Sex researchers Dr William Masters and Virginia Johnson, ringmasters to the social revolutions of the 1960s, told us everything we ever needed to know about sex. But they left one question unanswered: did they find love themselves?
Their 1966 bestseller Human Sexual Response revealed for the first time in intimate biological detail how it all worked. That included the female orgasm. The revolutionary news was that girls are capable of multiple orgasms of sequentially increasing power, while the erstwhile dominant sex retreats into their “recovery period”. The girls didn’t even need assistance: the best orgasms recorded on the medical machines of the sex lab were self-induced. This news arrived alongside the contraceptive pill and feminism, and changed everything.
Masters and Johnson set out in 1956 as professor and untrained lab assistant respectively, and became illicit lovers – according to their biographer Thomas Maier, at Masters’ coercion (imagine that at an industrial tribunal today). Ten years later they were co-owners of the multimillion-dollar Masters and Johnson brand, with books and sex therapy clinics. They married in 1971. Then they divorced in old age, in time for Masters to marry his childhood sweetheart.
A new 12-part US drama, Masters of Sex, which launched in the US last week and starts this week on Channel 4, aims to unravel the enigma of their relationship at the same time as devoting many hours to the saga of sexual discovery, one episodic case study at a time. The series is testing the limits, with graphic sex and clever camera angles.
Masters of Sex stars Michael Sheen as Masters, Lizzy Caplan as Johnson and Caitlin FitzGerald as Masters’ first wife, Libby. British director Michael Apted, of the Seven Up! documentary series, has directed two of the episodes in the series so far.
The drama is based on Maier’s 2009 book of the same title – Masters of Sex: the Life and Times of William Masters and Virginia Johnson, the Couple Who Taught America How to Love. Maier, a journalist with Newsday, New York’s suburban newspaper, spotted the story almost by chance. He had telephoned Masters while researching a book on Dr Spock, the paediatrician who was to American childhood what Masters would become to American sex.
“I put the phone down,” he says, “and thought: here’s a man and a woman who are not married but who spend years studying love and sex, who become gurus of sex, who then get married and stay married for 20 years, but who then divorce. I typed up my notes wondering what their relationship really was, and thinking that here was a story nobody knew.”
Maier thought about it for ten years or so, and then telephoned Johnson. She was retired and living in a flat not far from the university campus in St Louis, Missouri, which had been the scene of the sex lab. By this time, Masters had died from Parkinson’s. Johnson died, aged 88, earlier this year.
“She was quite gabby,” says Maier. “But she gave me a fan dance. I soon discovered that both of them were very secretive about their lives.”
Maier has won prizes for investigative reporting, and he went to work ferreting through records and contacting any friend, relative or old colleague of theirs he could find. He came up with terrific details. Masters had had a miserable if affluent childhood, beaten by his father, dumped in a boarding school at 14 and told he could come home only at Christmas. He had been a brilliant surgeon with a cold, blue- eyed stare, a big ego, and an ambition to win the Nobel Prize. He always wore a bow tie.
Johnson was descended from a Hessian (German) mercenary hired by the Crown in the American War of Independence – as in the Headless Horseman of The Legend of Sleepy Hollow – and had been brought up on a farm in Missouri during the Depression. Her mother was socially ambitious. Johnson had, Maier writes in the first chapter of his book, lost her virginity as a teenager in the back seat of a car. She concluded early on that sex was “a need” she could fulfil with lots of guys, but that relation- ships were for getting ahead. She had already been married and divorced twice and had two children when she went to work for Masters. Masters, who launched his studies by peeking through peepholes at local brothels, had realised that, as a man, he could get only so far in under- standing women’s desire and fulfilment, and that he needed to work with a woman. Johnson had an unrivalled knack of getting the volunteers to relax as their bodies were attached to probes and electrodes, their nipples measured, and so on. She made sure that Ulysses, a contraption fitted with a film camera for internal photography, was first warmed with hot towels before it was put to work.
“It turns out that Ulysses was thrown out when they closed the lab,” says Maier. “They had to make a reproduction for the show.”
He discovered that Masters had started his research because his own sperm count was too low to get his wife pregnant, and that Johnson had never known this. He also found out that Masters left Libby to marry Johnson only when Johnson, who told Maier that they had been “sexual athletes” together, wanted to marry another, very wealthy, man.
“Their relationship rotates dramatically as it goes along,” says Maier. “Masters was a control freak who dominated at first, but she ended up dominating him. They had a Burton and Taylor period when they really battled it out. They both found it easy to walk out on people. It’s the eter- nal question of what makes relationships between men and women tick.”
Their story, says Maier, begins as Pygmalion, but ends as a “Proustian search for times lost”. After their divorce, not only did Masters marry the girl from college he thought had rejected him, but Johnson went in search of the red- headed farm boy who had been her first lover. She had dumped him because she didn’t want to be a farmer’s wife, but then he left in order to join the CIA.
“When I was writing the book, Virginia told me she had never loved Masters,” says Maier. “But later she said, ‘I guess we were in love.’ She died still trying to figure it out.
“But my answer is that, definitely, they were in love. They galvanised one another as only a man and a woman can.”
See Masters of Sex tonight 9:00pm, Channel 4