Tag Archive for 'Kinsey'

Masters of Sex

Book Review by Jessica Powers


Masters of Sex: The Life and Times of William Masters and Virginia Johnson, the Couple Who Taught America How to Love

By Thomas Maier, Basic Books, 2009


When Virginia Johnson retired to a nursing home in relative obscurity in 2002, some people wondered about her fate. How was it she had dropped off the face of the earth? Why hadn’t she received the recognition she deserved? “Where were the 1970s feminists and the sexually confident professional woman of Generation X….[who] owed a debt to her more than they knew” (371)? The “sexually confident professional woman of Generation X” describes me but I’ll admit, until I read the book, I had no idea who Virginia Johnson was—or how much influence she and her partner William Masters had had on the world in which I grew up. Though the sexual revolution of the 1960s might have occurred without Masters and Johnson, it was their research into the physiology of sex—far more than any studies conducted by Alfred Kinsey—that gave Americans the ability to talk about sex knowledgably and scientifically and openly.


In Masters of Sex: The Life and Times of William Masters and Virginia Johnson, the Couple Who Taught America How to Love, Thomas Maier has provided us with a comprehensive biography of the couple who spent several decades together researching and writing about sex. The book encompasses both their personal and professional lives, exploring a central key question: How was it that William Masters and Virginia Johnson—whose research spawned a radically new, successful approach to sex therapy, and which did more to change America’s public perception of sex—could fail so miserably in their personal love lives, both with others and, ultimately, with each other?


In the early days, much of Virginia Johnson and Bill Masters’s research was conducted privately. Because they were using machines and video cameras to literally observe hundreds and thousands of men and women having sex and masturbating, they knew that their project would be shut down if the truth emerged. Carefully, systematically, and dogmatically, they recorded what they discovered. The result was one of the most influential books of the 20th century, Human Sexual Response, which catalogued everything they had discovered about human sexuality. “Masters and Johnson’s mechanical approach, rooted in the American reverence for science, made their book palatable to a tongue-tied nation,” argues Maier, suggesting that their work was a seminal influence in the sexual revolution. “Specific sexual information suddenly became part of the standard fare for newspapers, magazines, and television talk shows, which recognized the audience appeal for this sex talk involving Masters and Johnson” (174).


The book launched their careers as sex therapists. If Bill Masters was the scientific steamroller behind the sex studies, Virginia Johnson pioneered their therapeutical approach to sexual dysfunction. By pairing a team of therapists—a man and a woman—to help married couples reach sexual satisfaction, she created a “totally innovative” and highly successful method for curing problems from erectile dysfunction to premature ejaculation to lack of female orgasm (178). In addition to providing standard sexual therapy, the pair experimented with sexual surrogates—a highly controversial method that, at some point, they publicly disavowed, even while continuing to secretly use it.


For many years, Masters and Johnson rode at the height of success. But their 1978 book on homosexuality—in which they claimed they had successfully cured several homosexuals and transformed their gay orientation into a heterosexual one—and then their book on AIDS in the 1980s, which went against conventional wisdom, changed public perception of the pair. Their personal relationship—for many years, a professional one with “benefits,” as the saying goes, which ultimately morphed into marriage when Masters worried that Johnson was planning to get married and leave their partnership—foundered as their professional reputations publicly soured. Masters reconnected with the first woman he had loved, divorced Johnson, and married for the third time, this time happily. Masters and Johnson kept a happy public face in terms of their professional relationship, but secretly, Johnson grew bitter over the way she had been treated throughout the partnership but especially after their divorce. Furthermore, though they should have made millions, they had never achieved the financial success that their fame could have led to.


Though detailed and lengthy (375 pages), Masters of Sex remains interesting from start to finish. Maier has written a book that not only explores the psychological and professional lives of America’s most famous sex duo, but also reveals the changing American landscape in its response to human sexuality.


Jessica Powers is the editor of The Fertile Source. Her first novel, The Confessional (Knopf, 2007), explored racial tension and violence on the U.S. Mexico Border, while her second novel, This Thing Called the Future (Cinco Puntos Press, forthcoming April 2011) explores South Africa and AIDS. She is also the editor of Labor Pains and Birth Stories: Essays on Pregnancy, Childbirth, and Becoming a Parent.

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