History informs, and so I recommend the new biography, Masters of Sex: The Life and Times of William Masters and Virginia Johnson, The Couple Who Taught America How to Love, by Thomas Maier for a good summer read. This is a book about sex—lots and lots of it—but the sex is not prurient or pornographic. Rather, it’s used primarily as a scientific tool to study the phenomenon of human sexuality in order to help us better understand and enjoy the sexual aspects of our lives.
Masters of Sex tells the story of the lives of two pioneer sex researchers, Masters and Johnson, who took the physiological aspect of human sexuality out of the dark ages of the Victorian era and into the sexual revolution of the late 1960s and modern times. Masters and Johnson authored a series of best-selling books—including Human Sexual Response, Human Sexual Inadequacy, The Pleasure Bond, and Crisis: Heterosexual Behavior in the Age of AIDS—that catapulted them to fame. They may have done more for sex than any two people since Adam and Eve.
Together, they studied the human sexual response cycle—particularly the female sexual response—by observing more than 10,000 orgasms at their clinic in St. Louis, MO. They created the sexual science of sexology and developed a two-week sex therapy regime based on “sensate touch,” for couples who experienced an array of sexual marital problems, for which they claimed an “80-percent cure rate.” They also came under attack for developing another two-week program to help gay people “convert” to heterosexuality, which has since been discredited, and for sounding a too-loud alarm bell about the HIV/AIDS crisis, including publishing incorrect information about transmission of the virus.
Masters and Johnson said little about sex education other than that they believed it should be grounded in sound scientific research. So I asked Pepper Schwartz, Ph.D., a respect sex therapist and professor of sexuality at the University of Washington, for her views about Masters of Sex, the value of Masters and Johnson’s legacy, and how parents can talk to their own children about sex.
Susie Wilson: The author of Masters of Sex, Thomas Maier, says that Masters and Johnson “revolutionized the way sex is studied, taught, and enjoyed in America.” Do you agree? And what specifically do you consider their greatest achievements?
Dr. Pepper Schwartz: The statement is more or less true, although as time goes on, some newer members of the sex education community may not realize their indebtedness to Masters and Johnson. They were the impetus to studying the body and its sexual abilities or disabilities, and they spurred research on context, emotions, etc., even if they themselves were overly biological and mechanistic.
They definitely created a climate where the right to sexual pleasure became a more common feeling among the general public—and they should be celebrated for this accomplishment over and above their specific contributions.
We now teach modifications of their human sexual response cycle, but they were the ones to give us the architecture to build on. They created the field of sexual therapy as a distinct specialization rather than as a part of some larger behavioral science or psychiatric practice. They gave us new information and new tools. Their contributions way overshadow their mistakes or shortcomings.
SW: Is the book for a general audience or a more a specialized one, such as sex therapists and educators?
PS: I think it is for a general audience, but especially for people who enjoy the history of science—finding out how knowledge is attained, who the people were who did pioneer work, and what that tells us about how the work was conceptually framed and measured. This book can help you figure out what to admire and what to doubt in terms of the highly influential work of Masters and Johnson.
Sex researchers will be particularly engaged, particularly people like me who knew Bill and Gini, but never knew about their private life and how it affected what they studied, how they interpreted it, and how the team influenced the methodologies and findings. The key points for sex education teachers would be to look at the evolution of the interviews, the construction, limits, and uses of [the therapy] sensate focus, and the methodologies of the original data collection.
SW: Masters and Johnson’s first and groundbreaking book, Human Sexual Response, was published in 1966. Do you think most Americans understand and value Masters and Johnson’s contributions to the sexual revolution and present-day sexual behavior? Do most people understand the various stages of orgasm that Masters and Johnson discovered?
PS: Much of their contribution to the sexual revolution is confined to people over 40, so this book can enlighten a whole new population. The various stages of orgasm is probably the most common discovery of their research included in college sexuality courses, so it is more integrated into public knowledge—but only for people who have taken such a course sometime in their lives.
SW: In your praise for the book that appears on the back cover, you say that Masters and Johnson made “a real contribution to the history of science.” Some of their critics said that their work was nothing more than “voyeuristic.” Will you elaborate on what you mean by their contributions to science?
PS: The “voyeuristic” charge is humorous. In order to understand how human sexual response actually occurred, they had to look at how it began, how it proceeded, and how it ended. This charge is akin to accusing anatomy researchers of body mutilation, because they dissected bodies in order to study internal organs.
The first time you watch someone make love, it is arousing. But if you do that day in and out, hooking them up to blood pressure machines, studying body heat responses, etc., I can assure you the thrill will be gone. This was work that needed to be done.
SW: During the years that Masters and Johnson worked together, they had sex with each other in a clinical, mechanical way. Masters was married at the time and had two young children; Johnson was a divorcee with two small kids. Masters eventually divorced his wife, Libby, and married Johnson, and they stayed together for 22 years until they divorced. Do you think that they compromised the sexual research they did or crossed an ethical line by having sex with each while doing this work?
PS: I found the story of their sexual relationship rather sad. I was sorry to find out how loveless it was. It wasn’t even clear that it was passionate, although perhaps it was upon occasion. Certainly Masters’ own restricted range of emotions affected the first book— later books took individual emotions more into account. But the sexual response cycle is quite stilted and unattached to human emotion, fears, background issues, etc. Sexual skill is left out of the equation, oddly enough, in the first book. The Pleasure Bond—one of their last books—does a better job, but no better I think than many of the successors.
I don’t think any ethics were violated vis à vis the research by their relationship, although the fact that Johnson was subservient to him in many ways inhibited some true collegial contributions. However, given her lack of professional training, I think this would have been the case even if they weren’t having a relationship. Whatever ethical violations happened were purely the business of Master’s wife and family, who certainly were betrayed.
SW: Masters and Johnson’s work lauded “female sexual prowess.” Maier says that their research about women’s sexual response was “a remarkable achievement unlike anything medical science had ever seen in this realm.” Do you get the impression that most women today are away of their power and prowess?
PS: Actually I think a lot of women were somewhat oppressed by the idea of multiple orgasms when the book first came out. Overall, I think the idea that women were the superior sexual athlete was good for women’s egos and a reestablishment of their sexual pride. But I think the focus on multiple orgasms had its positive and negative aspects.
SW: Although Masters and Johnson’s research is based on viewing about 10,000 orgasms in their laboratory, the word “orgasm” itself is sometimes not used in school sex education programs. How would you try to persuade a balky school board, a cautious administrator, or a worried health teacher to include a discussion of orgasm in middle and high school classes?
PS: Knowledge demands the full cycle and propensities of a given phenomenon, and if it isn’t included, it is misleading and bad science education. Furthermore, many young women do not know if they have had an orgasm or not, which means, of course, that they have not had one. Teachers help create this profoundly confusing situation by not offering full information on the human sexual response cycle.
SW: How would you help parents of preteens and teens talk to their kids about orgasms, and is it important for them to do so? Any tips for shy, tongue-tied parents?
PS: This is tough for most parents. They can talk anatomy, but not pleasure. I would counsel them to get a good book and go to Guttmacher, Planned Parenthood, SIECUS, Sex, Etc., Go Ask Alice, among other websites, and take a look at available books, pamphlets, etc. [Editors' note: Click here for Answer's resources as well.]
Give the book to your child—at least by age 12 or 13, but preferably a lot earlier—and have them read it. Tell them you will be happy to answer any questions, clarify the book, or, for that matter, read it with them. Get a book that talks about orgasm frankly. This doesn’t require a parent to be a gifted sex educator, just a discussant with their child about important topics.
SW: What is the connection between sex research and sex education, and why is one important to the other? Do you think that better school sex education programs would reduce some of the problems that are observed by sex therapists?
PS: There are a lot of myths and surmise about sexual functioning. Without sex research, sex educators would unknowingly be passing on a lot of them. Of course, sometimes the research gets it wrong, and then new research comes along and corrects the situation. That’s why sex research has to be ongoing—and, of course, sex changes as the culture changes and personal circumstances of life change. For example, late marriage versus early marriage, recessional times versus flush economies, new technologies of birth control or pleasure, etc.
Certainly better sex education would help reduce sexual problems. A few examples: helping students feel good about carrying and using condoms, helping students recognize sexual abuse or misinformation and dismissing it early in life rather than having it control their sexual response and feelings.
SW: Maier quotes William Masters as saying, “The truth about sex is often unpalatable to many, including those in academia and the healing arts.” You work in academia. Do you observe changes in the last decade that show that this is no longer true?
PS: It is better than it was, but people are still squeamish about sexuality and academics are not different. I do think, however, there is more respect for sexuality research in academe than there was in Masters and Johnson’s time…and part of that has been due to the AIDS crisis, where sexuality information was desperately needed and ultimately funded.
SW: Who is building on Masters and Johnson’s important legacy?
PS: There are a lot of good people doing sex research all around the world. In fact, the globalization and collaboration of an international group of colleagues is a major advance in the sexual research field. Sandy Lieblum and Ray Rosen, who did great clinical work at Robert Wood Johnson Hospital and Rutgers, would be on my A-list. Sandy has done some fascinating work on spontaneous sexual desire in women. There are many other clinically based researchers out there whose names I could add.
Certainly one of the great additions—too long in coming, I might add—has been the work of minority researchers, so that now specific clinical advice for gays, lesbians, Chicanos, various Hispanic groups, Asians and African Americans, and other ethnic and racial groups will get treatment specific to their own cultural backgrounds and needs. This has been sorely needed for way too long a time!