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.