Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Mount TBR #50

I read this book for the Mount TBR Reading Challenge hosted over at My Reader’s Block from January 1 – December 31, 2015. The challenge is to read books that you already own.

Masters of Sex – Thomas Maier
The middle 20th century saw great advances in psychotherapy and sex therapy. Scholars such as Alfred Kinsey and Albert Ellis built on the pioneering work of Havelock Ellis. This book is a popular biography about the pioneering sexologists William Masters and Virginia Johnson.

In the late 1950s, Masters and Johnson were the first to conduct observational research designed to understand human sexual response and disorders. Using medical devices – some standard, some of their own creation – they directly observed and measured the anatomical and physiological sexual responses of human subjects. 

They began their research at the Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology at Washington University in St. Louis. The university allowed Masters to divert his fees from patients to fund the research. However, they were ousted by other doctors who were shocked that such research was going on. They then founded their own facility, the Reproductive Biology Research Foundation (later called the Masters and Johnson Institute), where they worked from 1978  to1994. They worked hard to attract funding in order to perform research and organize training for researchers, educators, and therapists. One generous funder, for example, was Hugh Hefner, the publisher of Playboy magazine.

Dr. Masters was aloof and all-business. He relied on the attractive, personable Johnson to interact with volunteers. She had the knack for assuring subjects that their dignity would not be hurt. Maier reveals, however, that their relationship was – what’s the word here? – ignoble? Maier quotes Johnson and their colleagues that Masters hired Johnson, the divorced mother of two under the unspoken understanding that she would become his sexual partner. For the sake of the research, for the pursuit of scientific knowledge, Masters claimed.

Well, he would say that, wouldn’t he?

"Sex for Virginia Johnson would become part of her job," Maier writes bluntly. Johnson herself tells Maier in an interview, “No, I was not comfortable with it, particularly. I didn't want him at all, and had no interest in him.” Johnson had sex with Masters because as a single-mother: "I had a job and I wanted it."

Sigh. What can one say? Maybe to take the sting out of this, Masters did go extremely far in the field considering that she had no degree at all. This is a miracle considering that the world of research places much value on credentials. Furthermore, Johnson is in fact given credit for developing the innovative therapy technique, "dual therapy," that Masters and Johnson used to counsel married couples dealing with sexual dysfunctions such as premature ejaculation. Maier says in passing that Johnson was influenced by one of my heroes, Albert Ellis, but does not go into any detail as to how rational emotive therapy, later cognitive behavior therapy, was used at the Masters and Johnson Institute. There’s relatively little about the larger context either – the pill, feminism, sex as product, calls for more frankness in talking about sex, etc.

This review is getting too long already so I can’t get into the last quarter of the book which is fascinating in its sadness. Masters and Johnson were on top of their profession. And then it came apart. The 1979 book on homosexuality argued that conversion therapy could turn gays into heterosexuals. Maier points out that there is evidence scientific misconduct may have been afoot in the production of this book. The book was skewered by experts and sunk with little trace.

Their 20-year marriage came apart too when Masters fell in love again with a high-school sweetheart. He ended the marriage with Johnson almost casually after she had, literally, given him everything. Masters died of complications due to Parkinsons in 2001. Johnson lived in obscurity until her death in 2013.

I recommend this book to people interested in the sexual revolution of the 1960s as well as those interested in the ramifications of sexual relationships in the workplace. Maier’s prose is smooth enough and the book has few misprints of the “reign in” for “rein in” type. I should also mention that this is the source biography for the Showtime adaption of Masters of Sex, with Lizzy Caplan and Michael Sheen.

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