Mastering sex at Wash. U.: How Masters and Johnson forever altered the sexual landscape

| Managing Editor

Sahil Patel | Student Life

Masters and Johnson, the famed sex researchers from Washington University, have a star on the St. Louis Walk of Fame on the Delmar Loop.

She was the twice-divorced single mother of two turned lounge singer turned insurance adjuster. He was the leading OB-GYN at the Washington University School of Medicine who hoped to win a Nobel Prize. Together, they would change the way people talked about sex.

Inspired by real events of the 1950s and ’60s, Showtime’s “Masters of Sex” premiered on Sept. 29, 2013. The critically acclaimed series follows William Masters and Virginia Johnson as they compile the research that would land them on the May 25, 1970, cover of Time magazine. But 50 years before Masters and Johnson became the “Masters of Sex,” they were two Wash. U. researchers attempting to understand the biological mechanisms behind sexual responses.

“I simply want to answer the question: What happens to the body during sex?”

After a harsh childhood including routine beatings and paternal abandonment, Masters matriculated to Hamilton College a changed man. Once a slight boy with an ocular condition that left him with a perpetually harsh stare, Masters had matured into a driven young man who commanded the respect of his fraternity brothers. During these years at Hamilton, Masters would find his niche, abandoning plans to become an English professor in favor of attending medical school. After observing some of the college’s research, Masters cornered one of his biology professors.

“Masters was asking questions about why all these studies about sex were being done with rats—what was known about people?” Dr. Robert Kolodny, the first medical student to work with Masters and Johnson and later the director of training and head of the endocrine research section of the Masters and Johnson Institute, said. “And the professor told him, ‘Well, no one has any data about that. These things haven’t been studied in people.’”

Exploring this question of what happens to the human body during sex led Masters to a career in research medicine, but on the advice of a professor, Masters delayed studying the taboo subject of sexuality until establishing himself in the more respectable field of obstetrics. Once his reputation solidified, the now-Wash. U. School of Medicine physician surreptitiously began exploring the physiology of sex.

Under cover of night and with the approval of the University’s chancellor, the St. Louis chief of police and the St. Louis diocesan archbishop, Masters peeked through voyeur peepholes as prostitutes pleasured clients. He feared generalizing his findings to broader populations because of the venereal diseases that ravaged many of his subjects, but he couldn’t find female lay participants for his study. He was also becoming increasingly aware of his own inadequate understanding of female sexuality.

After learning that some of the prostitutes faked orgasm, he was dumbfounded. During an examination with one of the prostitutes, who also happened to be a local graduate student, Masters was convinced to seek outside help.

“She basically said, ‘Buddy, you need a female partner to understand some of the things you’re studying,’” Thomas Maier, author of “Masters of Sex: The Life and Times of William Masters and Virginia Johnson, the Couple Who Taught America How to Love,” said. Masters’ wife declined to fill this role. Enter Virginia Johnson.

Johnson hoped to abandon small-town life as quickly as possible. She felt destined for the spotlight—she just wasn’t sure where it would be. Johnson, now a single mother of two, was simply looking for a way to support herself while pursuing her undergraduate degree.

“Johnson was hired almost serendipitously,” Kolodny said. “[She was] sent over to Masters’ department when she had gone to the Washington University student employment agency looking for a secretarial job. She certainly had no inkling what she was getting herself into.”

The attractive young woman with a knack for putting people at ease stumbled into Masters’ work after loose-lipped colleagues neglected to keep his covert project mum in the lunchroom. Masters thought she would balk at the idea of watching people copulate for science. Instead, the girl from Golden City, Mo., who had spent her youth watching farm animals breed and felt immune to the stigma surrounding sex, accepted his offer to help with his research. Despite her lack of formal training, Masters took her on, educating her from his own experience. Johnson would never obtain an official degree, but she used her intuition and her natural affability to recruit participants for their studies, drawing on members of the University community—students and faculty members’ wives alike.

“She was in many ways the perfect complement to his austere, hard-driving, focused-on-one-thing personality,” Kolodny recalled. “She was a real people person. She could strike up a conversation with anybody at all.”

Nearly 10 years of the duo’s observations watching intercourse and masturbation climaxed with the publication of its first book, “Human Sexual Response,” published in 1966. In it, Masters and Johnson dispelled many popular notions regarding female sexuality, notably that contrary to prevalent Freudian theory, there is no difference between a vaginal and a clitoral orgasm, and that unlike men who are mono-orgasmic and require a rejuvenating refractory period between orgasms, women are multi-orgasmic and can achieve multiple orgasms without rest. Their subsequent therapeutic work, the work that brought them to the forefront of popular culture and to the cover of Time, was never an afterthought.

“I think with their second book, describing the sex therapy treatment program, there was by and large much more acceptance,” Kolodny said. “Because suddenly people—even some people who had been critics—had an aha moment where they said, ‘Oh, that earlier research watching people f— let them design the sex therapy program, so it was really meant to help people having problems’…Understanding the normal helps you understand what’s going wrong when treating the abnormal.”

Therapy—even better than Viagra

Contrary to the long-term psychoanalytic practices of the ’50s and ’60s, Masters and Johnson’s sex therapy offered relatively quick rehabilitation.

Masters and Johnson “said, ‘Look, in two weeks, we can turn a couple around. Fifteen years of psychoanalysis doesn’t turn a couple around,’” Susan Stiritz, senior lecturer and coordinator of sexuality studies at the Brown School of Social Work, said.

Developed from Johnson’s memory of her mother stroking her face as a child to help her sleep, sensate focus, along with talk therapy, served as the cornerstone of Masters and Johnson’s sex therapy methodology. Used to treat varying sexual dysfunctions from erectile dysfunction, the inability for a man to obtain or maintain an erection, to anorgasmia, the inability for a person to orgasm, sensate focus involves heightening one’s attention not to a partner’s desires or expectations but rather to the sensations occurring within one’s own body while managing distracting thoughts and anxiety. Partners begin by touching one another, avoiding erogenous zones such as the genitals and breasts. Complementary talk therapy examines the core of the couple’s relationship.

“The idea is if you have no expectations, the body naturally knows what to do,” Linda Weiner, a sex therapist who trained with Masters and Johnson and later served as a therapist for couples as well as director of the Masters and Johnson Institute’s incest treatment program, said. Weiner and sex therapists across the United States still employ the techniques Masters and Johnson helped create, even in the age of Viagra and other medications designed to resolve erectile dysfunction chemically.

“There are people that take Viagra, but their anxiety overcomes the drug,” Weiner said. “The drug opens up the blood flow to the penis. The anxiety shut downs the blood flow to the penis…and now we’re back to treating it by dealing with the anxiety and the expectations [through sensate focus].”

A lasting legacy?

In the years that followed, Masters and Johnson continued their research, publishing a book on homosexuality conversion that claimed a 70 percent success rate and received laudations from certain conservatives and religious organizations while evoking the ire of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community. Johnson later voiced concerns that Masters might have manipulated the data. The institute gradually transitioned from a research and treatment facility to a hub of sex therapy treatment and education. Boasting a success rate of more than 80 percent, Masters and Johnson’s sex therapy, which revolutionized the field, remained their lasting legacy.

In the American public’s mind and abroad, Masters and Johnson’s names stayed tied to their initial research on sexual function and dysfunction, not their later, less well-received work.

“Throughout the ’70s, there was a hardly a day when Johnny Carson didn’t make a Masters and Johnson joke in his monologue. That’s how much of a household name they were,” Kolodny said.

Across the globe, people heard the names Masters and Johnson and associated them with sex and the science of pleasure. “In 1972, when I went to the Soviet Union, the first question I was asked by a Soviet person was ‘Did you bring any of those books by those sexologists Masters and Johnson? We don’t know anything about sex in Russia, and we’re dying to find out,’” Stiritz recollected. As the first and foremost sex therapists in the world, Masters and Johnson regularly counseled patients from both sides of the Atlantic Ocean. Heather Raznick, a 1994 MSW graduate of the Brown School of Social Work who was Masters’ last co-therapist, remembered a German woman who visited the Masters and Johnson Institute.

“This woman, who spoke no English, just showed up discussing pain. She literally came from the airport in a taxi and showed up at the institute” without an appointment, Raznick said. “She must have received his name somehow—she said, ‘I’m here to see Dr. Masters.’”

But with the dissolution of the Masters and Johnson Institute in 1994, the death of Masters in 2001, the recent passing of Johnson last July and the public’s continued discomfort with talking about sexual and reproductive health, the Masters and Johnson brand has begun to fade. Raznick, who teaches at St. John’s Mercy Medical Center, has noticed a shift in awareness of Masters and Johnson.

“In the last eight years, I talk about where my training began and I get this blank stare, and I realize these residents don’t know who Masters and Johnson are,” she said. “It used to be—15 years ago—I would say I trained at Masters and Johnson and people would be like, ‘Oh, wow.’”

Even at Wash. U., the home of Masters and Johnson’s most enduring and groundbreaking research, the pair has often fallen to the wayside. A 2009 attempt to recognize Johnson for her contributions to science with an honorary degree went unfulfilled. The researchers are omitted from two Wash. U. history books, 2003’s “Beginning a Great Work: Washington University in St. Louis, 1853-2003” and 1996’s “Washington University in St. Louis: A History.”

Some students remain unaware of the legacy of Masters and Johnson and its connection to Wash. U.

“I didn’t hear of Masters and Johnson until I saw a commercial [for “Masters of Sex”],” junior Cristina Clow said.

With the premiere of a TV series exploring their lives and research, Masters and Johnson have returned to the public eye, but their most lasting contribution lives not on the television but in the counseling technique they developed half a century ago.

“Masters and Johnson will be remembered over the long run as being the first researchers to put sexuality on a firm scientific basis,” Kolodny said. “There will always be people who will be helped by the type of sex therapy they originated.”

  • Thomas Maier

    Nice story John! If you’d like to know more about Masters and Johnson — or my book “Masters of Sex” which is the basis for the television series — please contact ThomasMaierBooks [dot] com. On this website, there is a lot of material about the making of this new show from my biography. You can also obtain the book “Masters of Sex” at the Showtime website.