I was intrigued when I heard Showtime was going to do a series on Masters and Johnson, the sex researchers, so even though I almost never watch modern soap operas, I made an exception and have watched all of the episodes so far.
After a couple of episodes I got impatient to learn what was true and what was invented, so I got the book that inspired the series, Masters of Sex, by Thomas Maier. I was glad to see that much of the television material is true to what is presented in the book.
From my point of view Dr. William Masters and Virginia Johnson were heroic people, willing to make sacrifices to study an incredibly central part of human life that had been ignored because of puritanical fears. Masters had an extremely successful ob-gyn practice and was a respected member of the Washington University medical school, and studying sex put all of that on the line. In fact, because of the small-mindedness of many of the doctors at Washington University, he ended up walking away from it so he could continue the research. Johnson was a single mother and she spent very little time with her children because she was so devoted to the work.
As a female, I was fascinated by Virginia Johnson. She didn’t ever get a college degree, yet through her intelligence, talent, and hard work she became Dr. Masters’ equal in the research. And this makes Masters equally fascinating: he was capable of letting go of the arrogance so many doctors take as their right.
Another thing that made Johnson unusual and the perfect partner for this research was her attitude towards sex. She was a free-spirit born before her time, a woman who somehow escaped the indoctrination that sex had to be linked to love and relationship. Her enthusiasm and openness drew volunteers to participate in the study, and the volunteers included doctors and doctor’s wives! Because she was comfortable with her own sexuality, she was able to create an atmosphere that allowed volunteers to feel at ease having sex in a clinical setting. When they switched from research to creating therapies, Johnson actually took the lead, and once again I think it was because of her understanding of the fundamental importance of sex in our lives.
This attitude is clear in the (following) comment Johnson made about the therapy, called “sensate focus,” which was a series of touching exercises, without intercourse, to restore/establish intimacy. Maier writes:
So many patients had been taught that sex was wrong that it rendered them unable to make love in a mature or even adequate way. “What is totally foreign to effective sexual development, in spite of centuries of practice, is the notion that sex is dirty, supplemented by various controls exercised through fear, rejection, ignorance, and misconception,” Johnson later said.
It’s easy to watch the TV show and assume a sense of cultural superiority—our 21st century sexuality is so much freer than that of the repressed 1950’s. But is it really? I was an adolescent during the height of the Sixties free-love and women’s liberation movements and I took them to heart. I thought women would/could escape the cultural demands to look a certain way—makeup, high heels, bras, etc.—and we could just love the one we’re with without it meaning anything other than mutual pleasure.
Carina Chocano eloquently expressed the way I perceive modern female presentation in a recent article in the New York Times:
[The Showtime series] prods us to look at sex not as entertainment (even, of course, as it provides that) but as both basic animal behavior and a societal construct...
Sex may be completely out in the open now, but for all its prevalence…it still feels schematic and hidebound. In the past 30 years, ideas about what makes women “sexy” have become narrower, more rigid and more pornographic in their focus on display and performance. The pervasiveness of the porn aesthetic is especially insidious for young girls’ self-perception, as they constantly absorb the message that the modern choice comes down to either abject invisibility or duck-faced selfies across a portfolio of social-media accounts. I’m not exactly sure what I’m looking at when I see Kim Kardashian or Miley Cyrus, or their millions of adolescent imitators. But I’m pretty sure it’s not liberation.
The idea that frank presentations of sex are somehow daring or iconoclastic is an enduring idea whose time has, perhaps, come and gone. As symbols of a repressive norm, we may have simply replaced “’50s housewife” with “porn star.”
I liked her phrase, “societal construct.” Most of us don’t think of sex that way, but our attitudes towards it are heavily influenced by our society’s belief systems. It was foolish of course to think in the 1970s that we could overthrow thousands of years of social rules overnight, but still, I’d love to live to see the day when the norm about sex wasn’t “repressive.”
One of the fascinating aspects of Masters and Johnson is that they started having sex during the research project. Unfortunately some things never get explained in Maier’s book, and chief among them (in my mind) is Masters and Johnson’s attitude about their sexual relationship. Clearly it happened, but neither of them ever spoke or wrote about it in detail (at least according to Maier’s research), so we can only speculate. There is talk that Masters demanded sex early in their work as a condition of Johnson’s continued employment, and Johnson did give some support for that having happened in an interview with Maier. The TV show portrays their sex as part of a long-standing scientific tradition of scientists experimenting on themselves. I imagine, given both of their dedication, that this was at least partially true. Their lives also demonstrated how difficult it is to separate sex from emotional attachment: they did eventually marry.
One huge disappointment: Virginia Johnson destroyed all the audiotapes of interviews and films that had been created during their research. These could and should have been donated to a university, and it’s a great loss to our culture. It’s kind of inexplicable considering her devotion to the studies, other than an expression of spite towards Masters (who had divorced her to marry his first love) or towards the society that had rendered Masters and Johnson somewhat irrelevant after a decade or so of being on the cutting edge.
A bit of trivia: I was raised in St. Louis, where Masters and Johnson did all of their research. I lived there from 1961 until I graduated from high school in 1976 and I was completely unaware that they were based in my hometown. This was the height of their fame, and when I asked my mother about it she professed ignorance also, even though my father was associated with the medical school of Washington University at the time this research was taking place.