Virginia Johnson: The Heart of Masters of Sex

I finally caught up with watching the second season of the wonderful Showtime series, Masters of Sex. I waited a while to finish it because I wanted to read the book upon which the series is based to see what is true and what is fictional (I’m weird that way). The story of sex researchers Bill Masters and Virginia Johnson affected me much more than I thought it would, mainly because I see them both as tragic figures, particularly Virginia. She was such an amazing woman, one who was ahead of her time, and she truly suffered for it.

I’ve written about Masters of Sex twice during their first season and each time I stayed away from really discussing Virginia, both because I didn’t know what to make of her and because I thought that she was important enough to rate her own post. I wasn’t aware then of how central she really was but now, after reading the biography, I realize that the study never could have gotten off the ground without Virginia. Bill had the credentials and the power to get the study started but I doubt he would have gotten many participants without her.

As emotionally stunted as Bill was, he became lost when dealing with anything besides cold, hard facts. He was told TBDMIDO EC074early on that, if he wanted to do more than secretly observe people having sex, he needed a female partner, one who could smooth over his rough edges. His partner needed to be someone who could convince people to try something new, calm their fears and deal with the challenging emotions that often surround sexuality. A lot of women could have done that part but Bill quickly realized that his research called for something a bit more. In order for his work to be a success, he must have a female partner who not only understood people but who also was not hesitant about sex and could suffer the slings and arrows that such work would encounter. That was a tall order for one woman, especially in the sexually and professionally repressed time and place in which they lived. Bill needed Virginia and, to his great credit, he fully recognized that.

Virginia was the one who got people to participate because she had an intuitive gift of knowing people. She knew how to ask questions, she understood their emotions and she made the connection between what they needed and what could help them. Virginia was the one who recognized that the knowledge they amassed could be expanded to help those with sexual dysfunctions and she was largely responsible for creating a model of sex therapy that had an unheard of 80% success rate. And she did all of this without the benefit of even a college degree. People from all over the country – even celebrities and politicians – flocked to St. Louis in order to be seen at their famous clinic. If not for Virginia, the Masters and Johnson study might be collecting dust upon the shelf instead of being the foundation of today’s sex therapy. Thus, she was the driving force and the success of their work belongs firmly in her corner.

The Showtime series appears to recognize that. It has done an excellent job of giving a historical context for their work, especially in portraying just how difficult the lack of power was for women (black and white, gay and straight) in the 1950s and 1960s. They’ve shown how women’s powerlessness affected them in the workplace, at home, in their romantic and friend relationships and, of course, with their sexuality. We see the constriction of women in all aspects of their lives. This is incredible stuff and, at the heart of it, we have Virginia Johnson. She broke out of the mold and forged ahead but the cost she paid for it was high. The medical professionals were rude and demeaned her. The women who worked with her were often intimidated, jealous or disdainful of her lifestyle. Bill also suffered professional slights but Virginia got the worst of it. Few women could have endured such offences and still accomplished what she did. The debt we owe her is immense.

Our society is pretty sexually open today, so it may be difficult to understand that was not always the case. When Masters and Johnson started their work, female sexuality in particular was a taboo subject. Even gynecologists (almost all male) didn’t realize the various ways in which women can feel pleasure. Masters and Johnson changed all that. We know so much more about female desire, arousal and the changes in the female body during sex because of the work they did. If you appreciate that knowledge, you have them to thank. Bill led the way in researching the physiology of sex but Virginia was the one who integrated the physical with the emotional for the totality of the sexual experience. So who was this woman, this amazing pioneer into sexuality?

Stay tuned because, in part 2, I try to answer that question.

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