‘Masters of Sex’: new TV show examines reproductive scientists and their work

This Sunday, Showtime is having the premier of their provocative new series, Masters of Sex. The show tells the story of William Masters and Virginia Johnson, pioneers in the psychological studies of sex at a time when the topic was taboo in society. But just what did Masters and Johnson do that makes them worthy of a television show?

In 1956, obstetrician-gynecologist William Masters (1915-2001) became interested in the psychology of sex. Specifically, he set out to explore the human reaction to sex, as well as the diagnosis and treatment of sexual disorders. Masters met Virginia Johnson (1925-2013) while he was looking for a research assistant. At the time, he had a wife and she was a single mother with two kids.

Masters of Sex

Masters (left) and Johnson

During the 50s and 60s, the field of sexology was neglected with few notable pioneers except for Alfred Kinsey, who studied at Indiana University. Unlike Kinsey, Masters and Johnson used the direct observation method. This meant that they did testing in a lab to see the behavior and response of masturbation and sexual intercourse. Their research meant that they would observe subjects engaging in various sexual activities such as masturbation, stimulation of the breasts, and sexual intercourse. Initially, their subjects were prostitutes because they knew about sex and were willing to cooperate. Later, they used 382 women and 312 men from their community. The only downfall was that the group was mostly made up of white, married couples with higher education levels. This did not portray an accurate sample and variation.

Their major contributions include identifying the four stages of sexual response (Excitement Phase or Initial Arousal, Plateau Phase or full arousal, Orgasm Phase, and the Resolution Phase after the orgasm), identifying that sexual arousal can occur in the elderly (70+ in age), and the treatment of homosexuality (which was then viewed as a psychological disorder). They also found ways to rapidly treat previously long term sexual dysfunctions such as premature ejaculation, impotence, vaginismus, and female frigidity through a two week psychotherapy treatment.

Their research also was the source of some major controversies. These controversies included their use of homosexuals and prostitutes, as well as their work with females. The biggest controversy that the pair faced was due to their direct observation method, which many viewed as a breach in the privacy of their subjects. Their work stressed the importance of the female orgasm and the importance of female sexuality.

The relationship between Masters and Johnson changed over time from being professional to personal and the pair married in 1971, with Masters divorcing his wife to marry Johnson. Their relationship ended in 1992 with divorce. William Masters died in 2001 because of Parkinson’s disease and Virginia Johnson died in July due to “complications due to several illnesses”.

The show itself is based on the 2009 book Masters of Sex by Tom Maier, who served as a consultant on the show.

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