Virginia E. Johnson Dies at 88

Jul 25, 2013 • Books, Culture, Research

Virginia E. Johnson dies at 88

Virginia E. Johnson, a researcher, therapist, author and visionary in the realm of sexuality, died on Wednesday in St. Louis, at the age of 88.

Johnson couldn’t have imagined that she would one day be an American icon. In 1957, she was a twice-divorced mother in her 30s, looking for a way to support her children. She responded for an add posted by William H. Masters looking for a research assistant at Washington University in St. Louis.

Johnson was hired by Masters, then at the Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology. Neither of them had any way of knowing at the time that they would go down in history for helping postwar America to discuss sex frankly.

In a 1994 New York Times interview, Masters recalled why he’d hired Johnson despite her lack of a science background or even a degree (Johnson had started studying psychology, but had never completed her degree) and he’d responded: “I desperately needed a female, an intelligent woman who would have original thoughts. Women in medicine at that time had enough traumas; I couldn’t do that to them.”

“There was a comfort factor when a man and a woman appeared together,” Johnson said during the same interview. “If I brought anything, it was creativity. I wasn’t locked into traditional training and thought.” The pair would go on to work together for over three decades, marrying in 1971.

Their first book Human Sexual Response, published in 1966, focused on the physiology of sex. It possessed the imaginations of an entire nation. In the same way that Alfred C. Kinsey had done with his research in the 1940s and ’50s, Masters and Johnson opened the nation’s eyes to sexuality — but they took a far more scientific approach. Instead of focusing on self-reporting as Kinsey did when he administered his surveys, Masters and Johnson used a laboratory to quantify anatomical and physiological responses to sexual stimuli.

They based their findings on direct observation of 382 women and 312 men, whose heart rate, brain activity, and metabolisms were recorded during sexual activity, coming to conclusions that were at the time revolutionary: that female lubrication did not originate in the cervix, that orgasmic response was the same whether it was achieved vaginally or clitorally.

This work and the many others they published over the years — Human Sexual Inadequacy in 1970, The Pleasure Bond in 1974, Homosexuality in Perspective in 1979, Human Sexuality in 1982, Masters and Johnson on Sex and Human Loving in 1986, Crisis: Heterosexual Behavior in the Age of AIDS in 1988, Biological Foundations of Human Sexuality in 1993, and Heterosexuality in 1994 — further cemented their position as an institution in popular culture. Much of their work challenged what we thought we knew about sex and much of it caused controversy.

Masters and Johnson helped create what we know today as sex therapy, paving the way for Alex Comfort, of The Joy of Sex fame, and Ruth Westheimer, whose pioneering 1982 show on NBC Sexually Speaking, brought sex questions and concerns to television and made Dr. Ruth a media personality.

Masters and Johnson became inseparable in the public’s mind. When they announced their separation in 1992, the letters they received were incredible — many asked how they could speak about sexuality when they themselves couldn’t keep it together. Some reported feeling like their own parents were announcing a divorce.

But for Virginia Johnson, the divorce changed the established dynamic. In an interview with the New York Times two years after her separation from Masters, she said, “The nicest thing since the divorce from my standpoint is that I’m treated more as a person, as an entity. When we were together, we were always thought of as Masters and Johnson.” She added that when they were together, “We kind of belonged to other people, not ourselves.”

Reflecting on their time together, Johnson said, “The first four years with [Masters] was probably the best of our times together. He was a natural teacher and I was a classic student. Subliminally, it was always an uneven relationship. We developed a certain set pattern that almost never changed. Bill was the credentialed man, the one who conceptualized, the man around whom the work was built. He always said that you have to lay down the scientific findings. I couldn’t be heard as much as I would have liked at the time, but he proved to be correct. But Bill always saw that I got equal credit publicly and professionally.”

William H. Masters died in 2001 at the age of 85 in Tucson, from complications relating to Parkinson’s.

We know now that Johnson did defer to her husband during their time together. In a piece for Scientific American in 2009, Thomas Maier writes about her reservations about Homosexuality in Perspective, which showed positive results for conversion therapy for homosexuality. Johnson “held similar suspicions about Masters’ conversion theory, though publicly she supported him,” Maier wrote:

With Johnson’s approval, [the clinic’s top associate, Robert] Kolodny spoke to their publisher about a delay, but it came too late in the process. “That was a bad book,” Johnson recalled decades later. Johnson said she favored a rewriting and revision of the whole book “to fit within the existing [medical] literature,” and feared that Bill simply didn’t know what he was talking about. At worst, she said, “Bill was being creative in those days” in the compiling of the “gay conversion” case studies.

Yes, they had their critics, and with good reason. But Masters and Johnson also paved the way for sexual research and for sexual therapy.

If we have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.