I am thrilled to dig into Masters of Sex, which premieres tonight (9/29/13) on Showtime. The new series is based off the true story of Masters & Johnson’s pioneering work which established the study of human sexuality as a science. During the 1950s, Masters & Johnson broke down all social barriers at the time to study the physiological sexual response cycle by observing and measuring masturbation and intercourse between men and women in their lab.
They established the 4-Stage Model of Sexual Response and one of their best findings, in my opinion, was discovering that women could be multi-orgasmic (1). Before Masters & Johnson, human sexuality was primarily seen through the lens of Freud. We know now, that Freud’s theories are rarely supported through evidence (most likely due to the under-representative sample of upper-class-white-married-heterosexual-women from which they were derived). Alfred Kinsey was on the scene before them as well, and he produced the wildly famous Kinsey Report, which contributed greatly to the field. However, his methods of data collection were mainly self-report from participants. Masters & Johnshon are still considered to be the first to study sexuality through the scientific method. Yet, generalizability is also limited until all of their studies can be replicated, as the majority of their samples were prostituted women (no confounds there-right?).
Like many advances in science, their work does not go un-criticized. As a sex researcher, I highly value what they did and how they paved the way. Yet, I do not agree with a large portion of their work. The worst of which was their practice of conversion therapy, to turn homosexuals into heterosexuals. There are some reports that Virginia Johnson did not agree with this either (2). Although the practice of conversion therapy has decreased since homosexuality was (rightfully and thankfully) declassified as a disorder in 1973, it should be eradicated because it is inhumane, a cruel abuse of science and (of course) does not work at all (3)!
Another criticism of their work revolves around the medicalization of sex. I know, this sounds hypocritical because I just praised them for studying sexuality scientifically, but hear me out. There is a clear line between understanding something scientifically and packaging it for medical treatment. Through the scientific study of sexuality, they were the first to determine sexual dysfunction as a physiological disorder (4). Today, female sexual dysfunction disorder, is potentially a huge money maker, because pharmaceutical companies are vying for the “female Viagra”. Why is this a problem? Well, female sexual dysfunction pathologizes women’s sexuality. In other words, if a woman can’t reach orgasm, or doesn’t have sexual desire, then she has a disorder. There is something wrong with her. Instead of looking at the context of her sexuality: the quality of her romantic relationship, the extent to which she is affected by her sexual culture, etc. Therefore, I support the New View of women’s sexuality as a more humane, accurate and less-invasive perspective on female sexuality (5). I do think there is value in medical treatment of extreme sexual dysfunction. Yet, I am not a proponent of pathologizing a lack of desire or arousal without first addressing the context in which it is occurring.
That being said, you can’t understand where we are, without knowing where we came from. Masters & Johnson are a central part of our sexual history and worth learning about, especially if you are a sex researcher or sex educator.
1. Masters, W. H., & Johnson, V. E. (1966). Human sexual response. Boston: Little, Brown & Co, 185.
2. Maier, T. (2010). Masters of sex: The life and times of William Masters and Virginia Johnson, the couple who taught America how to love. Basic Books.
3. Haldeman, D. C. (1994). The practice and ethics of sexual orientation conversion therapy. Journal of consulting and clinical psychology, 62(2), 221-248.
4. Masters, W. H., & Johnson, V. E. (1970). Human sexual inadequacy. Boston, 467, 58.
5. Tiefer, L. (2001). A new view of women's sexual problems: Why new? Why now? Journal of Sex Research, 38 (2), 89-96.
Earlier this week, Kimberley Hall, a mom, wrote a blog post in
the form of a letter to her sons’ female friends who were posting sexual pictures of themselves on social media outlets. This letter went viral. I posted it on my Facebook account and received a huge response to the post. I decided to look at it more deeply and came up with 10 things I think we can learn from what wasn’t said in Kim’s letter to teenage girls:
1.The sexual double standard (the belief that men should be sexual in multiple ways and women should not) is often difficult to notice (1). Here’s an example: He’s still a virgin? She already lost her virginity? Kim’s letter asked girls to stop posting sexualized pictures of themselves, but her post was full of pictures of her boys flexing in swim trunks. I regularly research the sexual double standard, and even I didn’t immediately notice this hypocrisy. She didn't realize it either, but when it was brought to her attention she re-did the post with pictures of her boys in clothes.
2.The sexual double standard has changed (2,3). The new sexual double standard is not the same as the old one. Today, girls are
expected to refrain from sexual activity, but now they also have to be extremely sexually attractive and go to extreme lengths to prove it. It is not enough to be pure, elegant and ladylike, you also need to be damn sexy and sexually available to men without actually doing the deed. Yeah, not easily achieved.
3.We have a victim blaming culture and we are all guilty of it, even me. The reason girls sext and post sexy pictures of themselves online is because they are sexually subordinated and do not have as much power to claim sexual entitlement in our culture as men do. They first have to gain approval from men
that they are worthy of sex through men acknowledging that they are f**ckable and legitimately hot. So, what do we do? We blame them for playing the game that we do very little to change.
4.The new sexual double standard has some pretty awful symptoms such as self-objectification and self-sexualization. In the context of a digital world where boys can objectify girls by watching pornography on their mobile phones in class, what is a girl to do? Well, some unconsciously decide “If I can’t beat ‘em, I can join ‘em.” Then they begin the process of self-objectification. Self-objectification is the act of treating
yourself as an object instead of a subject. Another common response is to self-sexualize. A sexy selfie, plastic surgery of the genitalia and/or breasts, pole dancing, etc. are all forms of self-sexualization. Basically, anytime your self-worth is being measured by what you physically look like instead of what
you can actually do with your brain or body is self-objectification. Anytime you are treating yourself as an object mainly for the purpose of sex, is self-sexualization. These processes aren’t always bad. For instance, it can be really fun to feel sexually attractive. Yet, research shows that self-objectification is linked to decreased sexual esteem, sexual satisfaction, sexual safety, and increased disordered eating, depression and anxiety (5,6,7). Further, sexualization and objectification are becoming increasingly more pervasive,
making it harder for girls to determine if they are actually expressing their sexuality by “being sexual” instead of just putting on a show for boys by “acting sexual”(4).
5. We are now so confused by and robbed of our innate sexuality, we sexualize everything. Sexualization is when you take something that is not overtly sexual and you make it sexy. For example, we do this a lot with food: Carls Jr. commercials, anyone? And we certainly do this with girls through making their toys and clothes sexy, etc. It is the fascination with the combination of innocence, purity and sex that is downright dangerous because it promotes the sexualization of girls which perpetuates sexual violence against girls (8).
6. We need to redefine female sexual liberation. We have a culture which combines self-objectification with self-sexualization, yet…what is this being packaged as? Liberation! 3rd-wave feminists are really into self-objectification as "liberating". However, I always tell college students in my seminars, if it is not making more orgasms happen, it is not liberating! Therefore, it is important to remind female adolescents that taking sexy selfies does not lead to an orgasm for you, it leads to an orgasm for him, therefore it is not sexually liberating. In fact, self-sexualizing is only the other end of the same spectrum of Victorian-Era chastity, perpetuating an unrealistic standard which women can never truly attain and can only come close to if they have specific physical characteristics. Further, the act of female adolescents and young adults sending naked pictures of themselves is still centering female sexual expression on men’s pleasure. I don't think the girls that Kim’s letter is targeting should be blamed for trying to fit in, but unfortunately, when we defend, excuse or label self-sexualizing and self-objectifying behavior as liberating for girls we enable that behavior to continue.
7. We need to support girls to foster their own talents and abilities in multiple areas of life, and encourage boys to support them too. I think Kim was really trying to do this. I really liked how she said:
"You are growing into a real beauty, inside and out. Act like her, speak like her, post like her.”
I also think she meant well in stating what she wants for her
“There are boys out there waiting and hoping for women of character. Some young men are fighting the daily uphill battle to keep their minds pure, and their thoughts praiseworthy.”
However, she phrased it in a way that is shameful to girls. It
would have been great if she acknowledged the pressure girls feel to prove they are sexy and assured those girls she was doing everything she could do as a mom to raise boys who recognize girls' interests, talents and knowledge above their looks. She almost did with this statement:
"Those posts don’t reflect who you are! We think you are lovely and interesting, and usually very smart. But, we had to cringe and wonder what you were trying to do? Who are you trying to reach? What are you trying to
I also think her message about what she wants for her sons:
"I hope they will be drawn to real beauties, the kind of women who will leave them better people in the end. I also pray that my sons will be worthy of this kind of woman, that they will be patient – and act honorably –
is a vast improvement from the typical “boys will be boys”
stance that I see parents take all too often.
8.We need to hold boys and men accountable for their actions, they are capable of not acting on sexual impulses. Yes, Kim was borderline victim blaming and slut shaming, but let’s look at what she is doing right. I come across too many parents in the sexual education seminars I host that have no clue what is going on with their kids online. So, I applaud her efforts of monitoring her sons’ online behaviors. Her letter (and I’m assuming conversation with her sons) is a much better alternative to having no conversation with your children about self- objectification or sexualization. Yet, she is missing the crucial point of why this is going on and therefore, is in danger of passively perpetuating the cycle in others of blaming girls for
the sexual behavior of boys. Another Christian mom responded to the importance of teaching boys accountability for their thoughts and actions, you can read her response here.
9. Post-pubescent adolescents are sexual and most engage in sexual activity. All mammals become sexually active after puberty, which is what puberty is for. However, post-pubescent humans are usually not mentally or emotionally capable for the ups and downs of sexual relationships. However, keeping them from having sex only works for a small population of adolescents (9). Therefore, we need to equip adolescents who choose to have sex with the proper tools to carry out safe, healthy and pleasurable sexual experiences. We can do this while also supporting adolescents who choose not to have sex. Even though we are embarking on new territory, there is a shift in academia to identify factors that not only reduce risky sex in adolescents but promote healthy sex (10).
10. We need comprehensive and evidence-based sexuality education that includes media literacy in every single middle school and high school. The problems mentioned above are complex and not being explained to our youth. Indeed, we are even scared to teach them basic biology about their reproductive system, while 93% of boys start viewing pornography online during adolescence (11). There are way too many barriers to making comprehensive sexuality education happen right now. Although, things are improving. I do the best I can by hosting seminars with teachers, parents, college students and community educators, with the hope that the above information will get to the adolescents who truly need it. However, I need your help. There are several resources on my website www.meganmaas.com such as the SPARK movement, in which you can utilize to get a conversation going in your house, school, church, or other organization. Feel free to contact me
for any materials or references for any of the information provided above.
1. Milhausen, R. R., & Herold, E. S. (1999). Does the sexual double standard still exist? Perceptions of university women. Journal of Sex Research, 36(4), 361-368.
2. Hyde, J. S., DeLamater, J. D., & Hewitt, E. C. (1998). Sexuality and the dual-earner couple: Multiple roles and sexual functioning. Journal of Family Psychology, 12(3), 354.
3. Tolman, D. L., & Diamond, L. M. (2001). Desegregating sexuality research: Cultural and biological perspectives on gender and desire. Annual Review of Sex Research, 12, 33-74.
4. Tolman, D. L. (2005). Dilemmas of desire: Teenage girls talk about sexuality. Harvard: University Press.
5. Calogero, R. M., & Thompson, J. K. (2009). Sexual self-esteem in American and British college women: Relations with self-objectification and eating problems. Sex Roles, 60(3-4), 160-173.
6. Grabe, S., & Hyde, J. S. (2009). Body objectification, MTV, and psychological outcomes among female Adolescents1. Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 39(12), 2840-2858.
7. Schick, V. R., Calabrese, S. K., Rima, B. N., & Zucker, A. N. (2010). Genital appearance dissatisfaction: Implications for women’s genital image self-consciousness, sexual esteem, sexual satisfaction, and sexual risk. Psychology of Women Quarterly, 34(3), 394-404.
8. American Psychological Association, T. F. O. T. S. O. G. (2007). Report of the APA Task Force on the Sexualization of Girls. APA Talk Force on the Sexualization of Girls. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.
9. Santelli, J., Ott, M. A., Lyon, M., Rogers, J., Summers, D., & Schleifer, R. (2006). Abstinence and abstinence-only education: a review of US policies and programs. Journal of Adolescent Health, 38(1), 72-81.
10. Tolman, D. L., & McClelland, S. I. (2011). Normative sexuality development in adolescence: A decade in review, 2000-2009. Journal of Research on Adolescence, 21, 242-255.
11. Sabina, C., Wolak, J., & Finkelhor, D. (2008). The nature and dynamics of Internet pornography exposure for youth CyberPsychology & Behavior, 11(6), 691-693.
About this Blog:
I'm here to help us discuss sexuality, gender, sexual media, and social media by integrating information from academic and mainstream sources. I do this so you can be informed about what is going on in the sex research world and apply the research to your life. I hope this process produces more sexually competent people who raise sexually competent kids.
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