My Take On Masters of Sex - The Book Not The TV Series

Hello there. Masters of Sex - the new Showtime series about the 2 pioneering scientists (Virginia Johnson and William Masters) of the 60's who showed the world what actually happens to the body during arousal and orgasm is starting this Sunday. Their research on the physicality of orgasm and arousal is still the most comprehensive study of its kind and has stood the test of time. I have a lot of respect for it, ya know, so I'm highly interested to see how ol' Showtime treats it. I will be watching it and keeping you up to date on my thoughts.

However, right now I want to talk about the book, Masters of Sex by Thomas Maier, that this series is based on. It's a 2010 biography on these two scientist. It speaks on each of them individually from birth until they meet each other and follows them through their work together into modern day. Charlie and I listened to it on our last road trip out to Denver, and I have to say it struck me in ways I didn't see coming.


I really didn't know the full story of Master and Johnson's relationship, I guess. I always thought Johnson was like a nurse or something that went into the research side by side with Masters. I knew they married eventually but nothing more.

So, in short, and in my particular interpretation of the story in this book, here is my interpretation of their relationship. He was a stodgy married-with-2-kids accomplished OB Gyn that wanted to make a big impact on the world and decided to study sex - kinda like Kinsey did but in a more physical, observation based way. He watched a lot of prostitutes and stuff (legitimately, for realz, just to observe) but realized he needed a woman to help him with this research when one of the prostitutes totally and completely blew his mind when she told him that women fake orgasms a lot. Apparently, he just couldn't even comprehend this - he just couldn't.

She was 10 years his junior, a twice divorced mother of two just beginning to get a degree in psychology and working as a nurse *(sorry wasn't thinking when I was writing...she was a secretary actually) in the OB Gyn practice when he picked her to come work for him. She was great with people, creative, and a super hard worker who wasn't squeamish about sex, so he brought her pretty deep into the research which involved hooking people up to machines and observing them having sex or masturbating. He was a crazy style workaholic, and she kept right up with him. He, fairly soon into the working relationship, suggested they have sex together for science sake so they really understood their research better. She agreed, and so sex became a normal part of their crazy work schedules. She later said she didn't really want him, and it was suggested by her friend that Virginia felt saying no would have been the end of her job. It was a sweet gig that was pretty interesting and fed her 2 kids.

She dated other people, some she probably really liked. He stayed married. He was kind of a controlling asshole though and always seemed to convince her she didn't have time to do just about anything but devote herself to the research; which means she never finished that degree she wanted to get.

They eventually married after almost a decade of this. He left his wife just about the time she was close to settling down with a dude she seemed to like. It's like it was just another way to manipulate her into staying focused on their research - on keeping the now well known "Masters&Johnson" brand alive. It doesn't seem like they loved each other in any real romantic way, and after this many years, I think she was really beginning to resent him for stealing away her life. Don't get me wrong. She was proud of the research, but she was also a woman in a man's world and a person with no college education in the scholarly world. Both situations leave a person heavily put upon and unfortunately disrespected by colleagues - particularly in the 50's and 60's. He, to his credit, always gave her the credit she deserved in their publications and when he spoke of her. He often pointed out that she got an honorary doctorate. He never let people speak of her as lesser, but he also always seemed to manipulate her out of going her own direction and getting the accreditation that would make her happy or gain her the respect of the scientific community.

It's kinda weird because the orgasm and arousal work they did and the basic method of treating sexual problems that they (well mostly her) came up with are ground breaking and really important. I think mostly because it is based in good observational research. But after their first two books were published (Human Sexual Response and Human Sexual Inadequacy, both meant for professional and scholarly audiences) it seems like they sort of stopped moving forward and sort of rode those original innovations into the ground. They start going into less clear cut observational science and start writing about love and relationships and bullshit like that. Masters seems to be obsessed with keeping the Masters&Johnson name in the culture. He wants greatness, but he just starts becoming more irrelevant. She begins to resent his assholeness and manipulations more and more. She regrets not getting the degrees that would make her feel accepted in the scholarly circles that she now exists in, and she blames him. The clinic they created for sexual problems is just plain mismanaged. They become kind of a mess in the end. He eventually leaves her  for a woman that was his first love. That seems to piss the shit out of her probably because she's kinda hated him and wanted to leave him for years, but he rejects her instead, and in a really sudden way. Like I said, he's an asshole.

The other thing that struck me was that it kinda made sense to me why Masters and Johnson were so set on the idea that women should ideally work towards being able to have hands free orgasms during intercourse even though their research clearly showed that women needed clitoral stimulation in order to orgasms...and intercourse is a shit way to get that kind of stimulation. None the less, they selectively picked (cause most women couldn't) women who could orgasm just during intercourse alone. It was still clitorally induced, but all backasswards like. It was a result of the phallus pulling on the aroused labia during the thrusting, which pulled on the clitoral hood, which slightly rubbed against the clit. Unsurprisingly, it was the weakest orgasm these women had, but yet for some reason, M&J always gave this ability a high status and a high priority in their couple's sexual therapy. I always wondered why. It seems so counter-intuitive to their research results. But I feel like I get it now.

The way I see it, Masters is kinda a controlling, misogynistic, dick. He was always in final control of the research and their life. He set the tone. She was integral to their research, but she probably never had a final say - only an ability to get to him and push him in the directions she wanted...probably in a way that made him think it was his idea. Anyway, I don't think he ever truly understood the female experience. Virginia did; she was a woman, but she probably never truly conveyed her experience to him. Okay, this may be a crazy assumption of a statement, but I bet she faked orgasms with Masters. It makes so much sense to me. She was pragmatic about sex. The book clearly painted her as sexual, but she was also sensible and used sex to her advantage with men that she wasn't really attracted to. It was the 50's and women didn't have a lot of leverage. Sex was not always sexual to her. Sometimes it was just a thing one had to do. She herself said she never really wanted Masters, yet she had sex with him for years. She wasn't attracted to him. He was her boss, 10 years her senior. She felt like the sex was important in keeping her job. He was an arrogant, know-it-all boss who supposedly had learned a lot about female orgasm, so why would she not fake with him, at least in the beginning? It just makes sense to. Women fake all the time, why not her? And then, we have to ask ourselves, when exactly could she stop faking? It seems like he always had a sort of control over her. Even with all her important contributions to their work, she seemed to ultimately show deference to him in her life. I'm just saying that this is a fairly sensible possibility.

Also, their research didn't shy away from masturbation. They watched lots of women masturbate, yet it never delved into the idea of a woman masturbating her clit during intercourse to get off. If Masters and Johnson really used their sexual escapades to realistically and authentically investigate orgasms and arousal for women when with men, then that shit would have come up. I mean, they knew from their research that even if Virginia orgasmsed from that weird Rube-Goldberg clit hood against clit thing, it would be a pretty weak one, right? That is exactly what their research told them. Yet, both of them just kept on talking like women should be able to orgasm that way, and that we ladies should be satisfied with that silly little elusive and weak Rube-Goldberg orgasm. I suggest Masters was delusional (maybe Virginia was lying to herself a little too. I know for a fact sensible women can trick ourselves into believing that we orgasm when we really don't). I bet he thought he was exploring sexuality authentically with Virginia when he actually wasn't. I'd also bet that thinking he and Virginia could make this intercourse orgasm thing happen bolstered his off-base belief that all women should and that it was, like totally awesome. Anyway, that's my sense from the picture painted in the book, and that's how I would play these scenes in the series, but I have a feeling that's not the way it will go. We'll see.

I guess the book made me feel a little sad for Virginia. It seems like a classic story of a woman of the past busting her ass to not fall into the expectations that were set out for women of her time, paving the way for future women, but in the end being bitten in the ass by the sacrifices she had to make to get there...then finding very little sympathy. Well, I got some sympathy for ya Virginia and also respect for the contributions you made to the physical understanding of sex. Ya know, I got me some respect for ol' William Masters too. He was a huge, manipulative, misogynistic, dickweed, but he was also a man of his time. Plus he did some brave, important research, and he followed the data. He was off base with his emphasis, but not in his conclusions. I respect that. Ya'll became a hot mess in the end, but I won't judge you for it. Here's to hoping the depictions of you in that tv show are thoughtful and realistic. 


  1. Thanks for listening to the reading of Masters of Sex. It's always interesting to me as the author to see how the book has been interpreted on the tv show. I think the show very much captures the essence of the book and the heart of Masters and Johnson's relationship. Thanks for writing. Thomas Maier

    1. Hi! It was a fantastic book - so thank you for writing it!

    2. Hi! It was a fantastic book - so thank you for writing it!