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The Scientists of Sex
  • September 18, 2013 : 07:09
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More than 50 years ago, a gynecologist, Dr. William Masters, and his associate, Virginia Johnson, began a research project that would focus, they said, on “reproductive ­biology.” That innocuous-sounding description led, over the next two decades, to a study involving 1,076 volunteers, whom Masters and Johnson observed masturbating, fondling one another, performing oral and anal sex and having, in a multitude of creative positions, plain old intercourse. The two analyzed thousands of orgasms (they stopped counting after more than 14,000), treated 3,500 couples for sexual problems and wrote seven books about their work.

The first Masters and Johnson book, Human Sexual Response, was released in plain brown paper wrappers in 1966. Intended for physicians and written in dense scientific jargon, it became a surprising best-seller, catapulting its authors into the limelight. They appeared on the covers of magazines and on TV. The book was translated into more than a dozen languages. It and subsequent Masters and Johnson books broke ground with candid discussions of the function of the clitoris, the question of whether size matters, the mechanics of vaginal lubrication, proof of multiple orgasm in women, the advisability of sex during pregnancy and among the aged, the joys of homosexual sex (and what heterosexuals could learn from it) and more.

Masters and Johnson’s work was one of the engines of the sexual revolution (Playboy, of course, was another), which is why we conducted two landmark interviews with them—one in May 1968 by Senior Editor Nat Lehrman and one in November 1979 by James R. Petersen, then the Playboy Advisor. Petersen wrote, “Masters was the first person in the history of Western man to take sex into the laboratory, to conduct controlled experiments, to objectively observe the human sex act.… He knows more about sex than any person in the world and is not afraid to admit what he does not know. In discussion he limits himself to facts. Johnson is the flip side of Masters. For 23 years she has been a partner in the research. She has had to edit her natural loquaciousness. She is wary of the media, tired of their being viewed as the Ma and Pa Kettle of Sex Research.”

Nearly 50 years after our first interview with them, Masters and Johnson are again in the public mind, thanks to the new Showtime series Masters of Sex. Remarkably, as these highlights from our two interviews show, the pair’s findings are still crucial to our understanding of the hows, whys and wows of sex half a century later.


IN THE BEGINNING

PLAYBOY: How did you find your subjects?

MASTERS: In the early stages we talked to people who we thought might be interested.

PLAYBOY: You did some work with prostitutes too, didn’t you?

MASTERS: We started with a prostitute population because we didn’t know where else to start. But because we knew it would be relatively rare to find a normal pelvis in a prostitute—due to chronic pelvic blood congestion—we stopped working with them after the first 18 or 20 months.

PLAYBOY: In your book you state that the subjects were recorded and observed performing “manual and mechanical manipulation, natural coition with the female partner in supine, superior or knee-chest position and, for many female study subjects, artificial coition in supine and knee-chest positions.” What was the reaction of the subjects to being observed?

JOHNSON: There was never a situation where everyone was lined up looking. I might add, there is interrogation before each session; there is some communication during it and there is a great deal of interrogation afterward. The subjects’ own statements indicated that many times they absolutely lost a sense of the environment.

MASTERS: I think even when they didn’t completely lose awareness of the investigators’ presence, they learned to pay no attention to them or at least to ascribe no importance to them.

PLAYBOY: Did you watch from behind a one-way mirror?

JOHNSON: In one of the environments at the medical center there was a mirror, but we rarely used it. If they had thought we might be behind a one-way mirror, it would have been just as distracting as if we really had been there.

PLAYBOY: There’s one question that you must have been asked over and over again: How did you prevent your personal emotions from intruding as you watched hundreds of people having sex? Didn’t you ever feel astonishment or awe?

JOHNSON: I never felt awe in a laboratory setting. I have one kind of commitment in my personal life, when I have the freedom to feel awe, but a vastly different commitment to maintain professional objectivity in a research environment.

MASTERS: You have to achieve as much objectivity as you can and then maintain it. But there are many people who shouldn’t work in this field simply because they cannot separate personal and professional requirements.

MAIL CALL

PLAYBOY: Did you anticipate censorship problems when you published Human Sexual Response?

MASTERS: No. Nor did we encounter any.

PLAYBOY: What does your mail suggest about the public’s attitude toward your research?

MASTERS: We’ve gotten thousands of letters. About eight percent of them fall into the “down with” category, of which half are vicious, obscene and unsigned. The other half of the negative letters are from fine people who simply feel that sexual behavior should not be investigated. They sign their names, they write well and we respect their opinions. Twenty-two percent of the mail has been supportive in character, and the remaining 70 percent—the part that really matters—comes from people asking for advice about their problems of sexual inadequacy.

VERY CANDID CAMERAS

PLAYBOY: One of the greatest areas of misinterpretation relates to the purpose of the mechanical devices and equipment used in your experiments. Would you tell us about them?

MASTERS: Besides the artificial phallus, we used the routine cardiograph type of recordings for heart rate, blood pressure, pulse, respiratory rate and so on. We also used cameras so that we could study in slow motion what happened.

PLAYBOY: In your book, you describe the artificial phallus as plastic, utilizing “cold light illumination” that allows observation and recording without distortion. You wrote: “The equipment can be adjusted for physical variations in size, weight and vaginal development. The rate and depth of penile thrust is initiated and controlled completely by the responding individual.” Why did you construct this device?

MASTERS: First, let me point out that the artificial phallus was the only piece of mechanical equipment that would not be considered standard in any physiology laboratory. It was designed for intravaginal observation and photography—to show us what was happening inside the vagina during the various phases of sexual response. The artificial phallus has long since been disassembled and we have no plans for reconstructing it.

JOHNSON: This may be an appropriate time to put to rest a popular misconception created by the mass media—that is, the titillating assumption that the only purpose of the artificial phallus was to stimulate sexual response. This was not the case. During artificial coition, the research subjects never could achieve orgasm by use of the phallus alone—they all had to employ additional self-stimulation derived from their own personal preferences and previously established patterns. The point is, a female responds sexually to that which is endowed for her with sexual meaning. Over a period of time, all the women in our sample probably could have oriented themselves to respond to the exclusive use of a phallic device if they had been so motivated; but to them, the laboratory phallus was nothing in or of itself, and neither the situation nor their own personal interest required that they make it so. Consequently, the only reason for creating and using this device was to provide an opportunity for definition and measurement of the intravaginal environment.

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read more: lifestyle, Sex and Dating, sex, interview, issue september 2013

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