There is something about the scientific study of sexual behavior—which goes by the plain-Jane name of sexology—that is hard to take seriously. Maybe it’s because few of us ever really lose our childhood sense of embarrassment—a mixture of awe and giggles—around the whole subject of naked bodies and the things they get up to. Or maybe it’s because we’d prefer to be kept in the dark about what, exactly, fuels the engine of carnal desire. Whatever the reason, the field is of fairly recent vintage. There was Freud, of course, theorizing about the inferiority of clitoral orgasms and insisting that erotic impulses began in the cradle (not to mention Havelock Ellis and Krafft-Ebing), but it wasn’t until the 1940s when Alfred Kinsey received government funding for his pioneering surveys on sexual behavior and attitudes that the idea of treating amorous response as a respectable discipline came into its own. And then along came Masters and Johnson to take the field to a whole new, hitherto undreamed-of level.
“In this scenario,” Maier notes, “women’s potential fireworks display in bed far exceeded the single little firecracker of the men beside them.”
Thomas Maier’s Masters of Sex comes with a hyperbolic and somewhat-misleading subtitle: The Life and Times of William Masters and Virginia Johnson, the Couple Who Taught America How to Love. The urge to draw in readers with attention-grabbing summations is an understandable one, but the actual story of these pioneering sex researchers, who worked together and eventually married, is both more interesting and less sensationalistic than this description would have you think. Maier’s sedulously researched and deeply absorbing biography suggests that love is far more elusive than an orgasm; that it is possible to treat sexual dysfunction of various sorts with relative rigor and a startling lack of sentiment (in Masters and Johnson’s 1970 book, Human Sexual Inadequacy, “couples were called ‘marital units’ and ‘coital opportunity’ became another name for love”); and that the duo who “taught America to love” had clay feet when it came to their own romantic lives, for the most part putting their careers before gratifications of the heart and flesh.
For anyone who grew up in the ‘60s or ‘70s, the names of Masters and Johnson had the instant-recognition factor of a logo, like the old-time department store Peck & Peck. Even if you didn’t know what they did, you knew they stood for something revolutionary—that they were, in their white coats and seriousness of purpose, as integral to the sexual revolution as the Pill and the Beatles. As it happened, the two became a team almost by accident, in one of those serendipitous encounters that often seem to underlie visionary enterprises. It was “just before Christmas 1956”: Forty-one-year-old William Masters, who was an OB-GYN on the staff of Washington University, renowned for his surgical skill and fertility expertise, was looking for a female assistant to help him in his innovative, closely guarded research into the physiology of human sexual response. “…Unlike Kinsley, whose research was done on paper and not in the lab, Masters proposed to directly observe the body’s functioning during sex—meticulously tracking each pulse, breath, thrust and quiver.” Because he was particularly interested in female sexuality (and unlike, many men, understood that he knew “nothing at all” about it), he also realized he needed a woman by his side to act as a kind of interpreter. After asking his wife—who had no interest in joining him in his clinical work—he turned to the newly hired, 32-year-old Virginia (known as “Gini”) Johnson, a twice-divorced mother of two. Her nonchalant response upon hearing that Masters was not engaged in fertility research but was conducting a sex study, based on volunteers making the beast with two backs in an examination room equipped with a chaise longue and a slew of electrical outlets on the third floor of Washington University’s Maternity Hospital, made him decide in her favor, notwithstanding the fact that she was essentially “a friendly paper-pusher with some typing skills” and no proven aptitude for scientific work..
“From the outset,” Maier writes, “Masters and Johnson’s remarkable success sprung from their dual approach, the matrix of male and female therapists exploring the boundaries of human sexuality together.” Although Johnson had no training, she had a soothing way with volunteers and was an eager student, willing to learn “the intricacies of anatomy, biology, and physiology” and to work long hours gathering personal histories as well as watching female strangers pleasure themselves and anonymous couples fornicate. These activities were done against a backdrop of medical devices, wires, and gauges and with the help of a dildo-shaped gadget created by Masters that photographed the vaginal cavity in living color as it was aroused, entered, and then penetrated. The device could be adjusted according to differences in size, weight, and vaginal development—and if you weren’t careful, you could end up electrocuting someone. One colleague described is as “a motor-powered, Plexiglas phallus"; its nickname was simply Ulysses (after the recently released Kirk Douglas film, which featured a giant cyclops). Other medical devices were on tap as well, including an electrocardiograph machine, an electroencephalograph machine and a tiny television screen that tracked the electrical impulses coming from the brain. “These tools served as a kind of sexual polygraph,” Maier writes, “as detectors of the truth in an area so often filled with exaggeration and lies.” Volunteers were drawn from a disparate population, composed of graduate students, hospital staffers, and faculty wives, and were instructed in, among other things, the “squeeze method” and “sensate focus” exercises. Female volunteers entered the exam room naked except for a terrycloth robe, wearing pillowcases over their head with two holes cut around the eyes.
Johnson was considered to be the more approachable of the two, with her mellifluous voice and sincere manner; Masters, who wore a bow tie and carried white ballpoint pens to match his white coat, was considered to be the more reserved, if not outright cold. They worked together to the exclusion of much else, ignoring their home lives (Masters also had two children) in their pursuit of physiological discoveries about male and female arousal patterns, the uses of foreplay, and the disproving of myths such as the one that said sex among couples during pregnancy posed a hazard to the fetus. Early on in their professional partnership, Johnson agreed to a clandestine sexual relationship with Masters, who romantically referred to intercourse as “a mutual masturbation exercise.” The couple proceeded to sexually engage as though it were part of their training—“a way of further comprehending all that they were learning through observation”—and in return, Masters upped Johnson’s salary as well as her title. Despite her lack of a degree, his former secretary went from being an assistant to a research associate and was given equal billing in their scientific publications. Depending upon whose voice you listen to in the chorus of voices that Maier has orchestrated, Bill was the name and Gini the workhorse, or, again, Bill was the star and Gini his cunning sidekick. (“He lowered his standards to elevate hers,” remarks one friend. “It was a condition of their going forward together.”) Similarly, depending again upon whose opinion you warm to, they became involved erotically because it was part of the job requirement or because Johnson wanted to ensure that “the perks kept coming along.” No one seems to have suggested that they were in love—least of all, Johnson herself. “I probably never had loved him,” she reflects years later. “We had in common a real devotion to a sexual relationship and that was probably the strongest common denominator that we had.”
In 1966, they co-authored their landmark book, Human Sexual Response, which presented itself as the medically based continuation of Kinsey’s Gallup-like questionnaires—construed by the pair to be “mere sociology.” In it, they outlined the four separate stages of human response in men and women, derived from watching 382 female and 312 male volunteers over nearly a decade. They also put Freud’s belief in the superiority of vaginal orgasms firmly to bed, having discovered that there was no biological difference between them and clitoral orgasms, and blasted the delusion that bigger penises guaranteed greater sexual effectiveness. But the book’s most explosive finding by far was that women were naturally capable of multiple orgasms, unencumbered by the refractory period that slowed men down—sometimes as many as five or six within minutes. “In this scenario,” Maier notes, “women’s potential fireworks display in bed far exceeded the single little firecracker of the men beside them.”
Masters of Sex follows the couple at its center through the heyday of their celebrity, when they were courted by Hugh Hefner and talk shows like Meet the Press, to the gradual polluting of sexology beginning in the mid-‘70s by what Masters called “an astounding assortment of incompetents, cultists, mystics, well- meaning dabblers, and outright charlatans.” It also covers the later controversies over their use of sexual surrogates and the assertions of their third book, Homosexuality in Perspective (1979), in which they pushed for “conversion” therapy, claiming a success rate of 67 percent among the more than 300 homosexual men and women they had studied over a 14-year period—results they may have fabricated. The methodology in this book was far less meticulous; indeed, as Maier describes it, “ Homosexuality In Perspective contained far more speculation than science…”
By their second book, Human Sexual Inadequacy (1970), which offered nothing less than “a therapeutic regimen to cure chronic sexual dysfunction and distressed marriages,” Masters had dropped his “M.D.” designation, furthering their equal status. Their lives were bound up in the lab and in bed, whatever the lack of emotional intimacy, and on January 7, 1971, Bill Masters and Gini Johnson got hitched after Bill abruptly dumped Libby, his devoted wife of 29 years. Masters summed up the grounds of his divorce with his usual dry-as-dust clarity: ”Ultimately, my wife and I had to face the fact that our relationship was essentially nonexistent.”
Set against a larger cultural landscape that spans the domesticated ‘50s and liberated ‘60s on up to the present, stopping on the way to evaluate the effect of Masters and Johnson’s work on everything from feminism to perfumes, Masters of Sex is a richly informed and elegantly organized account of the two people behind the logo that stood for new sexual horizons—a world where “ejaculatory incompetence” and the “female-superior” coital position were given intelligent and comprehending scrutiny. That their work never received public funding is one more striking detail among many; that the couple themselves remains elusive is, perhaps, one of the ways in which matters of the psyche resist clinical evaluation. Despite the fact that Johnson cooperated with the author (Masters, who died in 2001, was also interviewed) and her perspective tends to dominate the narrative, she comes off as deliberately vague about her own motives and wishes.
Regarding her acceptance of their sexual pact, Johnson seems conveniently blind to the complex interweaving of desire and ambition: “’No, I was not comfortable with it, particularly,’ she insisted. ‘I didn’t want him at all, and had no interest in him. I don’t know how to explain it.’” Although she resists being cast as a pre-feminist victim, she is happy to paint herself as Masters’ Girl Toy, created to satisfy his professional and personal needs. Throughout the book she refers to her former partner and ex-husband (Masters had one last surprise up his sleeve, divorcing Johnson in 1993 to marry a long-ago sweetheart for whom he had carried a torch “for 55 years”) by his last name, furthering the impression of a carefully calculated distance between them.
Johnson describes herself and Masters as “absolutely the two most secretive people on the face of the earth,” so it is fitting that one finishes this book wishing for more transparency and less occlusion. In the end, I found myself more intrigued by Masters, who seems genuinely, mesmerizingly inscrutable. Was he the man who loved women? Or was he the man who couldn’t love at all? Whatever the answer, his and Johnson’s far-seeing vision changed the sexual landscape forever, elucidating the delicate machinery of carnal pleasure and thereby bringing it out from under the covers and into the light.
Daphne Merkin was a staff writer for The New Yorker and is currently a contributing writer for The New York Times Magazine and Elle. She is the author of a novel, Enchantment, and a collection of essays, Dreaming of Hitler.