Feature

Virginia Johnson, 1925–2013

The researcher who helped redefine sex

In the 1950s, there were few places where couples with sex problems could seek help. They could visit a priest and pray for enlightenment, or see a psychologist and be told that the trouble probably began with their mothers. That all changed in 1957, when a middle-aged gynecologist named William Masters recruited Virginia Johnson—later his lover and then wife—to work on a pioneering study of human sexuality. In their laboratory, they documented hundreds of couples at every stage from arousal to orgasm. Their groundbreaking findings, published in a series of popular and controversial books in the 1960s and ’70s, would permanently illuminate the once-taboo subject and, said Johnson, make their names as synonymous with sex as “Kleenex is to tissue.”

Johnson, who grew up on a Missouri farm, was a three-times divorced mother in her 30s when she went job hunting at Washington University in St. Louis, said The Times (U.K.). Masters sought a female research partner for his study on sexual stimulation, and Johnson—who said that sex was “never a problem in any of her marriages”—proved the perfect collaborator. While Masters was the main scientific mind, it was Johnson, her biographer wrote, who could persuade people “to drop their pants in the name of science.” Over the next decade, they observed 382 women and 312 men, aged 18 to 89, having sex or masturbating, recording every physical aspect of their responses.

In 1966, Masters and Johnson published their first book, Human Sexual Response. Written in dry, scientific language, it was nevertheless a sensation thanks to its shattering of numerous sexual misconceptions. Their research showed that, despite Sigmund Freud’s claims, there was no difference between a vaginal and clitoral orgasm, and that it was healthy for elderly people to have sex, said The New York Times. More books followed, and in 1978 they founded the Masters and Johnson Institute in St. Louis, which helped thousands of couples overcome sexual problems, said the Los Angeles Times. During their own marriage, which lasted from 1971 to 1993, the two were often asked how they kept their relationship harmonious. They replied that there was one subject they never discussed at home—politics.

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