Wednesday, June 3, 2009
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 the...er...machine 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