Once upon a time, in a time when proper women were proper, men did everything they wanted to, and sex was an all-out taboo subject relegated to utter silence or actual myth, there was a place that actively believed women’s clitoral orgasms were “immature,” sexual pleasure was not something to be sought out, and men and women seemed to exist across a sexual canyon, saying nothing across the gaping divide.
However, this would soon change – not quickly and certainly not publicly. In a small research lab in ’50s and ’60s St. Louis, a team of researchers, William Masters M.D. and Virginia “Gini” Johnson, two regular people who would soon become some of the most famous sex researchers and therapists in the world, were busy measuring the strength of a woman’s orgasm by a small video camera attached to a clear penile device that a generous volunteer had decided to masturbate with. This, along with years of other experiments, would soon make up the bulk of sexual information that we rely on so casually on today, leading the way for a new sexual agency in the States for all its citizens. Like all stories that are so strange, they could only be true; it would lead to widespread knowledge, marriages, fame, the uncovering of the very sexual self, and in true Shakespearean fashion, tragedy, failure, despair, heartbreak, and eventually death. Thank god Thomas Maier captures it all.
Maier, author of the Masters and Johnson biography, uncovers over 40 years’ worth of material relating to America’s leading experts in the study of sex, from both Masters and Johnson’s early roots, which included child abuse, early sexual experiences, failed marriages, and desperation, to their initial chance meeting, brilliant collaboration and rise to fame, and eventually the downfall of both their reputation and partnership. But it’s these early experiences, especially Johnson’s, who, as a broke, twice-divorced single mother of two just happened to see an open position as an assistant to a Doctor Masters in a fertility lab with “potential experimental” research, become the foundation of a new wave of thinking about sex. Masters and Johnson were successful because they were a male-female team – Masters providing a professional legitimacy to the work because of his medical training and license, and Gini as a woman who, although she had no formal training (a claim that would haunt her life), provided a perspective the medical world was desperately in need of, as well as a certain type of empathy and view that led the research teams to push the boundaries of what was known.
So what did the pair actually do? Well, almost all of it. While deeply influenced by Kinsey, they decided to go beyond what he had pioneered, looking for actual, physical proof of sexual response, as opposed to Kinsey’s recording of others’ experiences. For starters, they scientifically proved that Freud was incredibly off – there was no difference between the clitoral and vaginal orgasm (nor was one more immature than the other) and stated that Freud had really just been reacting off of a certain type of misogyny that permeated the air during his time. They discovered the four-stage model of sexual response, that women could have multiple orgasms, and that aging persons were still very much sexually functional. They discovered techniques to deal with the worst of sexual dysfunction, whether it was erectile dysfunction or vaginismus, through a two week therapy course, which became so popular that its waiting list stretched six months long and was populated by people such as Barbara Eden and even disgraced Alabama Governor, George Wallace, who stood in front of a school slated to be desegregated in an attempt to face off with the National Guard. By recording sexual responses in people, as well as physiological data, and then translating it into open conversations and actual sex therapy in an era where pregnancy couldn’t be mentioned on TV, the team broke down the “mystery” of sex in the simplest way they knew how: science.
However, despite the pair’s amazing partnership and eventual marriage, the concept of “love” is strangely missing, although it surfaces in Johnson’s commentary in several instances, most often after her marriage to Masters. The team is not without its controversy, too: adultery plagues the relationship in many ways, along with professional jealousy, funding problems (Masters and Johnson’s research was self-funded for many years) and professional downfall. Many today may know Masters and Johnson for their less-liked book, Homosexuality in Perspective, the third follow-up to their first two successful books, Human Sexual Response and Human Sexual Inadequacy. While the first two books were essentially co-authored by the pair, Homosexuality in Perspective was, as Maier writes, abhorred by Johnson, who wanted nothing to do with the book, and for good reason. Considered poorly researched, homophobic, and not even written by the pair, Homosexuality in Perspective spoke highly of the controversial “conversion” method, a piece of information that is still relied on by conservatives looking to pray away the gay today. After the release of this book, things quickly begin to go downhill, undoing years of work, and sending Johnson into a deep depression at the potential loss of their hard work. It’s only later that the surprise twist comes.
Ten thousand complete cycles of sexual response, 382 women, 312 men, and hours upon hours of watching people have sex: Master and Johnson boiled sex down to the very basic functions, demystifying it as less an act of God between a man and a woman, only for marriage, but as a natural human response, something to be enjoyed and felt – really felt. But love? Love is something that doesn’t appear much in the book. As Gini Johnson says, “Love and sex are separate. I’ve always known that.” Some may agree, some may not, but it’s impossible to deny the impact that the duo, warts and all (and there are plenty of them), had on the relationship with people and sex. But Maier doesn’t leave any of it out, presenting a loving yet harsh look at the duo’s best and worst of times. It’s only a shame that the book isn’t a few hundred pages longer.
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