Paperback review: Masters of Sex, By Thomas Maier


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The Independent Culture

The couple “who taught America how to love” might have followed their own example better, if this biography, published in advance of a new television adaptation, is to be believed.

It’s doubtful, Maier argues, that the reserved and restrained anatomist-turned-sex researcher, who had endured a loveless upbringing, ever really knew what love meant; for his partner in work, and later in his personal life, Virginia Johnson, love had meant two unsuccessful marriages by the time she met Bill Masters.

By the mid-1950s, Masters was specialising in fertility and confronting the shocking ignorance among middle-class Americans, both male and female, about how babies were made. “Gini” Johnson had no medical qualifications but she was unreserved and sexually open-minded, and she knew how to calm the volunteers who offered themselves up to Masters’ pioneering work in female sexual response. He began with prostitutes then moved on to students and married women, and it’s astonishing how many were willing to copulate with unknown men just so that he could record their physical responses to sex (although he did also pay them).

It was Masters and Johnson who got rid of the myths surrounding female orgasm, for example, and their timing was perfect, chiming with the more relaxed social rules of the 1960s and second-wave feminism. They became household names with their first book, Human Sexual Response, and married each other, but it was really work that connected them and they later divorced. Maier’s fair-minded and friendly biography records Johnson saying late in life: “Geez, did I lose myself that totally?” about her support of Masters. She did; but their extraordinary pairing changed a generation, and subsequent generation’s attitude to sex. She was a pioneer and the pioneering trail is never an easy one.