William H. Masters and Virginia E. Johnson – better known as Masters and Johnson – were trailblazing sexologists who conducted research into the physiology of sex in the 20th century, earning widespread fame in the 1960s. Though initially research partners, they married in 1971 but eventually divorced in 1992.
Masters and Johnson’s sex studies, which inspired the popular Showtime series Masters of Sex, began in the 1950s and involved monitoring subjects’ responses to sexual stimulation under lab conditions. Their work proved both controversial and highly influential, feeding into the ‘sexual revolution’ of the 1960s and correcting widespread misconceptions about sexual stimulation and dysfunction, particularly amongst women and the elderly.
Masters and Johnson’s later work, however, was plagued by falsehoods. Their 1970s and 1980s studies on homosexuality, for example, sensationalised the AIDS crisis and perpetuated myths about the transmission of HIV.
From pioneering the field of sexology to courting controversy, here’s the story of Masters and Johnson.
Sexology before Masters and Johnson
When Masters and Johnson commenced their studies in the 1950s, sex was still considered a taboo subject by large swathes of the public and indeed many scientists and academics. As such, scientific research into human sexuality was typically limited in scope and greeted with suspicion.
That said, Masters and Johnson were preceded by Alfred Kinsey, a biologist and sexologist who published reports on sexuality in the 1940s and 1950s. But his work, while important, was primarily concerned with behaviour, touching on attitudes to sex and fetishes. Studies into the physiological mechanics of sex at the time were at best superficial and at worst non-existent or shaped by misconceptions. Enter Masters and Johnson.
Starting their studies
When William Masters met Virginia Johnson in 1956, he was employed as a gynaecologist by the medical faculty of Washington University, St Louis. He had commenced research studies into sex two years earlier, in 1954, and Johnson joined his team as a research associate. Over the following decades, Masters and Johnson conducted wide-ranging studies into human sexuality, initially with a particular focus on physiological sexual responses, disorders and both female and elderly sexuality.
Accounts of Masters and Johnson’s early dynamic typically paint Masters as a driven, focused academic and Johnson as a sympathetic ‘people person’. This combination would prove invaluable during their research endeavours: Johnson was apparently a reassuring presence for subjects enduring incredibly intimate, and at times invasive, scientific scrutiny.
How did Masters and Johnson collect data?
Masters and Johnson’s research involved monitoring responses to sexual stimulation, including using heart monitors, measuring neurological activity and using cameras, sometimes internally.
The research duo’s first book, Human Sexual Response, was published in 1966 to both outrage and fanfare. Though written in intentionally formal, academic language – to abate accusations that it was anything other than a work of science – the book became a bestseller.
Human Sexual Response outlined the researchers’ findings, which included categorisations of the four stages of sexual arousal (excitement, plateau, orgasmic and resolution), recognition that women could have multiple orgasms and proof that sexual libido can endure into old age.
The book is widely recognised as the first laboratory-researched study of human sexual physiology. It shot Masters and Johnson to fame and its theories proved perfect fodder for magazines and talk shows in the 1960s, as the nascent ‘sexual revolution’ gained momentum in the west.
Masters and Johnson founded the Reproductive Biology Research Foundation – which was later renamed the Masters and Johnson Institute – in 1964 in St Louis. Initially, Masters was its director and Johnson its research assistant, until the pair became co-directors.
At the institute, Masters and Johnson started offering counselling sessions, lending their expertise to individuals and couples affected by sexual dysfunction. Their treatment process involved a short course combining elements of cognitive therapy and education.
In 1970, Masters and Johnson published Human Sexual Inadequacy, detailing their findings on sexual dysfunction, performance and education. By this point, Masters and Johnson had become romantically involved. They married in 1971, but they would ultimately divorce in 1992.
Despite their pioneering early work, Masters and Johnson courted controversy later in their careers. In 1979, they published Homosexuality in Perspective, which outlined – to widespread criticism – the conversion of dozens of purportedly willing homosexuals to heterosexuality.
Moreover, 1988’s Crisis: Heterosexual Behaviour in the Age of AIDS detailed falsehoods about the transmission of HIV/AIDS and contributed to alarmist perceptions of the disease.
Masters and Johnson’s later work was undermined by inaccuracy and myth. But the pair are nonetheless remembered as pioneers of the field of sexology, and their studies into the physiology of sex proved influential, as did their evaluations of sexual dysfunction.
The legacy of Masters and Johnson is certainly complex: they perpetuated sensational myths about HIV/AIDS and homosexuality, but they also helped to expel many misconceptions about sex and sexuality, particularly regarding women and the elderly.