RIP: The Woman Who Pioneered Sex Research

Photo: Leonard McCombe/Time Life Pictures/Getty Images

Between Masters and Johnson — the influential St. Louis sex researchers who were married for two decades — William H. Masters will likely go down as the scientist of the pair. Virginia Johnson, who died Wednesday at age 88, was a divorced, 31-year-old single mother in 1957, when Dr. Masters, then a gynecologist at Washington University, hired her to be his assistant: He wanted “an intelligent, mature woman who could help put his female subjects at ease,” Margalit Fox wrote in her New York Times obituary. But in her early life, Johnson was nothing if not experimental in her approach to sex and marriage.

At age 22, Johnson married a lawyer nearly twice her age, mostly to defy her parents. According to Thomas Maier’s excellent biography Masters of Sex (it was adapted for a series by Showtime to air this fall, with Lizzy Caplan playing Johnson), she was delightfully ambivalent about the wedding. Asked by the minister if she wanted a photographer called, she said, “No, I don’t want to record to this.” When he didn’t want to have children, she quickly divorced him, and three years later married George Johnson, a nightclub bandleader (no formal wedding photographs then, either). She traveled and sang with his band until they had two children, requiring her to stay at home. “Musicians are night people and children are day people,” she explained to Maier. Johnson grew frustrated with her solo juggling act — leaving her children with babysitters while her husband traveled and she went to work as a secretary — so she divorced Johnson, too, after six years of marriage. Maier hints that there are rumors of third pre-Masters marriage.

At a time when divorces were taboo, difficult to obtain, and likely to land women on a psychoanalyst’s couch (diagnosis: frigidity), Johnson’s trial-and-error approach came with tremendous personal risk. When Johnson answered Masters’s want ad, women were few and far between on campus, but she hoped to get a degree so she could get a higher paying job. “She had her eye on something better all the time,” one of her colleagues told Maier.

For her part, Johnson wasn’t able to explain why she organized her young life around men she didn’t love. “I look back on that and I wonder why,” she told Maier. “I don’t really have an answer for myself.” She never completed her college degree, but she rose to be Masters’s co-author and co-director in their clinical research on human sexuality. By taking Alfred Kinsey’s sexual behavior surveys to the laboratory for observation, Johnson debunked the myths that kept women dissatisfied, like Freud’s vaunted vaginal orgasm. Maybe more important, Johnson gave future generations of women the vocabulary to ask for what they want.

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