There are three new shows coming up this fall that I’m super-excited about. Agents of SHIELD, because Whedon! Blacklist, because Spader! And Masters of Sex, because duh, I’m a sexologist and Masters and Johnson were two of the most influential sexuality researchers of the 20th century.
The history of sexuality research is almost as fascinating as the study of sexuality itself. Pioneers in the field cannot help but wrestle with both personal and social implications of their chosen field of study — and in a field that’s less than two centuries old, in some ways every sex researcher is a pioneer, even to this day. The movie Kinsey gave a great look into the complicated interpersonal, social, and professional issues connected to choosing to be a sexuality researcher in a profoundly anti-sex world. I’m excited to see Masters and Johnson getting the same treatment.
I know a lot of people are curious about how accurate the show will be, and to help with that, I’m planning to review each episode weekly. (I’m notoriously bad at keeping this kind of regular writing commitment, but I’m hoping between my passion for the subject and the nagging of my housemates, I’ll get it done.) Most of my knowledge about the lives of William Masters and Virginia Johnson comes from Thomas Maier’s biography (also called Masters of Sex), which the show is also supposed to be based on. There aren’t a lot of other sources out there, particularly when it comes to Johnson, as I discovered when I was writing a paper on her last year. (I feel a strong natural affinity towards her for some reason.) As far as I’m aware the biography is pretty reliable: it draws from a wide range of sources, and while it gives a central interpretation of the characters, their personalities, thoughts, and motivations, it also includes other people’s differing perspectives and interpretations at many points. (It’s also a great read, if you enjoy biographies or are interested in sex research, and you should be!) So my accuracy commentaries will mostly be based on how true the show stays to the biography, with any additional information I happen to have thrown in.
To get you started, here’s a little basic info about Masters and Johnson (without giving away anything that will likely become plot points in the show.) They worked primarily in the 50s and 60s, a decade or so after Kinsey’s groundbreaking sociological research into human sexuality. Unlike Kinsey, they took a laboratory approach, using medical facilities and sometimes technology they’d developed themselves to measure physiological responses during sex in both male and female volunteers. Most of what we know about physical sexual response (apart from what’s obvious from the outside) comes from their work. Unsurprisingly, there was all kinds of secrecy, controversy, and scandal surrounding their work at various points. Their first and second books, Human Sexual Response and Human Sexual Inadequacy, are hugely important works in the history of sexuality research. (Their later books are increasingly less validated and less important.)
It’s a bad idea to make a hero of anyone, and Masters and Johnson are no exception. We owe them a tremendous debt in terms of our knowledge and understanding of sex, and they helped normalize many, many aspects of human sexuality that were previously stigmatized (like clitoral orgasm.) But they had a number of problematic areas as well, which I hope to see explored in the show. Their work on homosexuality was frankly terrible. And the entire working dynamic and balance of power between William Masters and Virginia Johnson is complex and often troubling. I hope the show digs deeply into the issues of feminism, research ethics, and power in the workplace that are entwined through their story.
So far, everything I’ve heard about the show tells me it’ll be great. I feel good about the casting, although of course both characters (especially Masters) have gotten the Hollywood Looks Upgrade. Stay tuned for more!