1966: Masters And Johnson Ask, 'Are You Doing It Wrong?'

Culture | April 1, 2019

Dr. William H. Masters (right) and Mrs. Virginia E. Johnson, co-authors of 'Human Sexual Response,' in their office, circa 1970. Source: Getty Images / Bettmann

You may have heard of the sex researchers Masters and Johnson, known from a 2013 Showtime series as the Masters of Sex. Amazingly, the findings they published in 1966 still feel scandalous, even now. Even though their research helped initiate more candid dialogue about sex, their most important discovery was that women could attain multiple climaxes, something that researchers and scientists had never thought about before.

How did Masters and Johnson, authors of the 1966 bombshell study Human Sexual Response, get down to the science of getting down? Who were they experimenting on? And what else did these two scientists discover? We’ve got the answers to all those questions and more right here. 

Masters Met Johnson When He Hired Her As A Research Assistant 

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Masters and Johnson were a research team made up of William H. Masters and Virginia E. Johnson. Born in 1915, Masters worked as a gynecologist who studied human sexual response and possible sexual dysfunctions. Johsnson started working for Masters in 1957 as a research assistant at the Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology at Washington University in St. Louis.

Initially Masters trained Johnson in basic medical knowledge as well as therapeutic measures and the specifics of sexual research. Shortly into their research they began hooking up while working together, and they married in 1971. Although they divorced in 1993 they worked together until Masters passed away in 2001. 

They Were Interested In The Ins And Outs Of Human Sexual Behavior, But Discovered Something Exciting

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Initially Masters and Johnson were researching human sexual behavior and the stages of sexual response. Due to the stigma of sexual research at the time their work was highly clandestine, but be that as it may they discovered that a few things that completely changed the way we think about sex. Not only did they create the four stage model of the sexual response (initial arousal, full arousal, orgasm, resolution) but they realized that the physiological response of the female climax are the same, in spite of the different states of stimulation.

This discovery was huge in the world of sexology, as it was believed at the time that vaginal orgasms were superior to those that come from the clitoris. While researching the human orgasm, Johnson and Masters discovered something fascinating, that women could achieve multiple climaxes with zero refractory period. While men had to recover, rest, and drink some water, women could go multiple times with no physiological need for hard reset.  

They Watched Hundreds Of People Get Down

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Regardless of whether you’re researching reproduction or how our brains respond to eating chocolate there’s one thing you’ve got to do: the research. In order to understand exactly how our bodies respond to an intimate touch, Johnson and Masters spent 1957 to 1965 observing 382 women and 312 men in at least "10,000 complete cycles of sexual response.” That’s definitely not your average day at work.

This observation period revealed a series of insights to Masters and Johnson. Not only did they discover how the female body prepares for intimacy, they also realized that women are able to achieve multiple climaxes in one session. 

Bringing Sex Back Into The Bedroom

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At the time of Masters and Johnson’s research most men and women were discussing their sexuality with someone from the church or even a therapist, which could lead to some uncomfortable conversations. With their research, Masters and Johnson were able to make human sexual response something that was okay to deal with at home, and it showed regular people that whatever dysfunction they were going through was normal and not some kind of curse that had been handed down from on high.

Most importantly, Masters and Johnson inspired more scientific minded folks to delve into this previously neglected area of study, which meant that there were more medical professionals available to talk about sex frankly and informatively. 

Masters And Johnson Definitely Had Their Critics

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After publishing their book Human Sexual Response in 1966, the duo’s critics fell into two camps: Those who think they did too much, and those who don’t think they did enough. Some members of the science community feel that observation in a laboratory rather than in a bedroom didn’t allow for intimacy in the partners, while other critics feel that Masters and Johnson weren’t forward-thinking enough.

It’s important to remembers that Masters and Johnson were performing this research in a postwar era where most of America -- including the scientific community -- didn’t want to talk about sex. By studying human sexual response amid such repression, Masters and Johnson jumpstarted the scientific sexual revolution. 

This Research Still Defines How We Think About Sex

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Masters and Johnson also introduced a myriad of concepts that we still use to define sex in the 21st century. Not only did Masters realize that it’s possible that women sometimes fake climax (gasp!), but their research helped create various devices we classify today as "toys." 

They didn’t just research sexuality in grad students, they also spent years looking into the sexual response in older men and women -- specifically why it takes older men longer to get in the mood. What would couples do without them?

Tags: 1960s News | Masters And Johnson | Sex

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Justin Levine