William H. Masters, MD, the Vasco de Gama of the inner vagina, died last week, but his fraught sexological legacy lives on. He left a map of human sexual functioning that is gorgeously detailed in some respects, amazingly incomplete in others. A champion of the clitoris in one of the twentieth century’s major sex wars and a vigorous opponent of the sexual double standard, Masters earned his stripes as a feminist hero. He insisted that people could not make assumptions about their sex partners’ desires or pleasures, and the importance of his and Virginia Johnson’s message take responsibility for your own pleasure cannot be overestimated as part of women’s sexual emancipation. Yet, for all the talk about pleasure, Masters’ research was all about new ways of measuring physical performance a strain which helped set us on the path to today’s gleefully mechanical sex research: the Viagrification of sexual relations.
I first met Masters when I participated in his 1975 weeklong educational seminar in St. Louis, as part of my training to be a sexologist. I had been teaching human sexuality to college students for a couple of years, but feeling ill-prepared by my background in animal sexual physiology and mating behavior, I was about to begin a sabbatical year to expand my knowledge. What better way to begin than a week with the current sex research celebrities? I made friends with three other women there, and after I got home, I sent each of them a commemorative T-shirt that said on the back in large red letters, “Sex Is a Natural Function.” That had been the mantra of the lectures if we heard it once, we heard it every five minutes. Orgasms in men and women are “natural,” prenatal erections proved that sexual arousal is “natural,” experimental sex in kids is “natural,” the continuing interest in sex by old people is “natural” and on and on.
If the phrase sounds familiar, it should. It’s not only Dr. Freud’s message, but the basic medical message about sex over the last century, from Freud, Ellis and Magnus Hirschfeld on down to the present pharmacosexual moment. Sex is a natural, physical function, like excretion or respiration, built in to us for the multiplication of the species, and you can generally count on it to work like a charm unless something goes wrong.
There was a positive side to this message, of course. And certainly, in the late fifties and early sixties, when Masters and his partner Virginia Johnson did their research, the clarity they provided about the way bodies worked was a tremendous achievement. The two had female volunteers propel camera-laden plastic dildoes where no such scientific gadgets had gone before. Subsequent measurements and photographs of genital and extragenital changes during masturbatory and coital arousal and orgasm were unprecedented in their physiological detail and raised enormous public hope that we could bypass our social confusions about sex and rely on nature’s basic truths. Masters remained convinced to the end that he was studying a universal sexual blueprint. And in his vision, women at last had equal rights to sexual pleasure with men albeit only because their physiology entitled them to it.
As sex research titans of the twentieth century, Masters of Missouri has been frequently compared with Kinsey of Indiana, the great interviewer and cataloguer of mid-century American sexual variation. The two did share a messianic passion for sex research and for the truths of scientific factcollection, and they endured similarly harsh notoriety because of focusing so bluntly on the mechanics rather than the romance of sexual relations.
But otherwise their research projects had little in common. Kinsey, the advocate of nature’s bountiful diversity, stood in the tradition of zoologists who wanted to document and classify all that crawled, swam or flew: in his case, to document the full range of human sexualities from youth to old age, in people rich and poor, in forms of sexual expression well-known and unconventional. Masters was equally curious about sex, but he was trained as a physician to think first about diversity as merely the variation around the line between normal and abnormal. For sexual illumination, he looked where the light was brightest by measuring the behavior of a highly selected group of motivated volunteers. This had its benefits he was able to mark out the music of orgasm in an entirely new way but it also meant he was relying on only those who could easily orgasm through masturbation and coitus in the laboratory, using them as his models for normality.
I asked him once why he studied only women who could orgasm during masturbation and intercourse an atypical bunch, considering most female sexual experience. Bemused, he responded, “If you want to study something, you have to look at people who’ve got it.”
Unfortunately, as time has passed, Master’s reliance on biology has evolved into a very American form of sexual performance pressure for orgasm at the expense of almost all else, a concept of the “normal” that is both constricting and difficult to achieve, especially for women, especially during intercourse. My colleagues and I sensed this problem even in 1975: our “Sex Is Natural” T-shirts may have been a private joke, but they were also a legitimate expression of our fear, an uneasy sense that the old oppressive ideology had been replaced with a new one. The legacy can be seen today in a rapidly growing industry of hospital-based sex clinics, first for men, now for women, hell-bent on giving every last sexual complaint some medical explanation and expensive medical treatment, funded by a massive advertising budget. Masters may not have intended it to end precisely this way, but his work helped wave the starting flag of the race for the perfect sex pill a race I believe is doomed, harmful and, above all, based on a irremediably flawed notion of what sort of thing sexuality really is.
Ironically, the Masters and Johnson original approach to sexual problems emphasized quite the opposite message: physical impediments weren’t nearly so important as the destructive consequences of poor communication and inhibition. Masters was especially vehement about the inhibitory consequences of religious training that communicated an uplifting message about the soul while teaching people that the body was the source of disgusting temptation. This kind of psychosocial factor, he felt, was more crucial than hormones.
But the sheer mechanical question of sexual adequacy has become increasingly important in the last thirty years a troubling trend, to my mind, since relying on the medical model erases individual responsibility for sex, both blame for sexual failure and obligation for learn about sex. It substitutes a reassuring dependence on the doctor’s little kit bag. This is particularly troubling when it comes to women’s sexuality. In the 1960s and 1970s, Masters and Johnson’s physiological research and message was hugely gratifying to women’s liberationists who wanted to dethrone Freud and the oppressive vaginal orgasm standard for women’s maturity. Data showing that orgasm physiology is identical regardless of whether it comes from vaginal or clitoral stimulation seemed to end the Freudian hegemony with one swift biological pronouncement. But, just as the early triumphs of feminism failed to change deeply gendered social structures or deeply gendered people, the simple truths of the clitoris were insufficient to erase the double standard or women’s sexual frustrations. By the 1980s, society seemed to embrace a new oppressive standard for women’s sexual maturity orgasm-by-any-means but it must be orgasm and we’re stuck there still.
Masters and Johnson followed up their myth-shattering physiological research with books on sex therapy, on the joys of marital sex, on homosexuality, on the threat of AIDS among heterosexuals and on ethics in sex therapy and sex research, none of which had the impact of their early work, and some of which was roundly criticized. Yet, their fame continued, I believe, because the public so desperately needs to believe that sexual biology can tell us what to want in bed, why sex changes and what we should do about it.
I see things differently. There are bodies with parts, yes, but which parts should do what, when, with whom and why well, it’s all in the choreography, which requires vision, goals, meaning things we get from culture, not genes or hormones. One can desire a beloved partner’s aroma and touch, or fetishize rubber leggings on a stranger, or find the whole enterprise of little interest; it’s all a matter of, as my father was fond of saying, the vicissitudes of life. The body learns, as does the heart. The fact we are all capable of the thing called orgasm no more dictates that orgasm should be mandatory than the fact that we are all capable of playing the flute should dictate flutes in every home and mandatory participation in flute concerts every Saturday night.
The public needs help to cope with the ever-escalating social importance of sexuality, but instead of comprehensive sex education starting in elementary school, the public is getting prescriptions from those in white coats to deal with “sexual dysfunctions.” In the lab, and for their press interviews, Masters and Johnson always wore white coats but that cloak of authority can only be a small part of the answer in our sexually complex world. Bill and Ginny Masters created a model of sex therapy in the early 1970s that took that into account, and it would be a shame if only thirty years later, we gave up the idea of real sexual healing in favor of pushing pills.
Front page image courtesy Retroraunch.com