Students push honorary degree for sex researcher

| Contributing Reporters

While many recognize Washington University for its world-class, cutting-edge medical research, few people know that the institution also pioneered sexuality studies in the 1950s. Even fewer know about the pioneer herself, the mother of the scientific study of sex and sex therapy: Virginia Johnson.

On Tuesday, Thomas Maier, the author of the newly published book “Masters of Sex: The Life and Times of William Masters and Virginia Johnson,” will lead a panel on campus entitled “A Legacy Ignored? Virginia Johnson and Sex Therapy at WU.”

The panel is the result of a partnership between Student Forum on Sexuality, the Brown School Student Coordinating Council and the School of Law.

The legacy of Johnson began in 1957 when William Howell Masters, an associate professor of clinical obstetrics and gynecology in the medical school at the time, hired her as a research assistant to undertake a comprehensive scientific study of human sexuality.

Though Johnson did not have a college degree, she contributed enormously to the burgeoning field. She recruited healthy volunteers and observed and analyzed the physiological changes that occured during over 10,000 cycles of sexual stimulation.

The methods Johnson developed to diagnose and treat sexual disorders and dysfunctions are now known as sex therapy. Her groundbreaking work led to the publication of the best-selling books “Human Sexual Response” in 1966 and “Human Sexual Inadequacy” in 1970.

Despite Johnson’s significant contributions, the University refused to give her an academic appointment and slighted her contributions, at one point describing the research as conducted by “Masters with Johnson” instead of the attribution “Masters and Johnson.”

“[Johnson] is really a trailblazer,” said Susan Stiritz, professor in the Women, Gender and Sexuality Studies Program. “She is one of the most important women in the history of women studies, yet Washington University ignores her legacy.”

Stiritz speculated that the social climate and Johnson’s personal qualifications might have played a role in why Johnson was never appropriately recognized.

“I think it was a combination of Washington University’s very conservative perspective on women and sexuality and Johnson’s lack of degree,” she said.

The University’s conservatism surprises many students who consider the school a liberal institution. Today, few know that the Women, Gender and Sexuality Studies program was originally called Women and Gender Studies to avoid the sensitive connotations of “sexuality.”

Although Stiritz lamented the University’s past conservatism and discount of Johnson’s legacy, she optimistically looked forward to a more accepting and open future for sexuality studies.

“We are at a new juncture now. This is a propitious time to reexamine our views,” she said.

In efforts to gain acknowledgement for Johnson, the Student Forum on Sexuality will petition the chancellor to award an honorary doctorate at the next commencement to Johnson, who is turning 85 in the spring of 2010.

“Wouldn’t it be a wonderful way to recognize her 85th birthday by giving her an honorary degree?” Stiritz said. “Washington University can then redeem itself instead of looking like an anti-feminist.”

The Student Forum on Sexuality has more ambitions for the future in addition to petitioning for Johnson’s honorary degree.

“We try and open a discourse on sex so that people can communicate more about their feelings and expectations,” said junior Candace Girod, co-president of the Student Forum on Sexuality.

“I think Washington University is trying to change,” said junior Brittany Johnson, the other co-president.

On a larger scale, Stiritz seeks to build on the foundations set by Masters and Johnson and enlarge the Women, Gender and Sexuality Studies Program at the University.

“We like to eventually start a sexualities institute where people in looking into sexualities in all the disciplines would come together, and once again be known for the center of sex research in the country,” she said.

Maier’s panel will take place from 5 p.m. until 7 p.m. on Tuesday in McMillan Café.

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