Think of everything you know about sex. Everything. Chances are, most of what you’ve ever learned, or heard, came from the work of William Masters and Virginia Johnson – pioneers on researching sex.
Another influential researcher was Alfred Kinsey. In fact, William Masters was inspired by Kinsey’s work. While much of Kinsey’s research was done via interviews with thousands of men and women, Masters and Johnson took sex research to a whole other level: by observing over 700 people having sex.
This past week (July 25, 2013), Virginia Johnson, a psychologist, died at the age of 88. Johnson and her husband, William Masters – initially trained as a gynaecologist – helped to revolutionize our understanding of sexual behaviour, particularly among women. In reading some of the articles chronicling her life, most newspapers reported that Johnson “taught America how to love.” Indeed, Johnson and her husband came up with some fascinating insights and discoveries about sex and relationships.
Masters was more of the researcher and statistician of the pair. However, he lacked the people skills to recruit participants for his studies. So, he hired a sociology student to help him as a research assistant. That student was Virgina Johnson. Together, Masters and Johnson recruited 382 women and 312 men to participate in a study that spanned 11 years (1956 – 1967).
Here are a few things that stood out for me in researching their work.
- There is a human sexual response cycle. Basically, Masters and Johnson discovered that there are four stages that a person goes through when having sex. These are the excitement phase (initial arousal), plateau phase (at full arousal, but not yet at orgasm), orgasmic phase, and resolution phase (after orgasm). (Read more here). Identifying and naming this sexual cycle allows therapists to better understand the nature of certain dysfunctions, when and where they occur.
- Bringing women’s sexuality to the forefront. One of the other findings from their study was that about 50 – 60% of women do not orgasm during sex. This was a significant discovery because for years, the dominant understanding of women’s sexuality came from our understanding of men’s sexuality. Masters and Johnson were the first people to state that arousal in women is different than in men.
- They pioneered the field of sexual therapy. Up until their work, sexual problems were viewed as having a medical and organic cause. Because of Masters’ and Johnson’s research, though, many sexual problems were treated in the context of being psychological in nature. That is, they were no longer seen as having to be treated through medication, but through a change in the way both partners approached physical intimacy.
- Sex and older adults. Before their work, we knew absolutely nothing about what constituted ‘normal’ sexual behaviour in elders (65+). Masters and Johnson discovered that if someone has reasonably good health, there was no set age when sexual behaviour would disappear. They found that people can become excited and have orgasms well into their seventies, and beyond.
Although sex is still taboo for many people and in many cultures, the reality is that sexual behaviour is a normal and natural part of human development. Just as we develop physically, mentally, and spiritually, people often forget that we also develop sexually. Thanks to researchers who feel inspired to take risks with their research, and sometimes put their careers on the line, we know more about sexuality today than we ever have in the past.
Hoping this bit of psychology helps in your psychological and sexual health…
Links related to this post
- Click here for Virginia Johnson’s interview on Larry King live
- Click here for a blog post on the how Masters and Johnson’s work impacted women’s psychology.
- Click here for an article by the Globe and Mail on Johnson’s passing.
- Click here for a 2004 movie trailer on Alfred Kinsey (played by Liam Neeson). Great movie, by the way.
- Click here for a feminist take on women’s sexuality
- Click here to watch a video on how Masters and Johnson conducted their study on sex