So Long in Coming

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Alfred Kinsey had his own movie, but William Masters and Virginia Johnson remain the unsung heroes of human sexuality studies. The latest issue of The Economist, however, takes four paragraphs to celebrate them and the “audacious, rigorous and weird” goings-on of their laboratory: “Female volunteers masturbated with ‘Ulysses’, a Plexiglass motorised dildo containing a camera, while wearing paper bags over their heads to preserve modesty. Hundreds of wired-up couples copulated under conditions of intense scrutiny. Over 12,000 orgasms were logged in the research” for their first book, published in 1966.

Weirder still, “early on in their partnership, Masters (who was married) persuaded Ms Johnson (a twice-divorced mother of two) to sleep with him. He argued that this would help to avoid the worse sin of becoming sexually involved with their patients.” They later married, although he would subsequently divorce her for another woman. (“If there is a moral to this tale, it is perhaps that the human heart remains as much of a mystery as the sex organs once used to be.”)

However unorthodox their techniques, Masters and Johnson contributed much to their field. “The researches of Masters and Johnson demolished Freudian ideas of female sexuality: there was nothing inferior about a clitorally induced orgasm. And women, unlike men, were naturally multi-orgasmic–given the right techniques.” Further, “today’s talking and touching therapies for couple’s sexual problems are largely based on [Johnson’s] ideas, just as the development of Viagra and its ilk owe much to the physiological research of Masters.”imagedb-1

So, on the occasion of a forthcoming biography of the pair, we take the opportunity to express gratitude for their work–I leave it to the reader to determine the best way to do so.


Claire Caplan enjoys dotting Is and crossing Ts. She works for a public radio station in Baltimore, Maryland. More from this author →