Sunday, May 17, 2009
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."
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
BOOKS | SCIENCE
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.
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.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
© Copyright 2009 The New York Times Company
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.
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