Sunday, May 3, 2009
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.
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.
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
POST-DISPATCH BOOK EDITOR
Sunday, May. 03 2009
Famous sex researchers Masters and Johnson married, but love probably wasn't
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
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
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."
Virginia Johnson's remarkable life and his role as a pioneer of American female sexuality -- as an American original -- is discussed by biographer Thomas Maier with legendary writer Gay Talese, Laurie Garrett and Dr. Robert C. Koldony at the New York Academy of Medicine. This panel discussion was part of 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," Basic Books.
At the book launch for "Masters of Sex," a new biography of Masters and Johnson, guest panelist Gay Talese recalls how Virginia Johnson was one of the few early reviewers to like what is his now classic 1981 book. Talese joined biographer Thomas Maier at the New York Academy of Medicine on April 27, 2009 along with other panelists, Pulitzer-winning medical writer Laurie Garrett and Dr. Robert C. Kolodny, former associate director of the Masters and Johnson Institute.
THE DAILY BEAST: "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."
They Wrote the Book on Sex
by Daphne Merkin
April 30, 2009 | 5:54am
A definitive new biography of Masters and Johnson reveals everything you always wanted to know—and more—about America’s most famous sex researchers.
There is something about the scientific study of sexual behavior—which goes by the plain-Jane name of sexology—that is hard to take seriously. Maybe it’s because few of us ever really lose our childhood sense of embarrassment—a mixture of awe and giggles—around the whole subject of naked bodies and the things they get up to. Or maybe it’s because we’d prefer to be kept in the dark about what, exactly, fuels the engine of carnal desire. Whatever the reason, the field is of fairly recent vintage. There was Freud, of course, theorizing about the inferiority of clitoral orgasms and insisting that erotic impulses began in the cradle (not to mention Havelock Ellis and Krafft-Ebing), but it wasn’t until the 1940s when Alfred Kinsey received government funding for his pioneering surveys on sexual behavior and attitudes that the idea of treating amorous response as a respectable discipline came into its own. And then along came Masters and Johnson to take the field to a whole new, hitherto undreamed-of level.
“In this scenario,” Maier notes, “women’s potential fireworks display in bed far exceeded the single little firecracker of the men beside them.”
Thomas Maier’s Masters of Sex comes with a hyperbolic and somewhat-misleading subtitle: The Life and Times of William Masters and Virginia Johnson, the Couple Who Taught America How to Love. The urge to draw in readers with attention-grabbing summations is an understandable one, but the actual story of these pioneering sex researchers, who worked together and eventually married, is both more interesting and less sensationalistic than this description would have you think. Maier’s sedulously researched and deeply absorbing biography suggests that love is far more elusive than an orgasm; that it is possible to treat sexual dysfunction of various sorts with relative rigor and a startling lack of sentiment (in Masters and Johnson’s 1970 book, Human Sexual Inadequacy, “couples were called ‘marital units’ and ‘coital opportunity’ became another name for love”); and that the duo who “taught America to love” had clay feet when it came to their own romantic lives, for the most part putting their careers before gratifications of the heart and flesh.
For anyone who grew up in the ‘60s or ‘70s, the names of Masters and Johnson had the instant-recognition factor of a logo, like the old-time department store Peck & Peck. Even if you didn’t know what they did, you knew they stood for something revolutionary—that they were, in their white coats and seriousness of purpose, as integral to the sexual revolution as the Pill and the Beatles. As it happened, the two became a team almost by accident, in one of those serendipitous encounters that often seem to underlie visionary enterprises. It was “just before Christmas 1956”: Forty-one-year-old William Masters, who was an OB-GYN on the staff of Washington University, renowned for his surgical skill and fertility expertise, was looking for a female assistant to help him in his innovative, closely guarded research into the physiology of human sexual response. “…Unlike Kinsley, whose research was done on paper and not in the lab, Masters proposed to directly observe the body’s functioning during sex—meticulously tracking each pulse, breath, thrust and quiver.” Because he was particularly interested in female sexuality (and unlike, many men, understood that he knew “nothing at all” about it), he also realized he needed a woman by his side to act as a kind of interpreter. After asking his wife—who had no interest in joining him in his clinical work—he turned to the newly hired, 32-year-old Virginia (known as “Gini”) Johnson, a twice-divorced mother of two. Her nonchalant response upon hearing that Masters was not engaged in fertility research but was conducting a sex study, based on volunteers making the beast with two backs in an examination room equipped with a chaise longue and a slew of electrical outlets on the third floor of Washington University’s Maternity Hospital, made him decide in her favor, notwithstanding the fact that she was essentially “a friendly paper-pusher with some typing skills” and no proven aptitude for scientific work..
“From the outset,” Maier writes, “Masters and Johnson’s remarkable success sprung from their dual approach, the matrix of male and female therapists exploring the boundaries of human sexuality together.” Although Johnson had no training, she had a soothing way with volunteers and was an eager student, willing to learn “the intricacies of anatomy, biology, and physiology” and to work long hours gathering personal histories as well as watching female strangers pleasure themselves and anonymous couples fornicate. These activities were done against a backdrop of medical devices, wires, and gauges and with the help of a dildo-shaped gadget created by Masters that photographed the vaginal cavity in living color as it was aroused, entered, and then penetrated. The device could be adjusted according to differences in size, weight, and vaginal development—and if you weren’t careful, you could end up electrocuting someone. One colleague described is as “a motor-powered, Plexiglas phallus"; its nickname was simply Ulysses (after the recently released Kirk Douglas film, which featured a giant cyclops). Other medical devices were on tap as well, including an electrocardiograph machine, an electroencephalograph machine and a tiny television screen that tracked the electrical impulses coming from the brain. “These tools served as a kind of sexual polygraph,” Maier writes, “as detectors of the truth in an area so often filled with exaggeration and lies.” Volunteers were drawn from a disparate population, composed of graduate students, hospital staffers, and faculty wives, and were instructed in, among other things, the “squeeze method” and “sensate focus” exercises. Female volunteers entered the exam room naked except for a terrycloth robe, wearing pillowcases over their head with two holes cut around the eyes.
Johnson was considered to be the more approachable of the two, with her mellifluous voice and sincere manner; Masters, who wore a bow tie and carried white ballpoint pens to match his white coat, was considered to be the more reserved, if not outright cold. They worked together to the exclusion of much else, ignoring their home lives (Masters also had two children) in their pursuit of physiological discoveries about male and female arousal patterns, the uses of foreplay, and the disproving of myths such as the one that said sex among couples during pregnancy posed a hazard to the fetus. Early on in their professional partnership, Johnson agreed to a clandestine sexual relationship with Masters, who romantically referred to intercourse as “a mutual masturbation exercise.” The couple proceeded to sexually engage as though it were part of their training—“a way of further comprehending all that they were learning through observation”—and in return, Masters upped Johnson’s salary as well as her title. Despite her lack of a degree, his former secretary went from being an assistant to a research associate and was given equal billing in their scientific publications. Depending upon whose voice you listen to in the chorus of voices that Maier has orchestrated, Bill was the name and Gini the workhorse, or, again, Bill was the star and Gini his cunning sidekick. (“He lowered his standards to elevate hers,” remarks one friend. “It was a condition of their going forward together.”) Similarly, depending again upon whose opinion you warm to, they became involved erotically because it was part of the job requirement or because Johnson wanted to ensure that “the perks kept coming along.” No one seems to have suggested that they were in love—least of all, Johnson herself. “I probably never had loved him,” she reflects years later. “We had in common a real devotion to a sexual relationship and that was probably the strongest common denominator that we had.”
In 1966, they co-authored their landmark book, Human Sexual Response, which presented itself as the medically based continuation of Kinsey’s Gallup-like questionnaires—construed by the pair to be “mere sociology.” In it, they outlined the four separate stages of human response in men and women, derived from watching 382 female and 312 male volunteers over nearly a decade. They also put Freud’s belief in the superiority of vaginal orgasms firmly to bed, having discovered that there was no biological difference between them and clitoral orgasms, and blasted the delusion that bigger penises guaranteed greater sexual effectiveness. But the book’s most explosive finding by far was that women were naturally capable of multiple orgasms, unencumbered by the refractory period that slowed men down—sometimes as many as five or six within minutes. “In this scenario,” Maier notes, “women’s potential fireworks display in bed far exceeded the single little firecracker of the men beside them.”
Masters of Sex follows the couple at its center through the heyday of their celebrity, when they were courted by Hugh Hefner and talk shows like Meet the Press, to the gradual polluting of sexology beginning in the mid-‘70s by what Masters called “an astounding assortment of incompetents, cultists, mystics, well- meaning dabblers, and outright charlatans.” It also covers the later controversies over their use of sexual surrogates and the assertions of their third book, Homosexuality in Perspective (1979), in which they pushed for “conversion” therapy, claiming a success rate of 67 percent among the more than 300 homosexual men and women they had studied over a 14-year period—results they may have fabricated. The methodology in this book was far less meticulous; indeed, as Maier describes it, “Homosexuality In Perspective contained far more speculation than science…”
By their second book, Human Sexual Inadequacy (1970), which offered nothing less than “a therapeutic regimen to cure chronic sexual dysfunction and distressed marriages,” Masters had dropped his “M.D.” designation, furthering their equal status. Their lives were bound up in the lab and in bed, whatever the lack of emotional intimacy, and on January 7, 1971, Bill Masters and Gini Johnson got hitched after Bill abruptly dumped Libby, his devoted wife of 29 years. Masters summed up the grounds of his divorce with his usual dry-as-dust clarity: ”Ultimately, my wife and I had to face the fact that our relationship was essentially nonexistent.”
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—a world where “ejaculatory incompetence” and the “female-superior” coital position were given intelligent and comprehending scrutiny. That their work never received public funding is one more striking detail among many; that the couple themselves remains elusive is, perhaps, one of the ways in which matters of the psyche resist clinical evaluation. Despite the fact that Johnson cooperated with the author (Masters, who died in 2001, was also interviewed) and her perspective tends to dominate the narrative, she comes off as deliberately vague about her own motives and wishes.
Regarding her acceptance of their sexual pact, Johnson seems conveniently blind to the complex interweaving of desire and ambition: “’No, I was not comfortable with it, particularly,’ she insisted. ‘I didn’t want him at all, and had no interest in him. I don’t know how to explain it.’” Although she resists being cast as a pre-feminist victim, she is happy to paint herself as Masters’ Girl Toy, created to satisfy his professional and personal needs. Throughout the book she refers to her former partner and ex-husband (Masters had one last surprise up his sleeve, divorcing Johnson in 1993 to marry a long-ago sweetheart for whom he had carried a torch “for 55 years”) by his last name, furthering the impression of a carefully calculated distance between them.
Johnson describes herself and Masters as “absolutely the two most secretive people on the face of the earth,” so it is fitting that one finishes this book wishing for more transparency and less occlusion. In the end, I found myself more intrigued by Masters, who seems genuinely, mesmerizingly inscrutable. Was he the man who loved women? Or was he the man who couldn’t love at all? Whatever the answer, his and Johnson’s far-seeing vision changed the sexual landscape forever, elucidating the delicate machinery of carnal pleasure and thereby bringing it out from under the covers and into the light.
Daphne Merkin was a staff writer for The New Yorker and is currently a contributing writer for The New York Times Magazine and Elle. She is the author of a novel, Enchantment, and a collection of essays, Dreaming of Hitler.
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