Sunday, June 28, 2009

New York Times Book Review: Sunday June 28, 2009 - "Eye-Opening" and "Bombshell" is This New Bio of Masters and Johnson, Says Reviewer

June 28, 2009
Practice, Practice, Practice

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

Illustrated. 411 pp. Basic Books. $27.50

“I  can’t imagine anything that would make for more dull reading,” the sex researcher William Masters declared when asked, in his 60s, if he wished to write an account of his life. Now that account exists — and it’s a bombshell. It is also anything but envy-inducing or seductive. And therein, perhaps, lies its crucial importance.

Can the life of a man who spent most of the waking hours of his adult life either having sex, watching sex or talking sex be sad? The answer, as we see in Thomas Maier’s eye-opening “Masters of Sex” is a resounding yes.

Born in Cleveland in 1915 and banished 15 years later to boarding school by an abusive father who told him to expect no further support, Masters worked hard despite academic limitations. It was in medical school that he conceived the idea of becoming a great sex researcher. Doctors knew nothing of human sexuality except what Alfred Kinsey was recording in the 1940s and early ’50s, about a decade before Masters and Johnson got started. But the Kinsey Report was mainly hearsay — interviews with patients. William Masters didn’t want to talk; he wanted to watch, measure, film, touch.

Not only did he secure a plum position on the obstetrics-gynecology faculty at Washington University in St. Louis but in 1955 he got the blessing of that city’s police commissioner and archbishop for a groundbreaking study of female sexuality conducted in brothels. In the name of science, Maier writes, Masters crouched against peepholes and two-way mirrors observing “the amount of time in a sexual encounter, the points of entry and departure, and even the degree of bouncing around on the bed.”

The problem with this method was not just the discomfort (try wearing a lab coat and bow tie, as Masters always did, while huddling in the steamy corners of a bordello) but the fact that the sexual reactions of prostitutes were hardly representative of all women. Masters himself realized this, but didn’t change course until the day a confident young college student who dabbled in the sex industry (and delivered the startling news that women sometimes faked orgasms) told him he didn’t understand squat about female sexuality. He needed a female research partner.

Virginia Johnson was a secretary in the ob-gyn clinic, twice divorced, with two children and no degree. She was comely, sexually experienced and, more important, licentious. She cared nothing for the hullaballoo over love and romance. Sex had always been a pleasurable activity she engaged in serially with many partners, some of whom fell in love with her and most of whom she unceremoniously abandoned. “Dear heavens, was I really that insensitive?” she said when reminded of the offhand way she jilted her high school lover. She jilted her two husbands just as coolly. But then again, she once told a reporter, she had “never married anybody I really cared about,” possibly a reaction to a handsome Army captain she romanced in her youth who left her for his fiancée. “I had an active interest in sex,” she admitted, “but never particularly to the men I was involved with.”

For Masters this woman was a godsend. She freely agreed first to watch — and soon to have — sex with him. Intercourse became a part of their work contract: had she “opted out of that,” attested Masters’s aide, Dr. Robert Kolodny, she “would have been replaced.”

Masters was married at the time, and Johnson was dating a judge. But so what? Their near-nightly sex was part of their work ethic. Having stripped to the skin, Masters “instructed Gini to remain as professional as possible,” and told her that “these encounters should not venture beyond the scope of scientific inquiry,” Maier writes. And indeed, Johnson recalled, “I didn’t want him at all and had no interest in him.” This did not keep them from being “sexual athletes” for the next 13 years — until Johnson met a perfume millionaire who wanted to marry her. Masters feared the dissolution of their by then world-famous medical partnership, hastily divorced his wife and wed Johnson — and their sex life tapered off.

They would be married for 20 years, pretending to the American public that they were an ideal pair of lovebirds. Meanwhile they never used the word “love,” which Masters considered imprecise and inappropriate. Both knew what their relationship was about: the success of their product, which, by this point, was the revolutionary sexual science of the Masters and Johnson brand. They were as famous as Kleenex, Johnson boasted.

But for what? What did the more than 10,000 orgasms they observed in a laboratory reveal? Admirers, like Maier, point to the fact that they debunked Freud by revealing that there was no qualitative difference between a vaginal and clitoral orgasm, and that they made significant discoveries about vaginal lubrication and contraction during arousal.

But I would wager that for every myth they debunked, they introduced another, equally damaging. Example: If women were previously believed to be less sex-driven than men, Masters and Johnson claimed that, to the contrary, women are far more sexually superpowered, proceeding effortlessly from orgasm to orgasm. Needless to say, such an idea can cause a lot of trouble. Unless a woman is positively flying out the window like a witch on a broomstick — and staying there for hours — her partner these days is prone to turn glum and wonder if it is he who is a bad lover or she who has a (scary drumroll) “sexual dysfunction.”

Maier, the author of an earlier biography of Benjamin Spock, thinks the world of his subjects’ attainments. He passes lightly over the gaffes of their career, like their dubious research on “gay conversion.” He plays down their personal dishonesty, self-mythologizing and myriad contradictions. His pen is not probing but platitudinous: Couples “lose their innocence” when they make love, and on the night a teenage Virginia has sex for the first time, he tells us it feels “pleasant enough for her, though far from familiar.” It’s hardly surprising, therefore, that he makes little of Masters and Johnson’s own awkward and incomprehensible prose style.

Perhaps the lives of Masters and Johnson, and not their research, are the true revelation. At the end of their marital charade and their medical circus, Masters left Johnson the way he had left his first wife (and Johnson her previous husbands): in cold blood. A four-word announcement, and he was off.

Was he ever happy with her? In his unpublished memoir, Masters, who died in 2001, spends more time on his Doberman pinschers. Today, Johnson lives alone in an apartment near her erstwhile sex lab: she has destroyed the research tapes from her days with Masters, regrets the degree he blocked her from getting and the more advantageous men she never wed. Maier, who interviewed her extensively, and who has publicly enjoined Washington University to give her an honorary doctorate, sympathizes.

Masters himself went off to marry a woman he had first met as a young man and to whom he once delivered two dozen roses and a love note that were never acknowledged. When he learned, at age 79, that she never received those roses, he proposed. After their wedding, Masters looked happier than he ever had in his life and told the press that his findings about sexual vitality among the elderly held up: “But what’s romantic to me is to sit across the breakfast table and look at her — she’s a beautiful woman.” The technician of sex had turned romantic. Perhaps it’s time we follow suit.

Cristina Nehring is the author of “A Vindication of Love: Reclaiming Romance for the Twenty-First Century.”

New York Times: Excerpt from "Masters of Sex" -Daily Review of June 26, 2009

"It often begins in the back seat of a parked car. It's hurry up and get the job done. The back seat of a car hardly provides an opportunity for the expression of personality." — William H. Masters

Into the dark, two beams of light showed the way. The piercing headlights from a Plymouth automobile cut a path through the unrelenting blackness of the Missouri countryside. Slowly the car carrying Mary Virginia Eshelman and her high school boyfriend, Gordon Garrett, rumbled down Route 160, a vast asphalt stretch without street lamps, where only the stars and moon lit the evening sky.

For his date with Mary Virginia, Gordon borrowed the brand new Garrett family car — a green 1941 sedan with a shiny chrome grill, protruding hood ornament, muscular fenders, and an ample backseat. They motored past rows of homesteads and crops, carved from the tall grass prairie. That evening, they joined friends at The Palace, the town's only theater, where the melodies and dancing of Hollywood musicals let them escape Golden City's dullness. Newsreels made them aware of another larger world outside their tiny hometown of eight hundred people. Bordering the Ozark Mountains, Golden City seemed closer to rural Oklahoma than big-city St. Louis — both in dirt miles and in Bible-thumping spirit. Before heading home, Gordon turned the Plymouth off the road and dimmed its lights. Noise from the tires, pressing loudly against the gravel stones, suddenly came to a halt, followed by a palpable hush. Snuggled beside each other, Mary Virginia and her boyfriend parked in a secluded area where they would not be spotted.

In the front seat of the car, Gordon opened her blouse, loosened her skirt, and pressed himself against her skin. She didn't move or resist, just stared at him in wonderment. Mary Virginia never had seen a penis before except, as she later remembered it, when her mother changed her baby brother's diaper. On that night, shortly after her fifteenth birthday, Mary Virginia Eshelman — later known to the world as Virginia E. Johnson — was introduced to the mysteries of human intimacy. "I didn't know anything about anything," confessed the woman whose landmark partnership with Dr. William H. Masters would someday become synonymous with sex and love in America.

In her puritanical Midwest home, Mary Virginia learned sex was sinful, something far removed from the breathless tales of storybook romance she imbibed at the movies before World War II. Like many women of her generation, she learned that sex, at best, was a thankless chore, better left for the confines of marriage and bearing a family. Years afterward, she'd refer to Gordon Garrett anonymously as the "boy with fiery red hair." She masked his identity just as she concealed any unpleasant truth about her life, any memory of love that eluded her. As she admitted decades later, "I never married the men I really cared about." But she would never forget Gordon Garrett, or that night outside of Golden City, when the two teens lost their innocence.

Along the roadside, the young couple huddled in shadows, necking in the front seat until they slid into the back. Heavy breathing fogged the windows. Automobiles, still new to a place like Golden City, provided a relatively private place to be alone. Gordon pulled the clutch brake to make sure the family's parked car didn't roll away while their attention wandered elsewhere. Throughout high school, Mary Virginia shared many moments growing up with Gordon. About six feet tall with a farm boy's physique, he was rugged enough to play on the school's football team but sensitive to Mary Virginia's finer interest in music. They were a steady couple during senior year, constantly seen together. Gordon was her beau.

After skipping two grades, Mary Virginia found herself considerably younger than the rest of her Golden City High School class, including the redheaded Garrett boy, already turned seventeen. Eager to please, she possessed light-brown hair bundled in corkscrew curls, empathetic gray-blue eyes, and demure, slightly pursed lips. She usually wore an enigmatic Mona Lisa–like grin, which could easily burst into an engaging smile. Like other Eshelmans, she had the distinctive bone structure of high cheekbones, an upright posture, and perfectly poised shoulders. Mary Virginia's willowy frame suggested enough of a bosom to make her seem mature, though in their assessment some boys could be downright mean. "She was a tall, slim, flat-chested girl," remembered Phil Lollar, then a slightly younger fellow who lived near her farm. "Just an average-looking girl." But most teenagers in Golden City admired Mary Virginia's sense of style in a place sorely in need of it. In this small-town world, she talked, dressed, and acted like a young lady, enough so that even friends in Golden City's class of 1941 didn't guess her true age. Her most memorable attribute was her voice — a captivating, finely nuanced instrument she developed as a singer. Gordon's older sister, Isabel, said Mary Virginia's clothes never seemed ragged or disheveled, the sorry way some farm kids appeared during the throes of the 1930s Dust Bowl. Her brother's girlfriend "always kept herself clean and neat and feminine-looking," Isabel recalled. "She was pretty."

Driving in Daddy Garrett's brand-new Plymouth seemed right and proper, as close to a royal carriage as Gordon could muster for his prairie princess. Unlike other Depression-era youth, Mary Virginia always acted confident in her tomorrows, perhaps because her mother, Edna Eshelman, wouldn't have it any other way. "I think Gordon liked her a lot," recalled his other sister, Carolyn. "Her mother was 'the best is none too good' and Mary Virginia was like that too." The Garrett sisters perceived Mary Virginia as a good girl, the kind a boy like Gordon could proudly escort to the graduation dance and might someday contemplate marrying. Certainly, they assumed, she wouldn't be found frolicking in the backseat of the Garrett family car.

At this tender age, Mary Virginia already understood the duplicities of modern life for young American girls like herself. She knew the right words to say, the customs to observe, the dishonesty among the moral zealots and fundamentalists insistent on a woman's lot in life. Yet she resolved never to lose that independent part of herself. She would embrace life on her own terms, regardless of what her mother or anyone else said. Earnestly, she played the part of a "good girl" — both in school and at home — though in her heart she knew she was not. "I always lived the facade of mother's little lady but I always did exactly what I wanted to do," she explained. "I just never let it be known."

On the night she lost her virginity, Mary Virginia's experience wasn't forced, sweaty, or profane. The simple act finished within minutes. Sex felt pleasant enough for her, though far from familiar. Any thoughts of orgasm, sexual performance, or mutual satisfaction — the stuff of her intense, lifelong scientific studies with Masters — were then the furthest thing from her mind. Instead she trusted her boyfriend to know what he was doing. Only later in life did she realize it was probably Gordon's first time too.

"It just evolved and was very natural," she said, both wistfully and amused, of their backseat encounter. "It would have shocked my mother to death."

From the book "Masters of Sex: The Life and Times of William Masters and Virginia Johnson, the Couple Who Taught America How to Love" by Thomas Maier. Excerpted by arrangement with Basic Books, a member of the Perseus Books Group. Copyright © 2009.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

VIDEO: "Masters of Sex" Reviewed TWICE This Weekend, Called "Eye-Opening" and a "Bombshell" In Sunday's NYTBR, Daily Gives a Stellar Review Too

New York Times Praises "Masters of Sex" -Daily Review of June 26, 2009

June 26, 2009
Out of the Bedroom, Into the Clinic


The Life and Times of William Masters and Virginia Johnson, the Couple Who Taught America How to Love
By Thomas Maier
Illustrated. 411 pages. Basic Books. $27.50.

It’s hard to believe, but the word clitoris did not appear in Playboy magazine until 1968, in an interview with Masters and Johnson, the famous sex researchers.

Two years earlier, the pair had published “Human Sexual Response,” their first book, based on more than 10 years of clinical research. It was a best seller, and it rattled the culture in much the same way the first Kinsey Report had in 1948.

Alfred Kinsey compiled his information from surveys. His work was sociology. William Masters and Virginia Johnson actually watched people — a lot of people — have sex, with heart monitors and other gizmos attached to their subjects’ bodies. Here was science. Here was raw data that steamed America’s frozen peas.

“Human Sexual Response” wasn’t easy or especially titillating reading, Thomas Maier points out in his new book, “Masters of Sex: The Life and Times of William Masters and Virginia Johnson, the Couple Who Taught America How to Love.” Masters and Johnson wanted their work to be taken seriously, and wanted to stay a step ahead of the morality police, so they tended to write in almost comically dense medicalese.

Their books speak of “mounting episodes,” of “stimulative approach opportunities” and “vocalized performance concerns.” A sex flush on the stomach was a “maculopapular type of erythematous rash.” Barry White this was not.

Still, the big news in “Human Sexual Response” jumped off the page. Women, compared to men, were veritable sexual athletes, capable of multiple orgasms. More shockingly, women reported more intense orgasms when they masturbated. Who needed men? (Before long, an office sign at Gloria Steinem’s Ms. Magazine would read, “It’s 10 o’clock at night — do you know where your clitoris is?”)

Male readers took some solace in the fact that Masters and Johnson dismissed the “wide-spread concept that ejaculation, whether accomplished through masturbation or coition, is detrimental to the physical condition of men in athletic training programs.” They also noted that men with larger penises are not necessarily more effective lovers.

Masters and Johnson became famous. Other books followed, including “Human Sexual Inadequacy” and “The Pleasure Bond.” In 1970 they appeared on the cover of Time magazine and came off as avuncular and funny. “The greatest form of sex education,” Dr. Masters told Time, “is Pop walking past Mom in the kitchen and patting her on the fanny, and Mom obviously liking it. The kids take a look at this action and think, ‘Boy, that’s for me.’ ”

They opened a clinic to treat sexual dysfunction, among the first in the country, and celebrities, among others, flocked to it. Their clients included the actress Barbara Eden, Mr. Maier writes, as well as Gov. George Wallace of Alabama, after he had been shot in an assassination attempt.

Behind Masters and Johnson’s success, however, is a long and frequently disquieting story, one that is told with patience and care by Mr. Maier in “Masters of Sex.”

Dr. Masters met Ms. Johnson in 1956. He was 41, a married professor of obstetrics and gynecology at Washington University in St. Louis and a distinguished surgeon. She was a twice-divorced 31-year-old former singer without even a college degree who had simply applied to be his assistant.

“Why me? I still don’t quite know,” Ms. Johnson said later. “I just became the princess.”

It was a professional marriage that worked. At the time, Dr. Masters was shifting from gynecology to sex research, a nearly empty field. He knew he needed a female perspective, especially after a woman told him she sometimes faked her orgasms, a claim that utterly baffled him. “You really need an interpreter,” she told him.

Ms. Johnson was not aware of Dr. Masters’s sex studies when she was hired but proved to be a perfect partner. She humanized the famously aloof Masters, was a quick learner and had a gift for putting people at ease while asking the most intimate questions.

Dr. Masters had begun his early research by studying prostitutes. But he came to realize they did not lead representative sex lives. The pair put signs up on the Washington University campus looking for volunteers to participate in their sex research and soon had more than they could handle.

It was a different world in the late 1950s. There was an aversion to speaking about sex in public, much less studying it in private. Before Masters and Johnson, for example, no one had photographed the inside of a woman during intercourse. (They employed a clear Plexiglas dildo nicknamed Ulysses for the task.) “Before they could fix things sexually,” Mr. Maier writes, “they had to know how it worked.”

Their research became the subject of rumors on the Washington University campus, and they soon left to open their own nonprofit research center. Some of the rumors were true. Bill Masters made it clear to Virginia Johnson — or Gini, as many people called her — that having sex with him was part of her job. They would study their own human sexual responses.

There are other details that, to some, were unsavory, including that the pair often paid sexual surrogates — a practice bordering on prostitution — to help men with premature ejaculation and other sexual problems.

In 1971, after being married for 29 years, Dr. Masters left his wife and married Ms. Johnson. The pair entered a relationship that seemed charmed on the outside — Shana Alexander, writing in Newsweek, called them “the Ma and Pa Kettle of sex therapists” — but was essentially loveless.

The couple’s later books were increasingly ridiculed. In “Homosexuality in Perspective” (1979), they claimed homosexuality could be cured — a claim that, with their names attached, is still trotted out by some social conservatives. In 1988 they published “Crisis: Heterosexual Behavior in the Age of AIDS,” a book that said the government was covering up the true extent of the AIDS problem. One critic called it “a classic of the terror genre.”

In 1993, Dr. Masters divorced Ms. Johnson to marry his high-school sweetheart. He died in 2001, at 85, after suffering for many years from Parkinson’s disease. Ms. Johnson tried to open a new clinic in the late 1990s, but it failed. She is now in her 80s.

“Masters of Sex” can be, at times, depressing reading. Neither Masters nor Johnson, it seems, led particularly happy or well-adjusted lives. But there’s no denying that they added greatly to the enjoyment of many other people’s time on this planet.

Mr. Maier writes well, and with good humor, about their struggles and frequent successes. They got very good at what they did. One former colleague, only slightly exaggerating, says of Dr. Masters: “Bill could look at somebody and say ‘Have an erection!’ and they would.”

Thursday, June 11, 2009

End of Culture As We Know It - Mainstream Media Is Quoting This Blog! NY Mag Ups the Ante In Exchange of Pleasantries

There's a first time for everything -- and this is the first time this blog has made news! Well, sort of. NEW YORK MAGAZINE not only called "Newhouse" an "excellent" biography two weeks ago in its profile of Si Newhouse, but it went on this week to quote this blog in its comments page. Can The New York Times and Foreign Affairs be far behind?

Comments: Week of June 15, 2009

1. “Terrifically insightful”—that’s how the blogger and biographer Thomas Maier
described Steve Fishman’s profile of Si Newhouse, the patriarch of Condé Nast (“Si Newhouse’s Dream Factory,” June 8). Such positive sentiments were echoed throughout the blogosphere, where there was much praise for the poignancy of the portrait. Some also took the Condé Nast impresario to task for living in the past. On, one commenter wrote, “As someone who works in print media, I wish Si & Co. would put their creative zest to work embracing digital media rather than clinging to the tired and broken model of print publishing. Just imagine if he committed $150 million or whatever he lost on Portfolio to a new online-only enterprise. Sadly, it doesn’t look like it’s gonna be this dinosaur. Great portrait of a dying breed of mogul, though.” Two members of the Florio family wrote in to counter what they believed to be Fishman’s negative portrayal of the late Steve Florio. “My father told stories that people wanted to listen to. He embellished because he lived in a world that demanded it,” wrote Kelly Florio Kasouf. “My father created an aura of appeal that attracted the best of the best in media. If he wasn’t as over-the-top as he was, or as passionate for Condé Nast, the appeal would have been lost in the pages.” His brother Tom Florio, the publishing director of Vogue Group, wrote, “I was saddened to see Mr. Fishman’s harsh portrayal of Steve Florio’s career at Condé Nast. Steve helped build an organization that thrived under his leadership and continues to thrive after his departure. He was proud of Condé Nast then and would be equally proud of the imprint he made on the company today.”

Hot Books, Cool Review

by Drew Coffey
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, 2009.
This history of William
Masters and Virginia Johnson ran the risk of
falling between two schools: tawdry descriptions
of the sex volunteers, the couple’s
therapy, the electrodes connected to this or
that... or a dry description of the researchers
themselves. Surprisingly and admirably,
both sides of the story are given their due
here. The research, while rigorous and fairly
objective, is quite racy; the researchers, while
prim in their lab coats, are quite passionate.
Temperature rating: hot and dry—think Arizona.

Sunday, June 7, 2009

Vote for Virginia? St. Louis Mag Polls on Whether to Give Johnson an Honorary Degree for Her Landmark Research at Washington University

ANALYSIS: In its current June issue online, St. Louis Magazine is taking a poll of its readers as to whether Virginia Johnson should be given an honorary degree for her landmark work with Dr. William Masters at Washington University's Medical School. For a decade, Masters and Johnson, with the approval of University Chancellor Ethan Shepley, conducted the largest sex experiment in U.S. history, blazing the trail for medicine involvement today in helping patients with sexual problems. This research and their resulting sexual therapy -- repeated by medical schools and therapist around the world -- made Masters and Johnson famous. Undoubtedly it's one of the most significant -- if not, THE most significant and impactful scientific research -- ever conducted at Washington University in St. Louis. Unlike Indiana University, where the Kinsey Institute remains today, the politics of Washington University essentially pushed Masters and Johnson out of the university in the 1960s, compelling them to set up their own institute literally across the street. Some doctors were appalled by their work, with many feeling today that Masters and Johnson's sex research was an embarrassment for their medical school.In doing my research, I was quite surprised to learn of Washington University's rather odd and strangely anti-intellectual stance regarding Masters and Johnson even today. On their website, there is virtually no mention of them in recalling the school's history. Several people at Washington University told me of the school's antipathy towards Masters and Johnson. I was never able to figure out why this is so, but I was convinced by several people -- including Masters' family and friends -- that this was so. Virginia is rather prosiac about the school's reaction but she's been more than familiar with it for years. I think she's flattered that some friends and former colleagues of her think that Washington University should consider an honorary degree for her.
For my own part, I did contact three separate organizations at Washington University about appearing there to talk about my new biography of Masters and Johnson and their legacy, but they all took a pass after some apparent debate. It was too strange for me to decipher, so I instead talked about my bio at Left Bank Books, the city's premier independent bookstore.
Of course, when I was asked in several media interviews about it, I said I firmly support those who believe that Virginia Johnson, now at age 84, should be given an honorary degree at Washington University. As my book makes clear, Virginia is arguably the most significant figure in medicine's understanding of female sexuality because of her ability to help Dr. Masters succeed in convincing some 700 people to be observed and studied having sex in their medical lab at Washington University. Perhaps equally significant, Virginia was the key figure in coming up with Masters and Johnson's extraordinarily effective sexual therapy that was adopted by doctors, psychiatrists and other therapists around the world. Virginia's story is like a modern-day Pygmalion story, of a twice-divorced mother of two who went back to college seeking a degree and instead got swept up in the extraordinary research with Masters that changed our culture and medicine's understanding of human sexuality. It seems only right that Washington University -- which last year gave an honorary degree to conservative gadfly Phyllis Schafly -- should award recognition to one of America's most remarkable women in medicine ever.

Friday, June 5, 2009

The Washington Post -- "Intelligent and Well-Conceived" Bio of Masters and Johnson

Love -- The Scientific Way
By Louis Bayard
Sunday, June 7, 2009

The Life and Times of William Masters And Virginia Johnson, the Couple Who Taught America How to Love
By Thomas Maier
Basic. 411 pp. $27.50

How suggestively their names intertwined from the start: Masters, with its echoes of bondage and onanism, and Johnson, that venerable euphemism for penis. If they hadn't been the most famous sexologists of their day, they might have opened an S&M club in Tribeca. Gini, with her purring smile, would have greeted the customers; Bill would have stayed in the back room, testing the hoists and chains.
Which was only a couple of degrees removed from what they did in real life. Their partnership began in St. Louis in the mid-1950s, when William Masters, an ob-gyn and fertility specialist at Washington University, decided to launch a scientific inquiry into human sexuality. Unlike his predecessor, Alfred Kinsey, Masters proposed something far more immersive than questionnaires: direct observation of the body's procreative functions, with each pulse and quiver painstakingly recorded.
He began in a small way by spying on prostitutes (conscripted with the local vice squad's help and the Catholic archbishop's blessing). When one of his subjects suggested he find a female partner, Masters settled on an unlikely candidate: an unemployed, twice-divorced mother with two small kids and no degree. Initially hired as Masters's secretary, Virginia Johnson quickly proved her worth in the lab, efficiently gathering personal histories and sounding the notes of empathy that were absent from Masters's cool register.
With the help of tools like "a motor-powered Plexiglas phallus," the white-coated team observed approximately 10,000 orgasms over 11 years. The fruits of their labor were gathered in a volume called "Human Sexual Response," which managed to sell 300,000 copies in just a few months. Was it the plain brown paper wrapping? Was it the ribald prose? ("This maculopapular type of erythematous rash first appears over the epigastrium.") Or was something more tectonic going on?
Thomas Maier's intelligent and well-conceived biography reminds us that, as recently as the mid-1960s, "the word 'pregnant' could be bleeped from any television show. Sex education was kept out of the classroom." Copulation itself was "the private domain of the marital bed." Masters and Johnson, with their pharmaceutical calm and their vast edifices of data, made sex an over-the-counter commodity -- and, along the way, demolished some entrenched myths.
Intercourse during pregnancy endangers the fetus? Nope. Vaginal orgasms beat clitoral orgasms? Sorry, Dr. Freud. As for females being the delicate sex, the research showed that women could achieve five or six orgasms in as many minutes while men had to quit the field for at least an hour after every climax. Women suddenly had a green light for sex, and the news was welcome not just to hedonists -- Hugh Hefner was one of the study's biggest funders -- but to feminists, who glimpsed a new dawn of erotic self-determination. "It's 10 o'clock at night," read the sign at Ms. magazine headquarters. "Do you know where your clitoris is?" The answer, according to the St. Louis researchers, was a decided yes. Large numbers of women had already confessed that they enjoyed their best sex alone.
Kinsey died at the height of his notoriety, but Masters and Johnson were able to parlay their fame into a second career of sexual healing. For a then-whopping fee of $3,000 (actually, it's still whopping), movie stars, senators and the just plain dysfunctional could spruce up their sex lives with the help of male-female therapy teams, achieving results in a couple of weeks that might have required many years of traditional psychoanalysis. By the time Masters and Johnson came out with a second volume in 1970, their names were as wedded in the public mind as Romeo and Juliet.
Before long, they were wedded in the eyes of the law, too. Their union, so appealing on the surface, had one slight problem: They didn't love each other. Much of the problem lay with Masters, who admitted to being "sort of a bastard" and a stranger to the ways of the heart. He carried on an extramarital affair with Johnson for many years before divorcing his wife and, in the twilight of his life, abruptly ditched Johnson for an old sweetheart.
He was also the driving force behind the team's controversial embrace of conversion therapy for gays. In "Homosexuality in Perspective" (1979), he and Johnson claimed they could straighten out gay men or women in a matter of weeks, with a "failure rate" of only one-third. Buttressed with phony case studies, the book's findings were quickly denounced by the medical establishment and seized upon just as quickly by the religious right as evidence that gay lifestyles were a choice, not an orientation.
So Masters and Johnson bear some of the blame for the "ex-gay" ministries that currently litter our cultural landscape, but who is to blame for the dissolution of the Masters-and-Johnson brand? Their names are now largely unknown, I'd wager, to anyone under the age of 40, in part because the mainstreaming of sex they advocated and embodied has taken hold with such a vengeance. We are not, to put it mildly, as shockable as we were. Cosmopolitan magazine weighs in each month with primers on the female orgasm; sex columnists like Dan Savage and Susie Bright embrace every kink and fetish of the human comedy; grown men fill the airwaves with choruses of "Viva Viagra!" The culture that Masters and Johnson helped to create has swallowed them whole.
Louis Bayard is a novelist and reviewer whose most recent book is "The Black Tower."

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Reaction to "Masters of Sex" and the Allegations of Phony "Gay Conversion" Cases

My biography of Masters and Johnson, "Masters of Sex", deals in one chapter with their 1979 book about homosexuality in which they claimed that their therapy had "converted" homosexual patients into heterosexuals. The research from my book indicated that these case studies were apparently fabricated by Masters and that there were no records of such "conversion" cases. Since my book's appearance, Newsweek, The New York Times and Scientific American have reported on my findings and they have stirred a great debate within in the gay community. Here's a sample from a recent interview:
"For decades, anti-gay organizations have gleefully pointed to a Masters & Johnson study that claimed to cure homosexuality. It has also been used by the so-called "ex-gay" industry to "prove" gays could go straight, if they just tried hard enough.
In a groundbreaking book, "Masters of Sex", author Thomas Maier discovered through investigative reporting that the results of Masters & Johnson's study were fabricated.
One can not overstate the importance of his findings. They undo the very underpinnings of the so-called "ex-gay" therapy movement, further showing that there is no scientific evidence to support the outdated idea that gay people can become heterosexual through therapy.
Indeed, many people who have undergone such "treatment" claim the experience was harmful and that they were psychologically damaged. The American Psychiatric Association says that attempts to change sexual orientation can lead to "anxiety, depression and self-destructive behavior."

Gelf Magazine - Talking About "Masters of Sex" in Brooklyn

Thomas Maier at Gelf Magazine's Geeking Out - May 2009 (1 of 2) from Gelf Magazine on Vimeo.

Thomas Maier at Gelf Magazine's Geeking Out - May 2009 (2 of 2) from Gelf Magazine on Vimeo.

NY Mag: Si Newhouse as Old Hollywood-Style Chief, Praises "Newhouse" Bio as "Excellent"

In the current issue of New York mag, Steve Fishman wrote a terrifically insightful profile of Si Newhouse and his media empire, and he also managed to say some kind words about my biography of the Conde Nast chieftain. Here's what Fishman said.
Both of Sam’s sons were college dropouts who worked in the business from the age of 21. Sam tapped Donald, his younger son, to run the newspapers. Si was installed at Condé Nast—he finally became chairman in 1975. “Those who knew him well seem to think he trusted the judgment of his younger son, Donald, more than Si,” writes Thomas Maier in his excellent biography Newhouse.
It was clear what Newhouse’s father thought of magazines; they were baubles, suitable for socially ambitious middle-aged ladies. Si, though, would ultimately prove his father wrong about the value of the magazines and about his talents.

St. Louis Mag: Masters of Sex is a "Smart, Absorbing Book" ... "Restrained but Evocative."

Staff Shelf: Masters of Sex

I’m reading galleys of Tom Maier’s restrained but evocative new book--Masters of Sex: The Life and Times of William Masters and Virginia Johnson, the Couple Who Taught America How to Love--and thinking about how quickly the social kaleidoscope shifts. Decades ago, in grad school at Saint Louis University, I wrote a paper about the response of St. Louis Catholics to the opening of the Masters & Johnson research clinic in the early 1960s. The quotes near seared a hole in my IBM-Selectric, correction-key-corrected pages. Now, Masters and Johnson's findings seem so obviously important, and so much more biological than prurient, that it’s hard for me to remember just how outraged St. Louis was--and how brazen I felt even tackling the topic.
On the other hand, even those two cool clinicians found the forbidden territory so steamy, they left the lab at night and headed straight for a hotel (Masters was determined they should relieve any tensions with each other to avoid any sort of projection or entanglement with their patients and volunteers).
Now, as I write about this smart, absorbing book for our June issue, I realize just how funny it is, in parts, and how poignant or tragic, depending on whether you're taking Masters' or Johnson's point of view. What strange, intense lives; what groundbreaking work. And reviewing it's not as simple as it should be, in our supposedly enlightened times. Questions fly up and hit me: Is the word “orgasm” too graphic? Should I describe how worked? Do I dare use the funny quote about men being rendered irrelevant? How to handle the medieval notion of homosexuality the clinicians advanced, toward the end when everything fell apart? Do I need to define "sexual surrogate"--and if so, how?!
Everything gets said these days—yet against all odds, we've retained a certain sensitivity. Masters and Johnson could open their clinic today and provoke only the barest lift of an eyebrow, yet the language they chose to describe their findings would be as politically inflammatory as ever. And there would be far more ways to offend people, because there are more options open.
You can walk out into the middle of the mine field now—but you still don’t want to detonate any live explosives. And there’s no longer any way to know what’s safe.
In short, writing about sex is as tricky as ever.
The more things change, the more they stay the same.
--Jeannette Cooperman, staff writer

Monday, June 1, 2009

KMOX - John Carney Interview

Can listen to the June 1 podcast of a half-hour interview with host John Carney.

Inquiry:WICN, 90.5FM -- Interview on "Masters of Sex"

William Masters and Virginia Johnson revolutionized our medical and personal understanding of human sexuality by studying real couples and individuals having sex in a laboratory environment. Their best-selling book of their research, HUMAN SEXUAL RESPONSE, catapulted them into celebrity status in the 1960s and redefined everything people thought they knew about female sexuality. In their private counseling sessions they had nationally known politicians and movie and TV stars as their patients. But the personal relationship between Masters and Johnson was complex and controversial. Tonight on Inquiry, we speak with writer THOMAS MAIER about his revealing new biography MASTERS OF SEX: THE LIFE AND TIMES OF WILLIAM MASTERS AND VIRGINIA JOHNSON-THE COUPLE WHO TAUGHT AMERICA HOW TO LOVE.

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