“Masters of Sex”: Why the Head and the Heart Matter

When I was in my doctoral program, we watched videos of people masturbating. These were not videos supposed to titillate but ones designed to educate. And they did. They were fascinating. These videos were made by Bill Masters and Virginia Johnson, the same experts who wrote my Human Sexuality textbook in college. I also was taught about their sensate focus technique for sex therapy. Thus, to say that Masters and Johnson had an influence on my education is to put it mildly.

That’s why I was so interested to watch Showtime’s new series, Masters of Sex, which is based on the real life partnership of Masters and Johnson. I know a little bit about their life but I never truly considered how they were able to accomplish their research about sexuality in St. Louis, Missouri during the 1950s, a time and place in which people were fairly repressed. As such, I thought the show would be interesting but I never imagined how fantastic it would be. I figured it would heavily feature sex (as it does) but I have been pleasantly surprised by how much the actual sex has taken a backseat to messages about gender roles, politics, emotion, relationships and families. Besides being thoroughly engrossing, it’s been a good reminder.

In today’s world, sex is easily accessible. Not only can we get sex pretty much anywhere but we also observe it on a daily basis. We see teasing depictions of sexuality on billboards, commercials, television shows, movies, the internet and via award show performances. We hear about sex on talk radio programs, in popular songs, and even in the daily news. It’s everywhere. But we forget that this kind of sexuality is divorced from any kind of context. The depictions we see are merely cold and sterile illustrations of interplaying body parts. Gone are the true foundations of sexuality which include desire, sexual history, emotional investment and even beliefs about the purpose and meaning of sexuality. Our society promotes the idea that sex is about physical feelings when, in reality, most of sexuality comes from your head and heart. Masters of Sex has not forgotten this.

Bill Masters is a great example. He grew up with an abusive father and an ineffectual mother. His father exploded about everything, so young Bill learned to shut off his emotions and concentrate on his academic accomplishments instead. And, because his mother preferred to turn up the radio rather than intervene on his behalf, he learned not to trust relationships and certainly never to be vulnerable within them.

Although Bill inexplicably ends up married to a warm, vivacious and beautiful woman who only wants to enjoy life and start a family (the show has yet to explain what she sees in him), he cannot seem to get past his upbringing. His sex life is impotent (literally) and cold with he and his wife sleeping separately in twin beds. Instead of enjoying what should be a satisfying union, Bill sleepwalks to escape, just as he did as a boy.

The show makes it clear that this is why Bill wants to study only the physical act of passion: he cannot yet risk the vulnerability that emotions bring. Participants in the study are required to provide a detailed sexual history but they are only asked about their physical experiences of sex. Whenever their answers cry out for more exploration – for how incest led them to sex work, for why they have never experienced orgasm, for how erections come and go based on thoughts – Bill quickly moves on to the next question. He doesn’t want to get mired in emotion.

Bill wants to be a pioneer, to prove that he is more than the scared, abused little boy he used to be but his research is about more than that. Bill wants to, needs to, study what he does not understand. And while he can at least go through the motions of the physical part of sex, he is lost in the realm of emotions. That is why he needs Virginia (more on her in a future blog). Despite his best efforts, we get to watch as Bill discovers that, in order to truly understand sex, he cannot remove the emotional component.

Oddly enough, even with our ubiquitous display of sexuality, that is exactly what we do as a culture. The desire and the emotion – the head and the heart – of sex are removed so that the observers of it are left with only the trappings. Thus, like Bill, we cannot truly understand it. In watching Masters of Sex, it is interesting to note that people in the 1950s often did not know how to go about being sexual because of the time’s repressive attitude towards sex. It is ironic that, even with our vast levels of knowledge and the presence of sex everywhere, we’re possibly just as ignorant. We still have yet to get it right.

Comments 1

  1. Pingback: “Masters of Sex”: Shining a Spotlight on Women - The Psychological Hook : The Psychological Hook

Share Your Thoughts