Masters of Sex – Pilot

Tonight is the second episode of Masters of Sex, and just in the nick of time I’m here to review the pilot!

As I said in my introduction to this series, I’ll be going through each episode, partly talking about the story and characters, but largely giving some insight into the truths and untruths about Masters and Johnson, their work together, and human sexuality in general.

For starters, I liked it a lot. I think the actors and characterizations are great, and the show gave signs of digging into all the great issues that make this such a fascinating story: the prudish medical and scientific climate that view sex as a scandalous subject unworthy of research; the strange, somewhat bittersweet contrast of being an expert in sexuality but having just as much confusion and difficulty in one’s personal sexual life as anyone else (something I can relate to); the complex dynamics of gender and power, and especially the way a woman without formal scientific education makes a name for herself as one of the most important sexuality researchers in history. I’m looking forward to seeing all these themes explored in greater depth over the course of the series.


To my mind the most consequential departure from reality was the timeline of Gini Johnson’s hiring and interest in the work. After her second divorce, with two young children to support, Johnson set a goal for herself to go back to college and finish her degree. She was interested in studying social anthropology and the difference between nature and nurture. To help pay tuition, she sought a work assistantship at the school’s associated medical hospital.

Meanwhile Bill Masters was looking for a female assistant to help with his work — the story about one of his early sex-worker subjects telling him he needed a woman on the team is quite true. He interviewed Johnson and saw great potential in her. He hired her without telling her he was studying sex; at the time he was a world-renowned infertility specialist, and she was given to understand that she was assisting him with his studies in that area. A few months into the job, she found out by accident, and her comfort with the idea cemented her place as the right woman for the job.

I say this is a consequential departure only because I’m a little irritated that the show portrayed Johnson as becoming fascinated by Masters first, and seeking a job with him presumably just to bask in his light (and only seeking a college degree after talking with him.) In truth, she was always motivated on her own account and had her own plans and ambitions. Working with Masters derailed those plans, but also gave her the opportunity for influence and fame that she likely would never have achieved otherwise. It’s a complicated story, and one of the most fascinating things to me about the whole Masters-Johnson partnership is how inextricable the threads of exploitation and achievement are. That’s probably true for most people who have attained success while holding a marginalized status, and I look forward to seeing it played out more deeply.

The Ethan Haas character is, as far as I can tell, entirely fictional. There were rumors that Gini Johnson was having affairs with some of the medical men she worked around, but given that she was an attractive divorceé, those rumors would likely have existed whether true or not. She did have strong views on the difference between sex and love, and how one could exist without the other. At the time she was just beginning work with Bill Masters, she was dating a judge named Noah Weinstein. I’ll be interested to see if he comes up later in the show.

One of the moments I liked best from the show, although I’m afraid it was too subtle for some, was the interchange between Haas and Masters when Haas is agonizing trying to figure out what Johnson wants in their relationship, and Masters replies, “What does the woman you’re sleeping with want? The wisdom of the universe can’t come close to the unfathomable mystery of that question.” (I transcribed that on the fly so some of the wording may be off.) ‘Waaah, we can’t tell what women want!’ is a lament that’s as tired as it is irritating, but what I love here is that the context exposes its foolishness. Gini in fact told Ethan exactly what she wanted, quite plainly. She wanted to be friends, she wanted to have sex, she didn’t want a romantic entanglement. The reason he can’t figure out what she wants is because he wants something different. He can’t wrap his brain around the idea that her wants and his are fundamentally incompatible.

Bill Masters doesn’t have the excuse of being clouded by emotion and desire, but his ego and general attitude toward women as instrumental satellites to important male life lead him to the same conclusion. In most cases, listening, paying attention, and creating a space that’s safe for an honest answer will clear that whole “what does she want” problem right up. But in the 50s, and often still today, that solution seems foreign to the person asking the question.

The other departure that irked me slightly was Johnson explaining to their coupled research subjects that anything they did together was fine as long as they moved through all four stages of sexual response. I get that it was a good excuse to throw in a little sexuality info, but the four stages of response were developed through these very studies, and probably were not codified at the time their first couple got onto the lab bed. Even if they were, it would be terrible research practice to inform your subjects of what you were looking for ahead of time. And, in fact, the couples who had sex in the lab weren’t required to adhere to any particular pattern, and they didn’t all have orgasms.

(Also on the subject of best practices in research, couples were given masks to wear in the lab, though some opted to remove them. One adorable story that probably won’t come up in the show is that Masters’ mother, when she heard about the study, decided to make nice silk masks for their research subjects to wear, instead of the pillowcases and paper bags they’d been using before. Now that is a supportive mum.)

Incredible but true:

Masters did, in fact, watch prostitutes through peepholes as the beginning stage of his sex research. He also conducted extensive interviews with both male and female prostitutes. He recognized that sex workers were the only existing experts on the subject, and he learned a lot from them.

Masters, the great infertility expert, did indeed have fertility struggles of his own, and he did lie about the cause, presumably to protect his ego. Libby was fitted with the cervical cap, a technology Bill had devised, and the result was… well, you’ll just have to wait and see.

“Why would a woman fake an orgasm?” was the question that prompted the prostitute he was interviewing (with, I like to imagine, a slightly pitying “oh, honey” attitude) to suggest that he bring a woman on board.

Gini and Libby were indeed good friends. The show gave us a little moment where Gini’s friendship with Libby and her position as Bill’s assistant caused some internal conflict for Gini. I’m looking forward to seeing that played out more, too.

“We should have sex with each other… for science!” Yup. I like how the show keeps it pretty ambiguous whether Bill was playing an angle to get into bed with a pretty lady, or whether he was completely sincere.

Episode 2 tonight, and I’ll see you back here within the next week to talk about it!

2 thoughts on “Masters of Sex – Pilot

  1. I haven’t watched it yet but I’m very intrigued, even more so now after reading your blog.

  2. Dear Ginny
    Thanks for doing this, I don’t get Showtime. I hope I can meet you next time I am in Philly, been wishing to since your time with Lisa Ling. See

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