Saturday, June 27, 2009

Masters and Johnson by Thomas Maier

Their closest aide, Dr. Robert C Kolodny, who worked for two decades with them and coauthored several books and medical articles, considered writing a biography of them and asked extensively about the origins of their partnership. Only after hours of conversation with Bill, who he considered his mentor and friend- and after comparing it with Gini's version- did Kolodny gain an understanding of what transpired.

"Bill made it very plain to her, fairly soon after she took the job, that being sexual partners was a requirement," Kolodny said. "Bill saw it as a consensual involvement. He indicated that he had been the instigator and Gini agreed with that. But Gini percieved it, as she put it, as a matter-of-fact, expected part of the job. And my suspicion is that had she not gone along with this, she might have not been employed too much later. I bet she knew that and sensed that." Bill envisioned a "blueprint", as Kolodny called it, in which his female associate would engage in sex with him, as a way of further comprehending all that they were learning through observation. He exacted this demand early in their working relationship, when Gini was still essentially a nondescript figure hired off the street. For all her [subsequent] insights, she was still [then] no more than a friendly paper-pusher with some typing skills, with whom he treated lightly until he was sure she would go along with his plans. If Gini "opted out of that", Kolodny realized she "would have been replaced".

In the late 1950's, "that early in their work together, she had made no significant contributions," Kolodny explained. The sense of Gini's invaluableness to their work arrived only after this private pact was reached. Bill believed, naively and erroneously, that his concupiscence could be contained to the lab. Despite their working dinners, Bill offered no pretense at romance. He seemed oblivious to his own wedding vows to Libby, and to Gini's courtship with Judge Noah Weinstein. No one would ever find out, he urged, if they kept this secret between themselves. "I don't think either one of them felt it was a romance," Kolodny said of their beginning. "It was pretty much pure sex".

Decades later, Gini paused for a moment when told of Kolodny's recollection, as if she'd heard an unpleasant truth. Because this version varied so much from the official version Masters and Johnson portrayed to the world, because it revealed so much more than she'd ever said before to friendly questioners, or to the version she had told her children and parents, or tried to convince herself, Gini seemed taken aback. Kolodny was Bill's friend, someone with whom she didn't always agree and often argued. The emotion in her voice revealed a longtime hurt. "Bill did it all- I didn't want him", she insisted about his subtle depredation, her normally modulated voice tinged with anger about the origin of their sexual relations. "I had a job and I wanted it."
"It might have been sexual harassment, but I hadn't really thought about it that way back then," she conceded. "He was a senior medical person."

In the late 1950's, newly hired secretaries didn't accuse the hospital's top-ranking physicians of sexual indiscretions. Many didn't say no to whispers over dinner. And if these women didn't agree to stir it up after highballs, their day jobs often abruptly ended, either by quitting or getting a pink slip at week's end. Gini had enrolled at Washington University to build up her life after two wrecked marriages and with two kids in tow. She wanted and needed to find a new life for herself through education. She said she couldn't afford to throw it away. Forced into compliance by personal circumstances and the tenor of her times, Gini didn't act offended or recalcitrant in having sex with Bill. She accepted overtures without complaint. "No- I was not comfortable with it, particularly," she insisted. "I didn't want him at all, and had no interest in him. I don't know how to explain it...I was in an emergency situation and the perks kept coming along."


  1. Uncontested was the texbook's commercial success, which publisher Little, Brown originally shipped to doctors in a plain brown paper rapper. It soared onto best-seller lists, with 300,000 copies sold within a few months, "we feel for the first time we are working with the support of public opinion, not against it," Johnson told Newsweek, which later called their effort "the most daring and explicit experiments ever conducted in the scientific studies of sex." "Human Sexual Response" (1966) transformed the public discourse about sex in America, opening a new era of candidness never seen before in America.

    Although ridiculed for their turgid prose, Masters and Johnson relied on medical terms and clinical descriptions that didn't offend readers. They stayed away from vulgar phrases that would have invited censorship. Wary of being too provocative, in their book they mentioned fellatio only once and avoided anal sex entirely. And the media could repeat their language without appearing lascivious themselves. "you must remember that in publishing this book we were concerned primarily with acceptance- that is the reason that it wasn't in English to start with," Bill joked.

    Masters and Johnson's mechanical approach, rooted in the American reverance for science, made their book palatable to a tongue-tied nation. Specific sexual information suddenly became part of the standard fare for newspapers, magazines and television talk shows, which recognized the audience appeal for this sex talk involving Masters and Johnson. "When receptivity to sex-related material started increasing, people wern't as threatened by it," Johnson later noted. "They began to listen, instead of reacting emotionally. This evolution was paralled by the media's awakening to the idea that this was a very saleable product." Some women's magazines remained wary of the topic in the mid-1960's, so the profiled Masters and Johnson themselves, until the sexual revolution gained greater public consent. "Then the floodgates opened", Johnson recalled, "All of a sudden the whole magazine- every single magazine- was being sold on the basis of sex. A little food, a little fashion, a little parenting, and all the rest sex, so the media actually created the concept of a revolution."

  2. Masters and Johnson had a clinic at the Dept. of Obstetrics and Gynocology at Washington U. and later moved their research and therapy Institution to private facilities. They "wired-up" the subjects of their observations, conducted interviews and therapy sessions with their patients. Except in a few cases requiring the utmost discretion ( as in the case of Sen. Jacob Javits and George Wallace and their wives) all these sessions were recorded. These records ended up in the possession of Virginia Johnson who, though offered assistance in selling to them to the University, had them all destroyed.

  3. Masters of Sex; The Life and Times of William Masters and Virginia Johnson, The Couple Who Taught America How To Love" by Thomas Maier; Basic Books, 2009.

    Actually, though without any formal degree, Virginia Johnson turned out to be "the brains" behind this couple's research, publishing and and especially the therapeutic ventures. Eventually the two got married but then, well into their 70's, divorced, which killed the business side of their operation. Virginia was not well served by the settlement but neither ended up with a large fortune. There are very tragic elements to this story. For one, Bill's father beat him mercilessy when he was a boy and tyrannized his mother. Neither Bill or Virginia managed their personal lives very well, reflecting a dishonesty which hurt some of their professional work and for which national celebrity finally did not offer much consolation. The use of "Love" in title is a bit "tongue in cheek".