Masters of Sex’s writer, creator talk Wash. U.’s legacy of research

Michael Iannaconi | Contributing Reporter

A lecture Thursday shed light on the Washington University’s attitude towards research conducted at the University decades ago concerning the human body’s experience during sex. The story is captured in the Showtime television series “Masters of Sex.”

“Masters of Sex” is based on a book of the same name written by Thomas Maier about two researchers, William Masters and Virginia Johnson, at the forefront of a study investigating how sex affects the human body. Maier was present at the talk, along with Michelle Ashford, the creator of the series.

Maier and Ashford discussed their experience of writing the book and the series, the worldwide influence of Masters and Johnson’s research on society and the University’s association with the study itself.

The lecture, which coincided with the 50th anniversary of the publication of Masters and Johnson’s work, “Human Sexual Response,” began by describing how Washington University supported Masters and Johnson’s actual research into human sexuality, but then failed to acknowledge them after the study challenged the conservative ideology of the 1960s, changing it into one of newfound sexual understanding.

Thursday night’s event was part of Washington University’s assembly lecture series and is the University’s first and only step in embracing the legacy Masters and Johnson have had on the field of sexual research.

“I think [the research is] arguably, the greatest thing Washington University ever produced,” Maier said. “What you want to do with it, how you choose to honor it, how you choose to make it part of your legacy, is ultimately up to you.”

Ashford said that she and her team of writers had to take some liberties in their depiction of the events for the television series, ultimately leading to a dichotomy between Washington University’s actual role in the study, and what the show depicts. Legal issues that can arise when depicting nonfiction led to the University’s chancellor at the time, Chancellor Ethan Shepley, being reinvented into a brand new character.

In the eyes of students, the University has distanced itself from the study and the show. Masters and Johnson are two of the three people from the University’s faculty to ever be featured on Time magazine, but most people remain unaware of the connection between the sexual insights they brought to light and the University.

“I think in any basic psych course, you hear about the Masters and Johnson study, and I feel like, to me, it was always pretty famous, but I had no idea it was done at Wash. U.,” sophomore attendee Mehak Kalra said. “They addressed how Wash. U. doesn’t really own [that] this really infamous study [was] done here.”

Ashford cited the taboo nature of the subject as the reason why so many people, including the administration of Washington University, have neglected to openly acknowledge the research.

“I think there still is a certain queasiness about this subject matter. It bumps up against many, many deeply held feelings involving religion and people’s private lives, and I wouldn’t be surprised if that’s part of the reason it doesn’t quite get its due on a certain level,” Ashford said.

  • Article sheds little light on the lecture and even less on the role (or non-role) of WUSTL