Masters of Sex: Dick and Jane Meet Bill and Gini

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Today, thirteen years into the 21st century, and well into the third millennium, we could generally agree that as men and women we know what we want, both in and out of bed. But this was not always the case. If you have not seen the new Showtime series about sex research pioneers William Masters and Virginia Johnson, you are missing out on a non-fiction, history-making, biographical sensation. It may be, that if you are under 45 you have never heard of these two. The show, which is (partially) based on Thomas Maier’s 2009 book, “Masters of Sex: The Life and Times of William Masters and Virginia Johnson, the Couple Who Taught America How to Love,” means to change that, and it has managed to refocus attention to the importance of their work.

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I was mesmerized by the book and the show, not only because they provide a sexy narration of the education of a generation regarding sex, orgasms, hetero and homo sexuality and the de-moralization of a very integral part of human identity, but also because they tell the story of two brilliant renegades who worked and thought outside the box. Masters and Johnson were rebels who not only overcame the cultural climate they had grown up and lived in, but managed to study human sexuality in a way that no one else had dreamed of– in vivo. Oh yes baby, yes!

Somehow, and perhaps because I grew up in a post sexual revolution environs, I missed just how extraordinary these two were, when I studied psychology. I remember reading their first book, “Human Sexual Response” (1966) in which they identified and described four phases in the human sexual response cycle: excitement, plateau, orgasm, and resolution – with the kind of curiosity borne to graduate students-yellow marker in hand, notes on the margins- but none of the wow which should have accompanied an understanding of just how much they advanced our knowledge of human sexuality and its import. Well, better late than never.

Masters and Johnson began their work together in St. Louis, Missouri in the 1950s, when most women, did not really understand the mechanics of sex or the mechanics of their own bodies. Men were in a similar conundrum; while it was up to them to initiate any all things sexual, many were at a loss as to what pleasured a woman. Although sex remained the realm of men, it followed the predictable in and out course, without much knowledge of the bodies involved.

Enter Masters and Johnson, whose research not only literally mapped the erogenous areas of both female and male bodies, it actually filmed and/or recorded the orgasms of over 10,000 people in an effort to understand what it is that actually turns us on and why.

The impact of their work in the 1970s was enormous, selling over 750,000 hardcover books and treating over 2,500 couples for sexual dysfunction with an 80 percent success rate. They not only provided the world with facts and figures about our carnal behavior, they also developed a therapy (sensate focus) to address our carnal dysfunctions. Along the way they had an affair (for clinical purposes!), married, divorced and made a mess of things (including expounding conversion therapy for homosexuality), yet their scientific forays into human sexual behavior forever changed the study of human sexuality.

Masters and Johnson not only educated the world about sex and what turned people on, they also shattered many myths about male and female sexual response, including advancing the idea that sex for pleasure was a good and even a necessary thing in relationships, and the fact that women were multiply-orgasmic and could outlast men- making them the stronger sex! Aha. And they managed to do this in an era where sex was not spoken of openly, continued to be associated only with procreation, and homosexuality was considered a perversion and an illness (Masters actually was one of the people who helped the psychiatric community to stop labeling homosexuality as a disorder).

Unlike Alfred Kinsey, who in 1948 had conducted 18,000 interviews about sexual behavior, Masters began his research live–by observing prostitutes and their clients through a peephole–until it became clear to him that many of them faked their orgasms and therefore skewed his data. Masters learned a great deal about sexual behavior from his observations and interviews with both male and female prostitutes. That information helped to formalize the protocols of interviews he and Johnson later used in their studies. Masters reasoned that studying men and women in the flesh and recording such changes as breathing rate, heart rate, and blood pressure, as well as dilation of the vaginal canal and erection of the penis, to name a few, would provide factual data of what actually happens during sex. Needless to say, this had never been done.

To watch the first film of an orgasm–what actually happens to the vaginal canal during orgasm–must have been something spectacular. So, too, the detailed films of bodily parts coming to life while being pleasured. Yet, the medical community freaked out, and predictably tried to ostracize Masters and his research team. Mind you, physicians themselves did not understand how orgasm worked until Masters and Johnson showed them, but morality rather than science prevailed. It seems that sex has always been a bit too scary, too unsettling, too messy, too carnal for us. Kinsey’s books “Sexual Behavior in the Human Male” and “Sexual Behavior in the Human Female” had brought public attention to human sexuality, and his findings on the frequency of various sexual practices including sex with multiple and same sexed partners, cunnilingus, and anal copulation had scandalized many. Similarly, Masters and Johnson were accused of being pornographers and voyeurs in white lab coats – an attempt to discredit their work, in the same way that Kinsey’s work had been attacked on the basis of his personality and sexual predilections. But it mattered not, the book detailing their research was a great success, even becoming an ideological manifesto that was adopted by the feminist movement. Where Freud, Kinsey and Ellis had presented human sexuality from a male point of view, Masters and Johnson represented an egalitarian sexual ideal- here was a scientific couple addressing sex between couples. Dick and Jane meet Bill and Gini.

In the world of psychoanalysis, sex, along with aggression, has been at the core of identity and the culprit for what leads us to go astray- at the helm of our constant pleasure seeking and the basic mover and shaker of the id. Yet, until Masters and Johnson came around with their groundbreaking research, very little was actually known about sex, and the particular ways in which it moves us. Perhaps one of the most amazing things about this duo is that they continued in spite of tremendous opposition from the medical and psychoanalytic communities, and in so doing, they educated many generations about the ins and outs of love making and pleasure.

Not only did their research change the way that the world viewed sex, it also changed the way that therapy, and in particular couples therapy was done. Whereas most psychotherapy of the time was dominated by Freudian ideology, in which, any sexual dysfunction was the result of deep-seated issues having to do with one’s early history, Masters and Johnson developed a hands on therapy called sensate focus, which taught patients what turned them on and how to approach their desire with a partner through a series of exercises aimed at reducing anxiety, focusing attention on touching and pleasurable sensations and slowly moving toward full sexual intercourse. This therapy, which also included the use of sexual surrogates for the first time, led to an 80 percent recovery.

Their sex therapy program provided appropriate sex information, alleviated anxiety about sexual performance, and facilitated verbal, emotional and physical communication with sex partners.

It was the brainchild of Johnson and led to the publication of their second book in 1970, “Human Sexual Inadequacy,” which concerned itself with the treatment of impotence, premature ejaculation, frigidity, vaginismus and other sexual problems.

In the wake of their two publications, the field of sex therapy was born, and they were catapulted to fame. The repressive attitude of the ’50s and early ’60s toward sexuality was beginning to lift, and Bill and Gini became the gurus of the sexual revolution. The media adopted them as the couple who re-introduced sex to America, and good sex at that. Their work and research became funded by Playboy enterprises. Hugh Hefner often relied on them for advice in his magazine, making them frequent visitors at the Playboy mansion. Pharmaceutical companies and even cosmetic companies provided funding which allowed Masters and Johnson to establish their clinic in St. Louis, which both trained clinicians in their therapies and treated patients with sexual dysfunction. The therapeutic practices developed at their clinic remain central to contemporary sex therapy worldwide.

In 1975, on the heels of their success came “The Pleasure Bond” in which they outlined their recipe for good relationships. Oddly, it seemed to ever so slightly distance them from the “free love” ideology their research had helped establish. This book was aimed at the general public and had none of the clinical language of their first. The public ate it up.

Bill and Gini were not immune to the relational entanglements that follow sex, or even the study of sex. Their sexual relationship had begun the first year they worked together, and under auspices that by today’s standards would constitute sexual harassment. Masters reportedly approached Johnson stating, “We should do this because there’s all this kind of kinetic sexual energy that we’re observing here and there’ll be a transference between us and some of the participants in the study if we don’t channel it correctly. So we should channel it between ourselves.” Freud himself might have flinched at this blatant misuse of his ideas. A twice-divorced woman with two children in the 1950s, Gini went along with it, she needed the job. Virginia Johnson was to become a formidable research assistant despite never completing a degree. She is said to have had the ability to convince people to volunteer for their study, often doctors, nurses and secretaries from the university hospital she worked in. By all accounts, Johnson seems to have added humanity and sensitivity to Masters clinical acumen. Their partnership flourished both professionally and personally. Bill and Gini married in 1970, after Masters divorced his first wife. Their marriage lasted 21 years, and their professional connection much longer.

In 1979, their book, “Homosexuality in Perspective,” debunked the then medical notion that homosexuality was a mental illness, and described the sexual practices of gay men and lesbians. It was mostly the work of William Masters, who then also claimed to be able to convert the sexual preferences of homosexuals who “wished to change”. This view brought Masters and Johnson considerable criticism from both the gay and medical communities. Their final collaboration in 1988, “Heterosexual Behavior in the Age of AIDS,” along with Robert Kolodny, brought further criticism due to its focus on the AIDS epidemic and rise among heterosexuals, as well as their calling for safer sexual practices and the use of condoms. The sexually liberated America of the late ’80s was not ready to be censored by the fear of sexually transmitted diseases. The tide had turned for Bill and Gini, and America had outgrown them.

The contributions of William Masters and Virginia Johnson on sexual functioning, sexual problems and therapeutic interventions remain the most significant in the area of human sexuality.

“Masters of Sex” airs Sundays at 9 p.m. on Showtime. Season Two starts July 15, 2014.

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