Who Are The Real “Masters Of Sex”?

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Who are the Masters of Sex? I'll give you a hint: it has to do with women's orgasms...

Virginia Johnson and William Masters

Photo: Kinsey Institute

Masters and Johnson went beyond Kinsey's technique of just asking questions.

So, who are the Masters of Sex?

Contrary to what that person trying to pick you up at the bar is telling you, the real “Masters of Sex” are Masters and Johnson, at least according to Showtime’s new TV miniseries.

William Masters (1915-2001) and Virginian Johnson (who passed away July 2013, at 88) have always been romanticized in my mind.  I loved the story of William meeting a woman whose intelligence he couldn’t resist— becoming partners in work and life.  I loved that Johnson was always spoken of with pride and given credit for her contributions.  Of course, I understand now more of the unequal nature of their relationship, which Johnson discussed in interviews after their divorce.  Still, to this day, Johnson is one woman I would love to have had dinner with.  She is truly the First Lady of the scientific study of sexuality.

Following in the footsteps of Alfred Kinsey, both Masters and Johnson should be recognized for their pioneering work in sexuality research, especially their work on women’s sexuality.  Masters and Johnson’s bestseller, Human Sexual Response (1966) (Kinsey published Sexual Behavior in the Human Male in 1948) was based on laboratory research.

Here are a few cool things we know, thanks to this team

  • The sexual response cycle, a four stage model of arousal: excitement, plateau, orgasm, and resolution.
    • Masters and Johnson argued that the sexual response cycle in both men and women were fundamentally the same. They documented rhythmic contractions of orgasm in both occurring initially in 0.8 second intervals and then gradually slowing in both speed and intensity.  They also tried to dispel the myth that “size matters” and even suggested that smaller penises allowed for easier penetration earlier in the sexual response cycle.
  • Women’s orgasm. 
    • Masters and Johnson were the first to show women can experience repeated orgasm with correct stimulation.  They don’t have a refractory period like men. (What, women aren’t “frigid” by nature- who knew?! Apparently, not most people in the 60s.)  They showed that the physiology of orgasmic response was identical whether stimulation was clitoral or vaginal, proving that some women were capable of being multi-orgasmic. They also described the clitoris as unique, versus the then popular comparison to a man’s penis.
  • Sexual responsiveness of older adults.
    • Showed that older adults continue to have sexual relationships at every decade of their life (even post-menopausal women) and advised how to maintain passion in long-term relationships.
  • Clinical treatments for sexual problems.
    • They reported success in treating impotence, women’s sexual problems, and trained sex therapists.

Masters and Johnson have faced many critiques and their work on the sexual response cycle now has several competing models.  (Personally, I really like Rosemary Basson’s work).  For me, though, it is mind-blowing to think of living or conducting research in a world that didn’t acknowledge women’s orgasm.  Masters and Johnson were all for women developing their own realistic sexual response levels… and I am all for that!

We’re born man, woman and sexual beings.   — Virginia Johnson

Want to learn more?

Showtime  put together a timeline about sex history and Masters and Johnson, but oddly ignored other researchers, such as Kinsey.  Ironically Virginia Johnson narrated a documentary about Alfred Kinsey, so that wasn’t her decision! The Kinsey Institute has the “Masters and Johnson” Collection at the Kinsey Institute Library, which was donated by Virginia Johnson in 2012.

Margo Mullinax

works as Project Coordinator at the Center for Sexual Health Promotion at Indiana University while working on a PhD in Health Behavior.
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