Virginia E. Johnson, Scientist: Beyond Masters of Sex

Masters_of_Sex_Key_Art_htmlThe 2013 Showtime television show Masters of Sex introduced viewers to William H. Masters (1915–2001) and Virginia E. Johnson (1925–2013), two of the best-known American sex researchers of the twentieth century. Current posters for the second season depict the actors playing the couple, Lizzie Caplan and Michael Sheen, staring intensely at the camera while curled around each other on rumpled sheets. The fictional Johnson is portrayed as a proto-feminist, sexually liberated heroine, while the real-life Johnson had a more complex scientific and personal history. Those in the past who put forward ideas that we value in the present are often not the people that we wish they were, or want them to be.

The show follows the narrative established by a 2009 biography of the same name. Johnson becomes Masters’ secretary in early 1957 as he embarks on a risky sex research project, they establish a technologically sophisticated laboratory, Johnson becomes an essential part of the research project, and they participate in the research by turning the laboratory’s machines and cameras on themselves. The first season ends with Masters presenting his research to a disgusted audience of his peer physicians, and before the triumphal publication of Human Sexual Response in 1966.

The show’s writers give Masters a rich backstory and motivations for why he has become the man he is: a now-dead, abusive father, a mother who turned a blind eye to her son’s suffering, an inner drive to become a path-breaking scientist, a low to nonexistent sperm count, and a total ignorance of women’s sexual desire and orgasm. Virginia Johnson’s motivations, on the other hand, are vague—she needs a job that pays well enough to support herself and her two young children, she wants to improve her medical knowledge, and she enjoys orgasmic sex. But the television show fails to address why and how she has become the person that she became, and why she chose to devote her life and career to sex research with a difficult and demanding man. Studying the life and work of the historical Johnson reveals a more complicated person than the fantasy woman portrayed on the television show. The historical Johnson pushed some boundaries of women’s scientific participation and authority and stayed firmly within others. And she directed her research at helping women improve their marriages and sex lives. 

The fictional Johnson is a smart, capable woman whose distinguishing characteristic is her ability to separate sex from love. In the pilot, she tells Masters, “Women often confuse love with physical attraction….Women often think that sex and love are the same thing. They don’t have to be, they don’t even have to go together. Sex can be perfectly good on its own.” She again separates herself from other women in a sex history interview with Masters (which is heard as a voiceover after they begin sleeping together for the study): “I’ve always felt different from other women. Most women, they want love when they sleep with a man. But I’ve always been able to separate sex from love.” The fictional Johnson is adept at fulfilling the fantasies of Masters, her ex-husband Walter, and her sometime-boyfriend Ethan, and her own sex life is always satisfying. The real-life Johnson’s sex life was likely the opposite. 

urlBy the time that Johnson began work as Masters’ assistant, she had been divorced twice and had two small children. Johnson discussed her sex life with her husbands and other suitors only in broad terms with Thomas Maier, the author of the biography who is also one of the show’s producers. But reading between the lines of her interviews, it seems that much of the sex she had in her adult life existed apart from love, and that the sex she had with Masters was at the very least unpleasant, if not damaging or unwanted. In her biography, Johnson made clear that her initial sexual participation in Masters’ project was reluctant at best. “No, I was not comfortable with it, particularly….I didn’t want him at all, and had no interest in him….I was in an emergency situation” (Thomas Maier, Masters of Sex, p. 129.) Clearly, the sex that she had with Masters, at least at first, was not done out of love, but out of fear for her job. It was not a source of liberation or empowerment, much less pleasure, as it is for the fictional Johnson. Masters had the professional credentials, drive, and passion for discovery to move the sex research forward, but he had little of the friendliness and calming nature needed to convince strangers to have sex with each other, observed by the researchers, the technicians in the room, film cameras, and a variety of machines measuring their breath, heart rate, and blood pressure. Johnson’s kindness and warmth, with Masters and with their collaborators, made the research possible. 

Sometime after that early unwelcome sex, Johnson decided to maintain their professional partnership by gradually strengthening their personal partnership. Johnson had other admirers and lovers throughout the 1960s, a St. Louis County Circuit Court judge most seriously among them, but did not marry them. She chose instead to marry Masters in 1971 after he divorced his first wife, Libby, in December 1970. The two of them later divorced in 1992, just as their research foundation was dissolving, and Masters—then in the early stages of dementia and Parkinson’s disease—met and married his high school sweetheart. Even though their personal lives were largely unhappy, their research partnership created, in its early years, scholarship on sexual physiology that set the groundwork for all of the anatomical and physiological sex research that has been done since. 

Masters and Johnson’s first co-authored article, “The Sexual Response Cycle of the Human Female: Vaginal Lubrication,” was published in November 1959 in the Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences. In that article, they outlined the four-stage sexual response cycle that their machines had captured: excitement, plateau, orgasm, and resolution. They argued that the four stages of sexual response were physiologically the same for men and women, and they described the physical and physiological changes in men’s and women’s bodies as they moved through the four cycles. Their argument as to the meaning of this finding was clear, and hit the American public like a thunderbolt when it was published in Human Sexual Response: men’s and women’s bodies had the same capacities for orgasm. Many marriages had sexual dissatisfaction or dysfunction at their core, but such marital dysfunction could be resolved with equal attention to the husband’s and the wife’s pleasure. 

They supported that argument with copious evidence from their own studies, and continued to publish research through the 1980s. Their 1979 book Homosexuality in Perspective, which argued at a peak of the gay liberation movement that homosexuality could be cured, precipitated their fall from grace as trustworthy sex experts. The Reproductive Biology Research Foundation, the business that they established to support their research and clinical practice after they dissolved ties with Washington University in January 1964, closed in 1994. 

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