Alfred Kinsey got a film starring Liam Neeson as him, but for now Masters and Johnson will have to settle for Thomas Maier’s biography Masters of Sex: The Life and Times of William Masters and Virginia Johnson, the Couple Who Taught America How to Love. For readers interested in a basic rundown on how Masters and Johnson forever changed the way people all over the world think about sex, Masters of Sex is a useful introduction. Yet as a portrait of two people and the strange, occasionally brilliant, and often disturbing world they created in St. Louis, Missouri, Masters of Sex is far from definitive.
The story begins in the 1950s, shortly after Kinsey published his groundbreaking work on human sexuality. William B. Masters, a practicing gynecologist and professor in the medical school at Washington University, wants to do Kinsey one better: whereas Kinsey relied on surveys and testimony from his subjects, Masters wants to document the physiology of sex. What’s more, he wants to do it in the lab, with live human beings getting it on while the good doctor himself watches through a one-way mirror, clad in a white labcoat, and takes notes.
Not much time goes by before a female subject tells Masters that “if you’re serious about this” he needs to have a female partner working with him to help him understand the responses of his female test subjects. In its first third, Masters of Sex succeeds admirably at demonstrating how little real knowledge there was about women’s bodies prior to the 1960s, particularly in regards to sex, even for a successful gynecologist like Masters. Masters hires Virginia Johnson, first as his assistant, then as a “research associate” participating in the planning and observation of sex and masturbation by countless subjects in Masters’ Wash U lab. Because of Johnson’s lack of credentials (she had never even finished a bachelor’s degree, and only met Masters because she had been working at the med school as a secretary), the ever-increasing significance of her role in the studies puzzles many of Masters’ colleagues.
In its chronicle of Masters and Johnson’s early years, running up to the publication of their landmark 1966 book Human Sexual Response, Masters of Sex is at its most effective. In passages such as the following, describing a camera-loaded dildo that Masters and Johnson used to document changes in vaginal anatomy during arousal and orgasm, Maier presents clearly the details that made the team’s innovations so significant, but with just a touch of wry humor:
With the machinery in place, Masters gazed around the room. He made sure the color camera was turned on and his staff was ready to register and tabulate each reaction. Once settled, the young woman was handed ‘Ulysses’—the nickname given to the cylindrical plastic device. Among the staff, it seemed only natural to call this one-eyed monstrosity by the same name as a recently released Kirk Douglas movie featuring a giant cyclops.
The major problem with Masters of Sex is that it constantly refers to the investigators’ own perversities, but keeps them at arm’s length. For example, Masters of Sex lets us know that Masters required Johnson, as a part of her job description, to have sex with him. Without providing a single direct quote, Maier makes clear that Masters notified Johnson of this fact on no uncertain terms. Furthermore, she agrees to do it, but Maier never describes with what frequency and under what circumstances Masters and Johnson themselves had sex.
One could say in Maier’s defense that such information is simply unavailable. Masters is dead, and his unpublished memoir sticks to what’s already on the public record, and Johnson as well as numerous others who worked with M&J in their heyday won’t spill the beans—these are all suitable-enough excuses for why Masters of Sex feels so incomplete. But they also beg the question: Why write the book at all if the truly interesting stuff couldn’t be in it?
There are other areas that demand more exploration. The team paid sexual “surrogates” to have sex with impotent men during couples therapy, and then publicly announced that they had ceased the practice, only to continue paying the surrogates secretly while under constant fear of arrest. Long after their most influential publications, Masters and Johnson published a book, Homosexuality in Perspective. The book claims to contain a foolproof method with which to convert homosexuals to heterosexuality. Johnson says that she was not involved in Homosexuality, and implies that Masters falsified his studies, which Johnson claims to have never witnessed. But why did she put her name on it?
Masters is a fascinating character. His apparent homophobia and sexual harassment of Virginia Johnson are difficult to balance with a proto-feminist ambition to make the medical profession more useful for women. Virginia Johnson, who helped revolutionize sexology without ever earning so much as a bachelor’s degree, is arguably an even more perplexing, enigmatic figure. Masters of Sex provides a useful résumé of these two’s achievements, but shows remarkably little curiosity about the woman and man behind them.