with love. The book catalogs their misbegotten and mismanaged romances, before discussing Masters' and Johnson's failed marriage - what had begun with professional passion of the extramarital fire had dimmed until they were merely interested in keeping the Masters and Johnson brand alive, not for passion or love. Or sex.

Michael Washburn is assistant director of the Center for the Humanities at the Graduate Center, City University of New York.

Author's Note:
I thought this review was a bit odd in saying I showed an "ambivalence" towards Virginia Johnson. Sure, just as Flaubert was "ambivalent" about Madame Bovary. It's funny to watch the reaction to this book and the various different takes by reviewers. Compare this one to a far more insightful review by Daphne Merkin in The Daily Beast (see below on this blog). Anyway, I'm glad the Globe reviewed it and hope that its parent, The New York Times, does as well. - T.M.

Great Sex Experiment of Masters and Johnson -- Book Launch of "Masters of Sex" by Thomas Maier

For a decade, Masters and Johnson oversaw the biggest sex experiment in U.S. history -- the clinical observation of nearly 700 people who engaged in sex while observed in a lab at Washington University in St. Louis. At the book launch for "Masters of Sex", the new and only biography of Masters and Johnson, author Thomas Maier discusses this great experiment with panelists Laurie Garrett, Gay Talese and Dr. Robert Kolodny. Along with a few laughs, the discussion turns to the scientific significance of Masters and Johnson's work, their private affair before they married, and how some 700 men and women were convinced to become volunteers in this great sex experiment at one of America's top university medical schools.

Virginia as "Star of the Show?" Interview with St. Louis Post-Dispatch: At Left Bank Books This Thurs, May 7

Masters and Johnson mixed business and pleasure
By Jane Henderson
Sunday, May. 03 2009
Famous sex researchers Masters and Johnson married, but love probably wasn't
the reason.
The St. Louis couple's shared bedroom was a bit like their offices — a work
compact, a new biography says.
William H. Masters' proposal to Virginia E. Johnson seemed "constructed on
business commitments," Thomas Maier writes in "Masters of Sex" (Basic Books,
411 pages, $27.50).
But even as Bill and Gini, as Maier calls them, debunked sexual myths with
their scientific studies, they learned that the very thing that eluded them
often did play an important role in a happy sex life. In short, love mattered.
Maier, an investigative reporter for Newsday who talked by phone from Long
Island, will be here Thursday to discuss his book.
Masters and Johnson's research was reported far and wide for decades after they
published their first book, "Human Sexual Response," in 1966. But their
personal story has not been scrutinized by a biographer until now.
Masters, who died in 2001, wrote a memoir, but it was never published. Johnson
refused to talk to Maier, he says, until he showed her his biography "Dr.
Spock." Now living in a Central West End nursing home and using the name Mary
Masters, she opened up to him about her childhood, divorces and work in St.
Although he may be indebted to her for this book, Maier sounds sincere when he
says that Johnson is "the star of the show. ... Her story is a classic
'Pygmalion' story."
Johnson was a twice-divorced mother of two when she came to Washington
University looking for work as a secretary. In 1957, she got a job at the old
Maternity Hospital. Later that year, Masters, a prominent ob-gyn at the
university, asked her whether helping with sex research would "bother her."
"I can't imagine why," she answered. "But why does anyone need it?"
She'd grown up on a farm in Golden City, Mo., and took sex for granted.
Thus began their collaboration. Maier portrays Johnson as a quick study who was
transformed from a secretary into a savvy assistant who unflinchingly gathered
personal histories and watched strangers copulate. As she became a full-fledged
partner in Johnson's research, she persuaded Washington University co-eds and
staffers (not prostitutes, whom Masters had used) to participate in sex
By challenging puritanical taboos, mid-century sex research by Alfred Kinsey
and Masters and Johnson made each famous — and notorious. St. Louisans didn't
embrace Johnson. Some reflected the common attitude that Johnson was a
predatory divorcee who broke up Masters' first marriage.
According to Maier, though, Masters told his office associate within a year of
their meeting that the job would require having sex with him.
Years later, when it looked like Johnson would finally marry a well-off
businessman, Masters left his wife and he and Johnson wed in 1971. She tells
Maier: "There was always the social rejection of being who we were. I thought
if I married, that would probably erase some of that."
Before they divorced in 1993, Masters and Johnson's professional work opened
the world's eyes to sexuality, particularly transforming knowledge about female
sexuality. They dispelled some Freudian theories and showed couples how to
become more comfortable with sex, offering scientific evidence of how the body
achieved orgasm.
Maier admits that a few of their conclusions and methods were shaky: Masters
apparently fabricated data in which he insisted that homosexuals could be
"converted" to heterosexuality and he continued to use controversial sexual
surrogates in therapy even after saying he'd stopped. They were roundly
criticized for warning that AIDS posed a serious threat to heterosexuals. (In
retrospect, that warning was correct, Maier says. But some fears expressed
about casual HIV transmission in their 1988 book "Crisis" have never been
supported by data.)
One thing that Maier doesn't understand is why Washington University has not
done more to promote its connection with the pair. The author says: "Bill
basically got pushed out the door at Washington University. They still don't
really recognize Masters and Johnson. ... It's extraordinary to me."
There are some who would like to see the university give an honorary degree to
Virginia Johnson, he says. "I think that's more than justified."
After the couple's divorce, each eventually went looking for childhood
sweethearts. Only Masters found his. His third marriage, at age 79, was
celebrated in People magazine.
His bride, Dody, told Maier that her husband's previous marriage "was more or
less a business deal."
Yet, she said: "They did a lot of good and contributed a lot to society. It
took a lot of courage to do that."

Authors Night in Hamptons Features MAFIA SPIES

Alec Baldwin and Thomas Maier. This year's Authors Night for the East Hampton Library promises to be as much fun as in years pas...