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  • Writer's pictureDale DeBakcsy

Virginia Johnson and the Development of Effective Sex Therapy.

In 1955, if you were a man who suffered from premature ejaculation, or a woman who had never known an orgasm, your choices were few and far between for constructing something like a sustainable and satisfying sex life for yourself and your partner. Physicians of the era were willfully and shockingly unknowledgeable about the physiology and psychology of sex, while even those professional figures who did profess a deep interest and expertise with sex, the Freudian psychoanalysts, could only offer a course of analysis that would take years to complete, cost tens of thousands of dollars, and in the end only result in single-digit percentage success rates.

In spite of Alfred Kinsey’s groundbreaking surveys of American sexual habits during the late 1940s and early 1950s, the United States was still stuck in the sexual Dark Ages, possessing more knowledge about what people got up to, but profoundly ignorant about how any of it worked. Finally, however, one obstetrician based out of St. Louis, Missouri decided, against all advice, to turn his gift for observation and research to the problem of detailing, physically, how sex worked. His name was William Masters and his early experiments of 1955 were daring but did not reach anything like their full potential until 1957 when he was joined by the woman who would be his research and life partner for the next thirty-five years, Virginia Johnson.

Together, Masters and Johnson (for so their names were always ordered in the press) revolutionized how first America and then the world looked at sex, and the potential for meaningful sex therapy. Through direct observation and measurement of some 14,000 orgasms, they gathered the knowledge of how bodies work during sex that overturned both millennia-old sexual myths and many of the modern theories of the Freudian school, launching thereby a sexual revolution that has informed spousal expectations and advertising practices ever since.

Johnson was born Mary Virginia Eshelman on February 11, 1925, in Springfield Missouri and, except for a brief period when her father tried to make a go of a career as a groundskeeper in Palo Alto, California, Missouri was to be home to her for the rest of her life. Her adolescence was spent in Golden City, Missouri, a sleepy town of some 867 souls then (and 656 today!) where nothing much ever happened and nobody ever went much of anywhere. Virginia’s mother expected more for her life than to just settle down with a local farm boy and spend the rest of her days within a ten mile radius of Golden City, and pushed her to attend Drury College in Springfield, and to sing for political functions in the state capital of Jefferson City to make herself better known among what passed for the Missouri elite.

The life of a singer soon won out over that of a student, however, and Virginia dropped out of college to focus on her vocal career, as well as on a series of short-term sexual relationships with soldiers she performed for at USO shows who were due to be sent overseas. Uniquely for her time and upbringing, Virginia didn’t feel a particular pull to “save herself” for marriage or to deny herself attractive sexual opportunities that might be forthcoming, and enjoyed a variety of casual sexual partners until her 1947 marriage to Ivan Rinehart, a lawyer some 21 years her senior. That marriage was soon over, however, foundering on the rocks of Rinehart’s unwillingness to start a family, and in 1950 Virginia married George Johnson, an engineer who also happened to lead a band that toured semi-extensively. Unlike her first marriage, which Virginia entered into at least partially as a means to the end of getting out from the controlling reach of her mother, with George she at least shared the central interest of music, and in the beginning, all was well. She performed with the band, travelled, and was well-received by audiences, but with the birth of the couple’s two children, some fundamental changes needed to take place in their lifestyle, changes which George was not willing to entertain at that point in his career, and so, in 1956, Virginia obtained a divorce, maintaining custody of the children.

Thirty-one years old, twice-divorced (or thrice, if you count a rumored two-day marriage to a Missouri politician, the certificate for which has yet to surface), with two children to support, Virginia decided that the only way to make a reasonable living for herself and her kids was to obtain the college degree she had been deflected from a decade earlier, a resolution that brought her fatefully to the steps of Washington University, where she signed up for classes, and for a job as an assistant at the Obstetrics and Gynecology Department, where she was hired after a brief interview by the department’s star surgeon, William Masters.

The early days of Masters’s sex research were filled with all the innovation, poor judgment, and risk that come with entering a field of study that none before you have tread. Reasoning that prostitutes were a good source of information about sex as it is actually practiced, Masters cut a deal with the local police to ignore the activities of certain volunteer prostitutes who agreed to allow Masters to watch them through a peephole as they serviced their clientele. The experience opened Masters’s eyes to the variety of sexual behavior that existed in the world, but any tear in the veil of secrecy he wove about his investigations threatened to end his research and his career. Added to the danger of his activity during these early studies was the fact that he simply didn’t understand a good deal of what he was observing - when one prostitute asked him if, for his studies, it would be useful for her to fake an orgasm like she often did with her clients, he simply couldn’t wrap his brain around the idea, and she delicately suggested that, perhaps, if he really wanted to compile an accurate account of how sex worked, he should bring on a woman as a partner.

Here the tale gets somewhat twisted. In some versions, Masters (who was married with two children) reached out to Johnson about becoming his assistant, starting with having her take down case histories, and gradually revealing to her the full extent of his studies (which had moved from prostitutes as the main subjects and onto student and local volunteers), which over time morphed into the (somewhat mutual) decision to practice the sexual behaviors they had witnessed on each other. In others, Masters made it clear from the first that, were Johnson to take the position as his assistant, she would be expected to make herself sexually available to him as part of the research. Both versions are, of course, problematic, even considering the era, but I am hard pressed to decide which reflects worse upon Masters - either drawing Johnson into a project, allowing her to identify with it and receive much of her sense of self through it, and then loading on sexual demands when she was too committed and dependent on him to refuse, or the equally creepy forthright declaration of future sex as a prerequisite for receiving a much needed job.

However the partnership started, the presence of Johnson was the essential ingredient that pushed the project forward. Her insights as a sexually experienced woman, and her ability to recruit new volunteers, make them feel comfortable and even somewhat heroic in a potentially embarrassing situation, were invaluable in moving the project from Masters’s determined but essentially blind fumbling through the world of women’s sexual physiology, and into the diverse and robust study it became. Though eventually all but kicked out of Washington University when their colleagues saw the extent of the work they were doing (including, horror of horrors, the use of dildos with cameras attached at the end to film actual footage of what happens inside a woman’s body when orgasm occurs), they continued their efforts at a nearby location, and in 1966 compiled their results in the runaway best-seller Human Sexual Response.

The book was a thunderbolt aimed directly at everything Americans thought they knew about sex. As opposed to the reigning image of a confident, manly male thrusting his way triumphantly in the missionary position, providing maximum satisfaction through Freud-approved vaginal intercourse, what Masters and Johnson found was that male sexuality was a somewhat fragile and meager thing, with erections easily lost, premature ejaculation common, inability to have an orgasm not unknown (particularly in those raised in religious households) and with men subject to refraction periods of up to an hour after orgasm before being able to engage anew in sexual activity. Women, by contrast, were capable of multiple orgasms, with clitoral orgasms being in no way inferior physiologically from vaginal ones, suffered from no refractory periods, and, by the numbers, seemed to have better orgasmic responses from self-stimulation with a machine than with a male partner. Further, Masters and Johnson informed an America still reeling from the dethroning of men as the stallion-like powerhouses in sexual relations, sex was still possible and pleasurable for individuals in their sixties and seventies, with those who had it more often being less prone to having troubles with it in later life.

Lambasted by conservatives for changing sex from a spiritual union between a man and a woman into a physiological process between a woman and her chosen electrical device, and by Freudians for ignoring the deep mental aspects of sex, and the superiority of vaginal orgasm, the book was nonetheless eagerly embraced by a generation that had always suspected that the New Victorianism of 1950s America had sacrificed the full measure of life’s pleasures in a head-long push for normalcy and material prosperity, and increasingly by a medical establishment that had historically rejected the need to know the details of sexual physical processes so long as the end results were more or less clearly established.

For Masters and Johnson, the physiological data obtained over a decade was the starting point of the development of new sexual therapies, and if Masters was the lead partner during the data gathering phase, Johnson took to the helm during the development of their famous “dual therapy” approach to sexual counseling. In an age when psychoanalysis couldn’t claim much more than 10% efficacy in helping men with erectile problems or premature ejaculation, or women whose vaginas contracted to the point that vaginal sex was not an option for them, and when regular doctors didn’t have much advice beyond, “Try getting drunk,” the techniques developed by Virginia Johnson boasted an 80% success rate. Her approach was to get an individual’s sexual partner involved with the counseling process from the start, with first the husband talking to Masters and the wife talking to her before they switched and went through the process all over again, each mining for the frustrations, expectations, worries, hopes, and practices as expressed by the wife and the husband in their own words in a judgment-free space. Following the information gathering phase, Masters and Johnson would then assign the couple “homework” which involved mutual exploration of each other’s bodies without sexual expectations, to familiarize each other with the terrain, how things worked, and in general to lower the anxiety-inducing mystifications that Americans brought up in the 1940s and 1950s had internalized as part of their upbringing.

They published the results of their sex therapeutic research in technical form in Human Sexual Inadequacy (1970) and in a more popularly accessible form in The Pleasure Bond (1976). Once the pariahs of American sexual research, by the mid 1970s Masters and Johnson were hailed as the two individuals who, more than anyone else, had given American couples a road to mutual sexual fulfillment, guided by scientifically rigorous understanding of each other’s physical beings, and respectful, practical advice about confronting problems of sexual performance as a mutually supportive couple, dedicated to working exploratively through their problems together. Professionally respected, internationally renowned, in 1971 the pair took the final step to combining their life interests together when they married after Masters informed his wife of his decision to seek a divorce from her.

On the surface, all looked well, but for Johnson, these were years of steadily growing crisis. Masters had only asked for her hand in marriage after it seemed like she was going to marry another man, and thereby potentially distract her from her work with (and sexual engagement with) him. Though well suited as work partners, they were hardly suitable as life partners, with Masters’s idea of a good time being to sit in his underwear and watch football, while she wanted nothing so much as to go to parties thrown by their famous friends and socialize with celebrities and big name politicians. Further, Masters was obsessed by the idea of completing a third great study of sexuality, centered around homosexuality and possible “cures” for it, which resulted in the publication of Homosexuality in Perspective (1979), which Johnson did not support, and which featured claims of successful homosexuality conversion therapy that strayed far from the rigorous, data-driven studies that had put Masters and Johnson on the map in the 1960s, and which opened the doors to decades of far-right religious conversion therapy programs in America’s heartland that have ruined untold lives.

Over the 1980s, then, Masters and Johnson, who were once America’s go-to couple for advice on sexual life, grew gradually out of touch with the leading lights in sexual theory, as their marriage grew colder, their finances dwindled through poor business planning, and their new publications, including Crisis: Heterosexual Behavior in the Age of AIDS (1988) and Masters and Johnson on Sex and Human Loving (1988) failed to capture imaginations or engage the scientific community as their classic work had. In 1992, Masters announced his intention to divorce Johnson so that he could marry a sweetheart of his early youth whom he had recently discovered was now single, and by 1993 Johnson found herself a single woman, again. The remaining two decades of her life saw Johnson increasingly frustrated by her inability to find somebody to share her late life and provide the same happiness that Masters had found with his lost love, upset with the opportunities that she had turned down because of her need to cater to Masters’s needs and demands (including a college degree), and unable to find a pursuit that would resurrect her name from the damage it had received over the 1980s and 1990s. She died on July 24, 2013, two months before a new Showtime series, Masters of Sex, based on her and Masters’s complicated life and work, made a whole new generation aware of how much she had done in introducing ordinary Americans to the workings of their own bodies, and laying out means by which sexual problems even decades in the making could be gradually overcome, creating a happier world for those concerned, with orgasms for all, and malice towards none.

FURTHER READING: Thomas Maier’s 2009 Masters of Sex (upon which the the Showtime series is based) is a great book which does the work of tracking down all of the people who observed Masters and Johnson over the years and attempting to nail down the plethora of conflicting accounts of how their work evolved, what their relationship was like, and who was responsible for what in their creative output and therapeutic techniques. I’d also recommend Paul Robinson’s The Modernization of Sex: Havelock Ellis, Alfred Kinsey, and William Masters and Virginia Johnson (1989) not only for how it puts M & J in the context of early sex experts, but for Robinson’s delicious roasting of their unfortunate prose style. Used copies of Human Sexual Response, Human Sexual Inadequacy, and Masters and Johnson on Sex and Human Loving are easy to come by with the earlier works being more historically important, but the later works being more pleasant to read, so take your pick.

And if you want to read about more great women in the history of psychology and neuroscience, keep your eyes peeled for my History of Women in Psychology and Neuroscience, which is coming in the Spring of 2024 from Pen and Sword books!


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