The '60s were "the decade of orgasmic preoccupation": Even suburban housewives were emboldened by Masters and Johnson's "Human Sexual Response"

"Human Sexual Response" transformed the public discourse about sex in America, opening a new era of candidness

Published July 12, 2015 1:00PM (EDT)

Lizzy Caplan as Virginia Johnson and Michael Sheen as Dr. William Masters in "Masters of Sex"        (Showtime/Michael Desmond)
Lizzy Caplan as Virginia Johnson and Michael Sheen as Dr. William Masters in "Masters of Sex" (Showtime/Michael Desmond)

Excerpted from "Masters of Sex

The old Ritz-Carlton Hotel exuded a certain Brahmin charm in Boston, beholden to starchy traditions reaching back to British colonial rule. High tea was sipped late in the afternoon, while swells crowded in the restaurant’s dining room, wrapped in furs, diamonds, and pearls. Upstairs, a fireplace warmed the majestic suites, as butlers tended to the blaze and turned down the plush linens just before bedtime. For out-of-town medical experts, these amenities were part of the mystique of staying at the Ritz while doing business at nearby Harvard, MIT, or the New England Journal of Medicine.

During a visit to see their Boston-based publisher, Masters and Johnson enjoyed this grand hotel and were delighted when it became their book’s launching pad with the press. In facing skeptics before, they’d tried a similar swank approach without much luck. They had chartered a spacious hotel suite to present their findings in Chicago when banned from a national obstetricians and gynecologists convention there. They also served libations for the “Wash U” medical faculty when showing their filmed lab results. Both proved disasters. Still, these past experiences prepared them well for the challenge they were about to endure. They didn’t want to be panned in Boston.

In April 1966, Masters and Johnson presided over an almost quaint series of press conferences at the Ritz that seemed more like informal seminars than a ritualized media grilling in front of a microphone. Sitting in comfortable chairs beside a long, draped window, they discussed their findings during two-hour sessions, which turned out both lively and convincing. They deliberately reserved two separate bedrooms for themselves at the hotel to avoid gossip.

During these sessions, skeptics were impressed with Masters’s crisp authority and technical virtuosity. Johnson, with her trained vocals, further elucidated in plain English. Their publisher invited several influential journalists, including John Corry of the New York Times, Albert Rosenfeld of Life magazine, Arthur Snider of the respected Chicago Daily News, and Earl Ubell of the New York Herald Tribune—a core group that would influence the rest of the media coverage. While some findings had been leaked already, these lengthy, relaxed discussions at the Ritz became Masters and Johnson’s first formal encounter with the press. The outcome couldn’t have been better. “Dr. Masters’ and Mrs. Johnson’s face-to-face confrontation with the nation’s science writers yielded an extraordinarily favorable reaction to their book,” concluded Harper’s magazine in its own laudatory profile, “The Sex Crusaders from Missouri.”

These once-obscure researchers were now described in Nietzschean superhero terms, as “endowed with exceptional sensibility, nerve and persistence” in educating a nation. Reflecting his paper’s unexcitable manner, Corry’s dispatch in the Times stressed numbers that were almost unimaginable. During the eleven-year study, Corry noted, some ten thousand orgasms were tracked through “direct observation” of hundreds of men and women “engaged in coitus and masturbation.” In mentioning the uncounted prostitutes from Masters’s preliminary research before Johnson arrived on the scene, Corry advised readers that “a more accurate and conservative estimate” might be between twelve thousand and fifteen thousand orgasms, figures that boggled the mind. Corry, like the other science writers, underlined that Masters and Johnson were the purest of white-coated scientists, a sober-minded, male-female team that had “taken pains to purge the book of anything that might be considered salacious.” But not everyone agreed.

Critic Albert Goldman, like Farber and others, pointed obsessively to the “plastic dildo” and the study’s coldhearted description of human intimacy. In his review of their book, Goldman complained it should have been called “Sexual Body Mechanics,” as even the elderly seemed hypersexed. “One wishes that we could return to the wisdom of an earlier time that accepted physical decline and sought compensation in pursuits that transcend the physical,” Goldman lamented. “Perhaps a genuinely prophetic imagination is declaring itself in the book’s most indelible image, that of a woman mating with herself by means of a machine.”

Of the seven hundred reviews and notices about Human Sexual Response, the biggest stamp of approval came from the Journal of the American Medical Association, the kind of professional publication that once shunned their work. “Why was this study so long in coming?” asked the JAMA editorial. “It is no more reasonable to teach students the anatomy of the reproductive organs and ignore the way these organs function during their ordered activities than it would be to study the anatomy of the stomach but disdain any knowledge of [how it works.]”

In the whiz-bang scientific era of the 1960s, admirers such as psychiatrist George Krupp suggested Masters and Johnson’s findings illuminated the world of sex that seemed, in retrospect, like the dark side of the moon before NASA documented its deep curves and crevices. “If we are inclined to regard sexual union as something so sacrosanct that it should not be open to investigation, we should remember that a similar view was taken regarding the stars in Galileo’s day,” insisted another reviewer.

Although Alfred Kinsey had provided the broad outlines of American sexual practices and others, such as Dr. Mary Calderone, had pushed for sex education in the classroom, Masters and Johnson produced hard-science answers for specific questions that went unasked by millions. As sociologist John Gagnon observed, “Everybody seems to be in favor of sex education, but they’re against doing the research that would give us the knowledge to educate people with.”

In interviews, Masters downplayed the pall of constant scrutiny and secrecy they’d had to bear for so many years. Although this success was a personal affirmation, the kind of achievement he had long sought, his public persona remained calm, grounded, and humble. He could take fierce pride in their findings, but he didn’t seem hungry for the limelight. “The most important thing is that the work was done,” he said simply. He told the press that hate mail amounted only to about 10 percent of all letters they received.

Most letters arrived from people desperate for advice about personal problems, he said. But decades later, Masters conceded the “drop dead” mail that arrived after the publication of Human Sexual Response ran at about 75 percent, something closer to the truth. “The mail was horrendous,” recalled Mary Erickson, who joined their staff four years after the book’s release. “A lot of it was nasty and awful.”

Uncontested was the textbook’s commercial success, which publisher Little, Brown originally shipped to doctors in a plain brown paper wrapper. It soared onto best-seller lists, with 300,000 copies sold within a few months. “We feel for the first time that 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 transformed the public discourse about sex in America, opening a new era of candidness never seen before in the media. 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 reverence 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 weren’t as threatened by it,” Johnson later noted. “They began to listen, instead of reacting emotionally. This evolution was paralleled 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-1960s, so they 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 is sex, so the media actually created the concept of a revolution.”

In the 1960s, America would convulse with the assassinations of the Kennedy brothers and Martin Luther King Jr., massive civil rights demonstrations, and bloody race riots in the streets. The conflict in Vietnam brought about widespread draft resistance, the repudiation of one president (Lyndon Johnson), and the election of another (Richard Nixon) who eventually would resign in disgrace. In this swirl of political and social drama, the traditional definitions of sex, love, family, and commitment seemed an open question too. The media chronicled a whole new world of hippie love beads, antiwar love-ins, free-love utopian communes, unclothed flower children at Woodstock, revealing miniskirts, thigh-hugging go-go boots, midriff-baring bellbottom pants, skin painted in psychedelic Day-Glo colors, explicit movies such as I Am Curious Yellow and Broadway shows with nudity, such as Hair, which screamed of sexual freedom not seen before.

“The Sixties will be called the decade of orgasmic preoccupation,” declared Masters, with only a little irony. Even pent-up suburban wives such as Mrs. Robinson in The Graduate seemed emboldened by the book. “Masters and Johnson’s view of women as sexual athletes capable of multiple orgasms suddenly harmonized with the spirit of sexual freedom or, more accurately, sexual experimentation, sweeping the country,” observed author Jane Gerhard about the era.

Soon after the book’s publication, Masters and Johnson embarked on an extensive tour at several medical schools and colleges, usually before standing-room-only audiences. Bill didn’t kid himself about the prurient interest driving sales of Human Sexual Response. As he often quipped, “This is the most purchased, least read book in history.” Masters insisted they soon get back to work at the Reproductive Biology Research Foundation clinic. Now that they had mapped the basic physiology of human sexuality, there was so much more to do.

Excerpted from "Masters of Sex: The Life and Times of William Masters and Virginia Johnson, the Couple Who Taught America How to Love" by Thomas Maier. Thomas Maier is the author and a producer of "Masters of Sex," the Showtime series based on his biography of sex researchers William Masters and Virginia Johnson. Its third season begins Sunday, July 12, at 10 p.m. 

By Thomas Maier

Thomas Maier is an award-winning author, journalist, and television producer. His book "Masters of Sex" was the basis for the Emmy-winning Showtime drama that ran for four seasons. His other books include "When Lions Roar: The Churchills and the Kennedys"; "The Kennedys: America's Emerald Kings"; "Dr. Spock: An American Life" (named a "“Notable Book of the Year" by the New York Times); and "Newhouse: All the Glitter, Power and Glory of America's Richest Media Empire and the Secretive Man Behind It" (winner of the Frank Luther Mott Award as Best Media Book of the Year presented by the National Honor Society in Journalism and Mass Communication). He has worked as an investigative reporter for Newsday for over thirty years.

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