Will the Real Virginia Johnson Please Stand Up?

In my last post, I made the case that Virginia Johnson was the driving force behind the Masters and Johnson team doing sex research. However, who she was as a person was a bit harder to discover.

As a psychologist, part of my bread and butter is figuring out who people are and what makes them tick. Virginia stumped me for a while. She was an enigma, a woman so complex that I’m not certain even her biographer truly got a sense of her. She was a woman very much ahead of her time but she was still constrained by the limitations of her day. Virginia was sexually free but wasn’t able to integrate sex and love. She had immense insight into others but little into herself. She was able to wield power yet she never seemed to feel powerful. She didn’t let romantic partners guide her path yet she let Bill influence her greatly. And it was this relationship – the partnership of Masters and Johnson – that goes to the heart of who she was.

At first, I had a hard time understanding just why it was that, years into their professional partnership, Virginia married Bill. He was a cold, arrogant, domineering and manipulative guy and, after working with him for so long, she definitely knew that. She felt coerced into having sex with him as part of their study (she said it was part of her initial job description!) and was honest about not being in love with Bill yet she still chose to marry him. And it wasn’t as if she didn’t have opportunities to be with other men. So why be with someone who could never return her warm affection and the nurturing kind of love she deserved?

The answer to that question is two-fold and lies at the heart of the tragedy of the time in which she lived. The first part of this (and most important) is that other men could love Virginia the woman but only Bill could love Virginia the whole person. She left her hometown determined to have an interesting life and make a difference yet she was stymied at every turn. Marriage was confining (women weren’t supposed to like sex, especially with multiple partners), motherhood was limiting (mothers of means were supposed to stay at home and forego intellectual work), and the workplace refused to acknowledge her abilities (women were support staff only). Bill was the only one who saw Virginia’s potential, who insisted upon making her a (somewhat equal) partner in their work, who offered her a chance for growth.

The second part is that love made her vulnerable. Virginia stated that she never married a man she loved. Given that she was married three times, that says something about her attitude toward her own relationships. However, I think Virginia’s insight into herself was relatively poor and that she didn’t understand how much the time in which she lived influenced her. In the repressive 1940s and 1950s, for a white middle-class woman to love a man meant that she had to marry him. At the very least, it gave him control over her because it meant they as a couple would, most likely, choose his destiny over hers. Women have given up great things for love and the thought of that absolutely terrified Virginia because it would mean giving up such an important part of herself, one that she fought so hard to keep. As such, love was never something she could tolerate for long. That’s pretty tragic.

So, besides her work, what is Virginia Johnson’s legacy? Before the Masters of Sex series, I imagine that few people even knew her full name. Now that they do, I still don’t believe she is getting her proper credit. I like to read the comments on forums because it gives me a sense of where people are. What I see in a lot of places is that Virginia is still being judged: for being too free with her sexuality, for not being a good enough parent, for being too willing to give in to Bill even when he was being a jerk (which was often). But what is ironic about their judgment is that they’re viewing her with modern eyes, with perceptions of what is appropriate based on the cultural changes Virginia herself was instrumental in making. So, she keeps getting shortchanged and this needs to stop.

While posthumous accolades will not matter to Virginia Johnson (she died in 2013), it’s still important that we both acknowledge and celebrate the work that she did and the changes that she brought about. I’d love to see scholarships and awards given in her name, more books written about her, and Virginia’s name on the lists of influential people. Girls and young women in particular need to know that, even when it was tough, she used her gifts to increase knowledge and help us all become more well-rounded and satisfied. We can only hope that knowing about Virginia will inspire the next young scientist and pioneer to boldly conquer the next frontier.

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