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
By CRISTINA NEHRING
MASTERS OF SEX
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.”
"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.