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What We Learned about Sex: The Masters and Johnson Research Team

Christy Matta M.A. is a trainer, consultant and writer. She is the author of “The Stress Response: How Dialectical Behavior Therapy Can Free ...Read More

In 1957 not a lot was known about sex. Sure, people understood sex from their own personal or cultural experiences, but there had been little to no research conducted on the physiology of sex.

That all changed in the 1960’s as William Masters and Virginia Johnson conducted groundbreaking and controversial research into the physiology of human sexuality. Prior to their research, our scientific investigation of sex entailed asking people about their sexual experiences.

And although understanding people’s experience of sex can provide us a certain type of information, Thomas Maier author of Masters of Sex, says that Masters, an American gynecologist, “wanted to understand exactly how the body worked so that they could come up with therapies to fix the various different problems that married couples would have in the bedroom.”

Initially Masters, alone, conducted research, using an array of different instruments to trace physiological indicators during sex, such as breathing and heart rates. He also used a device to internally observe sexual response in women.

Early research was conducted on prostitutes, the only women Masters was able to convince to participate in his studies. But when Virginia Johnson, at the time a student in sociology, joined the team as a junior researcher, he was able with her help to expand his research to include more everyday women.

What They Discovered:

Much of what we may today consider common knowledge, when it comes to human sexuality, was in the early 60’s unknown. Some of the greatest contributions made by Masters and Johnson were in the understanding power of female sexuality.

The female orgasm: In their long-term study, Masters and Johnson found that women are capable of multiple orgasms, that they can grow in intensity , that a man is not necessary for a woman to have an orgasm and that females can fake orgasms.

Age and sex: Masters and Johnson also found that with adequate physical health, there is no age at which the ability to have sex disappears.

Treatment of sexual dysfunction: Their research lead to a new outlook on the treatment of sexual dysfunction. Treatment of sexual dysfunction moved away from psychoanalysis, which typically involved years of treatment and had a low success rates. Instead alternate, short-term talk therapy treatments involving both members of a couple were developed, with much higher success rates.

Masters and Johnson contributed much to our understanding of human sexuality. However, their critics note that their interpretations of their findings often reflected the culture of their times. Their methodology and, in particular, their heavy reliance on prostitutes as research subjects has also been criticized, suggesting that the experience of prostitutes would not necessarily represent the general population.

Virginia Johnson passed away at the age of 88 in July of 2013. As half of the Masters and Johnson team, she dedicated much of her life to understanding and demystifying human sexuality. Despite the accuracy of some of the criticisms launched against the research she participated in, she did much to enlighten and change our understanding and attitudes about sex.

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