Skip to main content

The woman who explained the female orgasm

By Thomas Maier, Special to CNN
July 28, 2013 -- Updated 1601 GMT (0001 HKT)
Virginia Johnson and her partner, William Masters, confer with patients during a marriage counseling session
Virginia Johnson and her partner, William Masters, confer with patients during a marriage counseling session
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Thomas Maier: Virginia Johnson, who has died, helped women take control of their sexuality
  • From modest beginnings, she partnered with William Masters on revolutionary sex research
  • She and Masters took on subjects not discussed, like women's multiple orgasms
  • Maier: Masters said their research depended on her; she helped change the terms of sex

Editor's note: Thomas Maier is the author of "Masters of Sex: The Life and Times of William Masters and Virginia Johnson, the Couple Who Taught America How to Love," which is being reissued next week by Basic Books to coincide with the September 29 debut of Showtime's "Masters of Sex," based on the book and starring Lizzy Caplan and Michael Sheen.

(CNN) -- Virginia Johnson once told me something surprising about her famous partnership with Dr. William Masters, which helped revolutionize America's understanding of human sexuality.

Despite Masters and Johnson's worldwide fame, "We were absolutely the two most secretive people on the face of the Earth," she said. "There's simply no one who knew us well. People have a lot of speculation, but they don't know."

On Thursday, as I read the obituaries about Johnson's death at age 88, I was reminded of Virginia's words. There's a sense of marvel about her life story and how she managed to affect the lives and happiness of so many people, especially independent-minded women like herself who wanted to make their own decisions about sex outside the dictates of men.

Thomas Maier
Thomas Maier

Johnson's life seems like a modern-day Pygmalion story. Down on her luck, a twice-divorced women and with two kids, she went back to Washington University at age 32 looking for a degree. She was working as a secretary at the university-affiliated hospital in St. Louis when she met Masters, the top ob-gyn and fertility expert in town.

A hard-driving, ambitious physician, Masters wanted very much to win a Nobel Prize for documenting clinically just how the human body responded during sex, so that medicine could come up with effective treatments for married couples having troubles in the bedroom. Bill realized he needed a female partner for such a risky venture. The few female doctors around in the 1950s didn't want to go near his potentially explosive experiment that could bring career ruin. Not even Masters' wife -- with two young children at home in the suburbs -- wanted to get involved.

Michael Sheen as Dr. William Masters and Lizzy Caplan as Virginia Johnson in Showtime\'s upcoming \
Michael Sheen as Dr. William Masters and Lizzy Caplan as Virginia Johnson in Showtime's upcoming "Masters of Sex," based on Thomas Maier's book.

Virginia changed everything. Almost immediately she showed a native genius for what made men and women tick, sexually and in matters of the heart. First as a dutiful associate and eventually as the full-fledged partner to Masters, Johnson convinced dozens of women and men -- nurses, residents, graduate students and various people around St. Louis -- to become part of their secretive decade-long study, the biggest sex experiment in U.S. history.

Their work was published in 1966 in "Human Sexual Response," which outlined, in its own obtuse medicalese, just how the body worked during sex. Like cartographers, they mapped how each body part vibrated, sweated and became aroused during lovemaking. Without Virginia Johnson's extraordinary zeal and persuasiveness, Masters conceded their study would have failed. To his everlasting credit, Bill gave "Gini" credit for her remarkable contributions, far more than any male doctor in the 1950s would have done, sharing his byline with her on their first book.

Time would underline Johnson's impact even more. Despite their guarded language, the first book documented the power of female sexuality, showing that women were capable of multiple orgasms -- a veritable fireworks display -- compared to most men's single firecracker.

CNN remembers Virginia Johnson

Their clinical evidence became part of the spark for America's so-called sexual revolution of the 1960s and 1970s, reflected in everything from key feminist writings to Hugh Hefner's Playboy magazine. Even the rosy women's magazines, filled with recipes and homey bromides, began writing about sex, using the same clinical phrases that Masters and Johnson made acceptable in polite society.

But Virginia's impact became particularly evident in the duo's second book, 1970's "Human Sexual Inadequacy," which landed them on the cover of Time magazine and television talk shows. It was Virginia who largely developed the team's "sensate" therapy from a hodgepodge of influences -- including behaviorism, Freudian talking methods and even urology studies from other medical researchers -- that soon had couples flocking to their clinic for a cure for their sexual difficulties.

That a woman without a degree had come up with such an effective approach heralding a quintessentially America quick-fix -- an 80% success rate within a mere two weeks (as opposed to years on a Viennese analysts' couch talking about your feelings about poor old Mother!) -- was galling to the medical establishment. Yet Masters and Johnson's pioneering work created the modern sex therapy industry, with clinics around the world relying on their methods and wisdom to this day.

Later in life, Virginia would say her 24/7 devotion to her research and their patients hurt both her relationship with her children and her marriage with Masters (they divorced in the 1990s shortly before their clinic closed) --expressing this with the same regret some women today share in balancing work and family life. She was also concerned that their pioneering work on sex might be used by libertines to avoid the necessity of caring for their partners as real, loving human beings, rather than pornographic holograms in the bedroom.

But mostly, Johnson became aware that many younger women today had adopted her independent-mindedness about sex, once so verboten in 1950s America. Only they, and not some fatherly figure in a white lab coat, would rule their bodies and set the terms for when, how and with whom they would share themselves.

Johnson's remarkable personal and professional adventures make her one of the most extraordinary American women of the 20th century. Her passing should remind us of just how great an impact her life had on all of us.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Thomas Maier.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
December 29, 2014 -- Updated 0430 GMT (1230 HKT)
Les Abend: Before we reach a conclusion on the outcome of AirAsia Flight QZ8501, it's important to understand that the details are far too limited to draw a parallel to Flight 370
December 27, 2014 -- Updated 0127 GMT (0927 HKT)
The ability to manipulate media and technology has increasingly become a critical strategic resource, says Jeff Yang.
December 26, 2014 -- Updated 1617 GMT (0017 HKT)
Today's politicians should follow Ronald Reagan's advice and invest in science, research and development, Fareed Zakaria says.
December 26, 2014 -- Updated 1319 GMT (2119 HKT)
Artificial intelligence does not need to be malevolent to be catastrophically dangerous to humanity, writes Greg Scoblete.
December 26, 2014 -- Updated 1505 GMT (2305 HKT)
Historian Douglas Brinkley says a showing of Sony's film in Austin helped keep the city weird -- and spotlighted the heroes who stood up for free expression
December 26, 2014 -- Updated 1303 GMT (2103 HKT)
Tanya Odom that by calling only on women at his press conference, the President made clear why women and people of color should be more visible in boardrooms and conferences
December 27, 2014 -- Updated 2327 GMT (0727 HKT)
When oil spills happen, researchers are faced with the difficult choice of whether to use chemical dispersants, authors say
December 25, 2014 -- Updated 0633 GMT (1433 HKT)
Danny Cevallos says the legislature didn't have to get involved in regulating how people greet each other
December 23, 2014 -- Updated 2312 GMT (0712 HKT)
Marc Harrold suggests a way to move forward after the deaths of NYPD officers Wenjian Liu and Rafael Ramos.
December 24, 2014 -- Updated 1336 GMT (2136 HKT)
Simon Moya-Smith says Mah-hi-vist Goodblanket, who was killed by law enforcement officers, deserves justice.
December 24, 2014 -- Updated 1914 GMT (0314 HKT)
Val Lauder says that for 1,700 years, people have been debating when, and how, to celebrate Christmas
December 23, 2014 -- Updated 2027 GMT (0427 HKT)
Raphael Sperry says architects should change their ethics code to ban involvement in designing torture chambers
December 24, 2014 -- Updated 0335 GMT (1135 HKT)
Paul Callan says Sony is right to call for blocking the tweeting of private emails stolen by hackers
December 23, 2014 -- Updated 1257 GMT (2057 HKT)
As Christmas arrives, eyes turn naturally toward Bethlehem. But have we got our history of Christmas right? Jay Parini explores.
December 23, 2014 -- Updated 0429 GMT (1229 HKT)
The late Joe Cocker somehow found himself among the rock 'n' roll aristocracy who showed up in Woodstock to help administer a collective blessing upon a generation.
December 23, 2014 -- Updated 2115 GMT (0515 HKT)
History may not judge Obama kindly on Syria or even Iraq. But for a lame duck president, he seems to have quacking left to do, says Aaron Miller.
December 23, 2014 -- Updated 1811 GMT (0211 HKT)
Terrorism and WMD -- it's easy to understand why these consistently make the headlines. But small arms can be devastating too, says Rachel Stohl.
December 22, 2014 -- Updated 1808 GMT (0208 HKT)
Ever since "Bridge-gate" threatened to derail Chris Christie's chances for 2016, Jeb Bush has been hinting he might run. Julian Zelizer looks at why he could win.
December 20, 2014 -- Updated 1853 GMT (0253 HKT)
New York's decision to ban hydraulic fracturing was more about politics than good environmental policy, argues Jeremy Carl.
December 20, 2014 -- Updated 2019 GMT (0419 HKT)
On perhaps this year's most compelling drama, the credits have yet to roll. But we still need to learn some cyber lessons to protect America, suggest John McCain.
December 22, 2014 -- Updated 2239 GMT (0639 HKT)
Conservatives know easing the trade embargo with Cuba is good for America. They should just admit it, says Fareed Zakaria.
December 20, 2014 -- Updated 0112 GMT (0912 HKT)
We're a world away from Pakistan in geography, but not in sentiment, writes Donna Brazile.
December 19, 2014 -- Updated 1709 GMT (0109 HKT)
How about a world where we have murderers but no murders? The police still chase down criminals who commit murder, we have trials and justice is handed out...but no one dies.
December 18, 2014 -- Updated 2345 GMT (0745 HKT)
The U.S. must respond to North Korea's alleged hacking of Sony, says Christian Whiton. Failing to do so will only embolden it.
December 19, 2014 -- Updated 2134 GMT (0534 HKT)
President Obama has been flexing his executive muscles lately despite Democrat's losses, writes Gloria Borger
ADVERTISEMENT