Psychology Yesterday

Stories from the behavioral past

An Adequate Body of Sexual Information

Masters and Johnson redefined the landscape of sexuality in 1966.

Until the mid-1960s, what were commonly called “marriage manuals” were one of the very few resources for couples experiencing problems in the bedroom. Although they were certainly better than nothing, it was clear that these books fell well short of what Americans could and should know about sex. It was thus not surprising that William Masters and Virginia Johnson’s 1966 Human Sexual Response redefined the landscape of sexuality in the United States by offering readers a completely new and different understanding of the physical dynamics of sex. Human Sexual Response was hardly the only book to be purchased that year with a heavy dose of sex (John Cleland’s infamous Fanny Hill was doing very well in paperback, as was Richard von Krafft-Ebing’s English translation of Psychopathia Sexualis and the works of Marquis de Sade), but its scientific foundation set itself from all others. The book had almost as big an impact as Kinsey’s 1948 Sexual Behavior in the Human Male despite its overtly clinical language and frequently unintelligible syntax.

Based on eleven years of research (and about seven hundred subjects experiencing a reported 10,000 orgasms), Human Sexual Response offered detailed measurements of all kinds of sexuality activity; nothing like it had ever been published. While Kinsey had produced his books based on interviews, questionnaires, and statistics, Masters and Johnson focused on what people did rather than said. Readers found the goings-on at the team’s “live sex lab” fascinating, a clear deviation from the accepted view of sexuality as an intimate, private affair. (The lab included not just electrocardiographs and electroencephalographs but floodlights and color-movie cameras.) Knowledge abounded in many fields, of course, but sexuality largely remained a no man’s land, requiring Masters and Johnson to push the boundaries of scientific inquiry. And more than most fields, sexuality was a wellspring of misinformation and misunderstanding, this making their effort that much more important. Much misery and anxiety could be eliminated if the facts of sexuality were brought to the surface, the two believed, with no better time and place to do that than 1960s America. Treating sexual problems was the logical next step, this the planned subject of their next book.

For the moment, however, the two doctors (he a gynecologist and she a psychologist) were enjoying the enormous success of Human Sexual Response. Although the book cost a whopping $10 (Valley of the Dolls, the bestselling book of 1966, cost $5.95), it was difficult to find in bookstores, this only adding to its mystique. The book was primarily targeted to professionals, but that did not stop the general public from hunting down a copy. The book’s publisher (Little, Brown) had also limited the number of review copies (even Science magazine did not receive one), and the jacket carried no endorsements. Some major newspapers, including the Chicago Tribune, refused to review the book, with editors seeing it as an odd literary specimen specifically for the medical community. Many ordinary Americans thought otherwise. Mail poured into their Reproductive Biology Research Foundation in St. Louis, much of it from people seeking help for their own sexual problems. (Of the initial 1,000 letters received after the book’s publication, 70% were requests for help while 10% were considered “favorable” and 20% “hostile.” Many people jokingly asked if they could buy the movie rights for the book, knowing a film as blatantly sexual would do well at the box office. Removing the taboos, repression, and sinfulness surrounding sexuality was to Masters and Johnson was a serious business, however, as was the knowledge that their work would result in the “saving” of many marriages. Now armed with the facts, parents would be better equipped to talk about sexuality with their children, the pair also believed. Judging by the book’s success, it did indeed appear that the general public was more than ready to embrace what Masters referred to as “an adequate body of sexual information.” Only the instinct for survival or self-preservation was stronger than that of sexuality, they and many others were convinced, this the underlying basis that made their work so essential.

Larry Samuel, Ph.D., is a cultural historian and the founder of Culture Planning LLC.

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