To this day, sex is still a touchy subject in the United States. As technology advances, the world seems to become smaller in terms of how people are accessing information and youths are said to be growing up faster. Teen pregnancy still occurs more than it should (although statistically it’s been on decline in the last two decades), sexually transmitted diseases and other preventable issues are still occurring (the recent HIV infections within the porn industry making for a chilling piece of news), and films and television programs dealing with/or showing sex are censored in harsher ways than anything involving torture, violence and weapons.
It’s hard to imagine living in a world in which the notion of sex was even more conservative and cryptic than it is today, yet in the 1950s men weren’t even aware that women could fake their orgasms (because why would they, right?). Just in time to coincide with the release of the Showtime series starring Michael Sheen and Lizzy Caplan, Basic Books have reissued Thomas Maier’s deft biography of Masters and Johnson called Masters of Sex: The Life and Times of William Masters and Virginia Johnson, the Couple Who Taught America How to Love.
The book chronicles the studies on human sexuality developed by Doctor William H. Masters and Virginia E. Johnson, which more than five decades ago completely changed the way in which people thought about sex. Masters worked in the gynecology department at Washington University in St. Louis, where he was among the best in his field especially when it came to fertility treatments, but it seems that at some point he decided he needed to explore new areas related to his work and he began studying sexual behavior. Maier suggests that he was trying to stay away from home, basically because he was having problems getting his wife pregnant and who would trust a fertility doctor who is infertile himself?
Masters began studying how women responded to different sexual stimuli after realizing that books on fertility showed a particular aversion to the process of how babies were made. Because of the nature of his studies he conducted his first experiments inside a brothel because he thought that sex workers would be the smartest when it came to sex. Even though they helped open his eyes (especially by suggesting he teamed up with a female research assistant) he realized that even prostitutes weren’t the end all when it came to knowledge on human sexuality.
Masters reluctantly hired Johnson as his assistant when he realized that despite her lack of an academic training (she was a twice divorced mother without a college degree) she had a human quality that made people trust her. “She possessed a remarkable talent for discussing intimate subjects [patients] would never dare bring up in mixed company,” writes Maier and it was because of her straightforward approach to the matter, that people started lining up to help out in Masters’ study.
Unlike the report made famous by Dr. Alfred Kinsey a few years before they started their own work, Masters and Johnson didn’t rely on interviews, but on actual scientific facts. They were the first to introduce a camera (concealed within a glass dildo) inside a woman’s vagina to see what happened when she climaxed and the results shattered misconceptions on where lubrication came from and established the then shocking notion that, unlike men, women didn’t need to wait between orgasms.
Maier’s book covers the couple’s studies all the way to their somewhat inevitable marriage, the founding of the Masters and Johnson Institute and their impending divorce all done in a way where it serves an educational purpose as well as being rather entertaining. Masters himself was among the first to concede that there would be nothing salacious in reading his studies and even made an extra effort to make everything sound so clinical that readers didn’t fully understand what was written unless they had some medical knowledge.
Maier cleverly combines chronological storytelling with reflective passages that give us insights into why Masters was who he was (he remains a mystery in ways the charming Johnson never does) making the experience of reading the book feel like something cinematic (or televised for that matter) the book ultimately makes an impact because it goes beyond exposing Masters and Johnson’s work to people who grew up already “knowing” the things they discovered, but also because it ultimately finds poetic irony in the fact that the man who spent his whole life thinking and discussing sex, didn’t have the most pleasurable of lives. The author suggests that the good doctor might have spend his entire life shying away from love and disguising this under his studies. Maier equates Master’s studies to an atheist trying to discover god and failing even when everyone around him seem to be experiencing the divine.