Every year at this time, the previews of new TV series start rolling in with the pundits placing their bets on the best new offerings. Sex nerds everywhere will want to take note of the top pick this season. Masters of Sex, which premières September 29 on Showtime, is about the personal and professional lives of sex researchers William Masters and Virginia Johnson. Their story is a television producer’s dream—period drama with ’60s sets and costumes, scandalous work relationships, infidelity and loads of sex. It’s hard to imagine that the series could be anything other than entertaining, but it will be interesting to see how it portrays the famously controversial couple. Will they be depicted as bold visionaries, over-sexed pseudo-scientists or a little of both?
Masters was a professor of obstetrics and gynecology who set out to study and record what actually happens to the human body during sex. In the late ’50s and early ’60s, he and Johnson, his assistant who later became his research partner and then his wife, observed almost 700 men and women having sex in their lab. Using probes and monitors, they recorded their subjects’ heart rates, circulation, muscle activity and other responses during a variety of sex acts and approximately 10 000 orgasms.
The work of Masters and Johnson was revolutionary. They were the first to actually observe and measure people’s physiological responses during sex. Their research gave us invaluable information about how sex actually works and opened doors for new ways to address sexual problems, which had previously been viewed as almost solely psychological. Their studies showed there is no physiological difference between a vaginal and clitoral orgasm—challenging the prevailing Freudian notion that orgasm without penetration is inferior and less mature. They developed a four-phase model of sexual response that became widely accepted and is still used by some. Their work paved the way for greater understanding of sexuality in general and female sexuality in particular.
Groundbreaking as they were, Masters and Johnson were highly controversial. Later sex researchers criticized the lack of diversity amongst their research subjects and questioned whether results obtained in a lab accurately reflect people’s real-life experience of sex. Many have argued that Masters and Johnson’s model of sexual response is overly simplistic and ignores the complexity of sexual interactions and factors such as cultural conditioning, attraction, self-image and relationship issues. Some believe Masters and Johnson’s focus on the physical is one of the factors that led to a medicalization of sexual problems that has caused many professionals and individuals to view relatively common experiences as sexual dysfunctions.
Perhaps most controversial is Masters and Johnson’s book Homosexuality in Perspective, published in 1979. In it, they claimed to have provided therapy to 67 men and women with same-sex attraction who expressed a desire to be heterosexual. They claimed a success rate of at least 45 percent in helping these people convert from homosexuality to heterosexuality. In his book Masters of Sex, on which the Showtime series is based, Thomas Maier writes that Robert Kolodny, head researcher at the Masters and Johnson institute, told him he had never actually seen any of the case studies that were included in the book and that Masters refused to provide him with the research when asked, leading him to wonder if it was real. Maier also claims Johnson herself had grave reservations about the validity of the research in the book. He says they both wanted to stop the publication of the book but neither of them spoke publicly about these concerns. Homosexuality in Perspective came to be used by advocates of gay-conversion therapy as supposed scientific proof that homosexual attraction can be changed. It continues to be quoted to this day, and it will be interesting to see if the TV series dares to address this issue and how they handle it.
There is no question Masters and Johnson were pioneers in their time, but there is much to question and criticize within their methods and body of work. The show may be an opportunity to reexamine their work from a new historical perspective. Or it may just be an opportunity to create a show with lots and lots of sex. Unfortunately, neither Masters nor Johnson lived to see how they will be portrayed. Masters died in 2001 and Johnson just a few short months before the première, in July of this year.