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Where Is the Love?

Why Masters and Johnson have faded into oblivion.

Whatever happened to Masters and Johnson?

If you replied “who?” you just answered my question.

Once they were as big as Afros, polyester, Barry Manilow, and bell bottom pants. In the sixties and seventies everyone had heard of William Masters and Virginia Johnson.

At the time they were acclaimed by the media as the couple who “touched off the sexual revolution.”

And now they’re back in the news. The television network Showtime has announced that it will be filming a mini-series based on their lives and careers.

Showtime’s series on MJ will be a great occasion to reflect on their impact. My guess is that after watching the show we’ll wonder what all the fuss was about in the first place.

However, back in the day, Time magazine celebrated their attempts to “repair the conjugal bed.”

Their recent biographer has hailed them as “the couple who taught America how to love.”

If that’s true, half a century later I’m inclined to ask (in the words of that Roberta Flack and Donny Hathaway song from the seventies) “Where is the love?”

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That’s because today one out of every two marriages fails. Studies show that more and more men and women are not interested in sex. Experts describe countless marriages as “sex-starved.” People routinely complain about low libido.

Author Joan Sewell insists she prefers chocolate to sex.

Low libido doesn’t just afflict heterosexuals. Therapists report something called “lesbian bed death.”

The data seem to say that in the new millennium the “conjugal bed” is a disaster zone.

OK, OK, I admit, saying MJ taught America how to love is just press copy hype, so we can’t blame them for today’s low levels of sexual intimacy. But what legacy did they really leave?

William Masters had been an obscure St. Louis gynaecologist when in 1957 he teamed up with Virginia Johnson, who didn’t have a college degree, to study sex. They used sophisticated laboratory gadgetry to measure thousands of orgasms and probe the most intimate orifices of men and women.

They quickly became the embodiment of America’s faith that scientific knowledge would teach us how to be happy.

In the sixties they lectured around the country to sold-out audiences, appeared on talk shows, and magazines carried their picture. She had a Mona-Lisa-like-smile, and he was the balding, bow-tied sphinx.

Everything seemed to be going their way, but events soon dimmed MJ’s lustre.

Critics such as psychiatrist Natalie Shainess accused MJ of “selling joyless sex.” MJ were the “priest and priestess” who stripped the sex act from “the moods, feelings, emotions of desire and love.” Moonlight and candles were not what MJ were all about.

For people who preached that good sex could save marriages, they weren’t exactly walking advertisements for their own creed. Johnson was twice-divorced when she married Masters in 1971, and he left his devoted wife of twenty-nine years to marry Johnson.

They themselves divorced in 1992, and Masters re-married his childhood sweetheart before he died in 2001. From Virginia Johnson’s perspective, it was not an amicable divorce.

Controversy dogged MJ into the 1980s. They claimed to be able to “cure” homosexuality, sparking a fierce backlash from the gay community. Then in 1988 Masters warned that AIDS was running rampant in the heterosexual community and would soon attack the general population “at a frightening pace.” Statements like these undermined their credibility.

Other sexologists, including Shere Hite, attacked MJ for restricting women’s sexual pleasure to heterosexual intercourse.

Their Institute, opened in 1964, closed down in 1994. Few noticed.

Undoubtedly, Masters and Johnson advanced our knowledge about human sexual responses, but in hindsight their overall approach to sexual intimacy appears dehumanizing, just like their critics said at the time.

So, if you’re nostalgic about the sixties and seventies you may decide to tune in and watch Showtime’s series on MJ.

But if you’re like millions out there today you’ll just curl up in bed with a good book and a bar of chocolate.

 

Ian Robert Dowbiggin, Ph.D., is an academic historian and professor of history at the University of Prince Edward Island.

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