“We’re born man, woman and sexual beings.” — Virginia Johnson
It’s remarkable how such a simple fact can seem controversial and even maddening to some. Thank goodness Virginia Johnson and William Masters, MD, pioneers in the field of sexual science, didn’t let controversy stand in their way.
Call it wishful thinking, but I’ve long felt a connection to Virginia Johnson. I certainly won’t compare my work to her legacy, but we do share major things in common: midwestern roots, independent, arguably rebellious spirits, a penchant for singing and microphones and winding paths that led us to careers in sexuality, pursued with curiosity and passion. I recently had the honor of adding another semi-commonality to my belt: chatting with Thomas Maier, the esteemed biographer who interviewed Virginia Johnson, as well as Dr. Masters and many of their loved ones and associates for his remarkable book, Masters of Sex: The Life and Times of William Masters and Virginia Johnson, the Couple Who Taught America How to Love. Also a producer on the hit Showtime series, “Masters of Sex,” Maier had wonderful insight to share.
In case you’re not familiar, Masters and Johnson were researchers who studied sexual response by observing people having sex in a lab. Through analyzing some 10,000 cycles of sexual response, they established four universal phases, proved that while men need a break after ejaculation, women can orgasm multiples time in-a-row, discovered that there is no age at which sexuality dwindles and proved that clitoral orgasms actually aren’t, contrary to Freudian belief, inferior to vaginal orgasms. Perhaps most notably, Masters and Johnson revealed female sexuality and our capacity for pleasure as powerful during a time in which gender inequality throughout American culture ran markedly fierce.
You can imagine how prominent THAT made my Girl Boner. *sigh*
To listen to my full with Thomas Maier interview, visit these links on iTunes or Stitcher Radio. In the meantime, here are some excerpts:
August: Of the many biographies you could have written, why did you choose this one?
Thomas: When I started this project, I was already working on another book about Dr. Spock, the baby doctor, on the consequences of sex—having babies and such. I work as a reporter here in New York for the newspaper, News Day, and I was asked to interview Dr. Masters almost 20 years ago…so I did, and I talked to him for about a half hour. It was on the days up to his retirement. When I got off the phone I wrote a story for the newspaper and I thought about it. It was one of those ideas that kept with me—the idea of a man and a woman, not married, studying love and sex, not necessarily in that order, and who then get married and become world-famous as the gurus of sex research who are emblematic of this whole sexual revolution during the 1960s and ‘70s. And then after 20 years of marriage, get divorced and they never talk about it, and nobody knows why. So to me that was a fantastic subject.
August: I think they’re two of the most fascinating people. What did you personally find most fascinating or surprising from the research process?
Thomas: Without doubt, the most fascinating thing to me was the relationship between Virginia Johnson and Dr. Masters. It began as a very unequal relationship, almost like the Pygmalion myth or if you remember “My Fair Lady,” the professor and the woman who literally is desperate for a job and comes in off the streets. It’s a very unequal relationship, between the powerful male and the subservient woman. Virginia Johnson was hired as the secretary for Dr. Masters, really didn’t have any background in medicine whatsoever, but she was desperate for a job.
Dr. Masters was looking for a female partner that would know female doctors at the time who were interested in doing this, and as a matter of fact there were very few female doctors at the time. And the reason why they weren’t was because this was going to be a very controversial study, examining how human sexuality takes place—not by surveys, but by actually watching it in a laboratory and documenting it the way you were a map, if you were a cartographer.
So all of this stuff, the combination of the two—the unequalness and then how they became equals and how Virginia Johnson, through the dint of her effort and through her native genius about human nature, and how things work between men and women, how she became more and more of an equal with Dr. Masters. For those people who are following my book as it’s portrayed on the Showtime series, in the second series, we’re just beginning to see where Virginia is a little bit more of an equal with Dr. Masters, although he’s clearly very much the boss.
August: I’ve noticed that as well, and I think it’s so interesting, especially at that time, for a woman. The dynamic between them is very interesting. How was it, interacting with the family and those who knew them? Do you feel that they’re portrayed accurately in the show?
Thomas: I think particularly the relationship between Masters and Johnson, which is the heart of my book, and is the heart of the show, I think it’s very accurately portrayed, by both Lizzy Caplan, who plays Virginia Johnson, and Michael Sheen, who plays Dr. Masters.
In the case of Lizzy Caplan, she looks a lot like Virginia Johnson, but she also has captured that independent-minded woman’s spirit that Virginia Johnson embodied, well ahead of her time, in the 1950, 1960s and ‘70s…but I think that spirit is very much a part of young women today. So I think I’m finding a lot of young women tell me, and young men as well, how much Virginia Johnson seems of their age, even though its 50, 60 years ago when we begin the story.
In the case of Dr. Masters, he doesn’t look physically look exactly like Michael Sheen, but I think Michael Sheen has brought a real verisimilitude—I believe is the word—a real accuracy to the essence of Dr. Masters as a sort of hardboiled doctor guy who is extremely talented, very ambitious, willing to risk everything, including his family life and his profession to seek and win a Nobel Prize. Bear in mind, for people who are watching the Showtime series, he’s constantly referring to “the study, the study,” as if it’s the Holy Grail. And for an ambitious scientist, the idea of winning a Nobel Prize, it’s one of those things that does make people very driven.
August: One thing I found so fascinating about him and his determination was that even though he is this very strong, sort of dominant male figure, he also has almost no issues, it seems, with presenting female sexuality as powerful and saying all of these really empowering facts about female sexuality when a lot of other people were not quite perhaps ready to hear or embrace it.
Thomas: As well it is. You know, it’s interesting, because here they are, they do this experiment, and what their data is showing is that women have a greater sexual capacity than men. In many ways, women are a virtual fireworks display compared to the single firecracker of a man, when it comes to sexual orgasm… So here they have this information that’s incredibly controversial, because bear in mind, Freud and Freud’s views were at the height. The male dominance of Frued’s views are inherent throughout his work and were very much reflected in American culture. So to have scientifically proven that women are not only the equals of men, but they actually have a greater capacity than men, was something that even they, Masters and Johnson, realized was something that they would almost have to candy coat.
If you go back and read their book, in 1966…the language indicates that there’s an equality in women and men in terms of sexual response, but then when you get into what they actually say, you realize that women actually are greater than men sexually and at least in terms of clinical observations, that they found in the lab. So this was incredibly controversial, and so they kind of tiptoed around it in the book. But there it is. Everybody who read it actually realized that their findings were that women had a greater capacity. This was something that really emboldened the feminist movement of the late 1960s and ‘70s. As more and more people read the book, they realized the consequences socially, politically and culturally of Masters and Johnson’s findings, and it really had a big impact on the sexual revolution of that time period.
August: What did you hope to accomplish with the story? How have people responded?
Thomas: I genuinely was trying as a biographer…to create a piece of biographical art—to try to write something that would last and would talk about these never-ending questions that all men and women think about, about their lives and human intimacy and being understood by a loved one. I think the show has been able to take my book and go even further of it, because of the nature of television.
I’m really happy that it really stirred a lot of deep questions about the relationship between men and women, and kind of underlined that misogyny or sexism is still one of the great, nagging [issues today]. It really is the last remaining civil rights of our time, I think—misogyny and men learning particularly to understand, appreciate and ultimately love women is at the heart of the story.
To learn more about Thomas Maier and “Masters of Sex,” visit his website and connect with him on Twitter (@ThomasMaierBook).
What did you think of the interview? What do you love most about Masters of Sex, the book or TV show? Are you as hooked as I am?
Marla Martenson says
I love the show!! Never miss it.
August McLaughlin says
Me too! Though I have to watch after it’s aired — no Showtime.
I hadn’t heard of either until now – but now, I want to learn more. I’ve been fascinated with Masters and Johnson since I first heard of them in my teen years…the adults in my world did – and do – treat sexuality as something shameful. My belief that it is beautiful, magical, holy, and integral to my personal joy – well, that was something best kept to myself when I was growing up.
I look forward to reading the book. No Showtime, so the series will have to wait, for now.
You do seem to bring me to the coolest places, August!
August McLaughlin says
I bet you’ll love both! And were way ahead of me in discovering M&J.
I don’t have Showtime either, so we watched the first season via Amazon, on-demand. You can also stream episodes online. Love technology!
Ooh! I didn’t know it was on Amazon. That’s great news! I’ll put it on my list. =)
I babysat for a family who had the book as a teen. I was….a curious girl… ;D
Danny and I have been watching the first season. I wondered how accurate the portrayal was of Masters. It’s not very flattering. I am expecting his character arc to include becoming more likeable.
Danny and I both took Marriage and Family at the UW-Madison in the 70s. Masters and Johnson was required reading!!!!
Great interview! I would love to read Maier’s biography.
KM Huber says
Of course, I am aware of the original Masters and Johnson work; I was a teenager when the original books were published. Masters and Johnson were household names, I assure you, as no matter how their work was viewed, everyone, it seemed, had an opinion. I have added this book to my reading list so thanks for bringing it to my attention nor was I aware of the series. Glad to know it’s available online.
I always enjoy your interviews, August, but this one really captured the essence of Masters and Johnson’s works as your questions combined biography with the impact of the work. Brava, August!
August McLaughlin says
What a remarkable experience that must have been, Karen! I hope you enjoy the book as much as I did. I’d love to hear your take, particularly as someone who experienced the media frenzy firsthand. Thanks for the support!