William H Masters 30 year Retrospective on Sex Research
presented at the Society for the Scientific Study of Sex
26th Annual Meeting in Chicago in 1983.
William Masters is, of course, with Alfred Kinsey, one of the giants in sex research in the twentieth century. Freud- who was not a scientific researcher- certainly deserves credit for bringing sexuality into the culture as topic needed much study. Other researchers deserve mention in the pantheon of giants, including Havelock Ellis in England, whose work paved the way for women’s health in America by pioneers like Margaret Sanger, and Frank Beach who studied the sexual hormones and behavior, Margaret Mead who studied sexuality and gender in other cultures, and of course the people who worked with Kinsey- Wardell Pomeroy, William Martin, and Dick Gebhard, and Master’s partner in research Virginia (Ginny) Johnson.
But Kinsey is the giant who brought us information on the broad range of sexual behavior in which we were secretly engaged in a sexually repressed society. His interviews will be eternally criticized, as will all interview studies, because his interviewees were not a perfect cross-section of the public, and because people are not always honest, nor for that matter are interviewers.
I had the honor of studying human sexuality in 1981 at the Institute for the Advanced Study of Human Sexuality in San Francisco, which at the that time was licensed by the State of California as a doctorate-granting school. Wardell Pomeroy, the second author of both the Male (1948) and Female (1949) studies, was the Dean there, and one of my teachers. Wardell had just published his book on doing sex history interviews. He had published a short article in Playboy magazine in the 1960s describing “what is normal?” He shared with us his own personal record of sexual behavior- a one person longitudinal case history. He showed us the data for himself, with thirty years added, including sexual activity with his wife, himself, and some others. He was a kind and gentle teacher, with a soft-spoken style that belied his iconoclasm on the issue of society’s refusal to be honest and open about sexuality. Master’s refers to him frequently in this lecture both because Wardell was still alive and considered a giant in the field, and because he was sitting right there in the audience.
It is hard to exaggerate the impact on society of the Kinsey reports. Freud has largely convinced us that each person is largely motivated by sexual drive. Kinsey’s data suggest we are not just motivated sexually, we are behaving sexually. Freud worried us. Kinsey threw it in our face and showed us what we were worried about. Freud was read by educated people and discussed intellectually spreading to many fields of analysis. Kinsey’s books- full of dry dry data- were public best-sellers. Where Freud showed us the illnesses which were based on repressed sexuality, Kinsey showed us that lots of people were engaging quietly in sexual behavior just as reprehensible, sinful, perverted, and frequent as our own. People were outraged by Kinsey’s male results, but had difficulty denying them. Most men, including priests and married men, masturbate. About one third of college men had had some sort of homosexual experience. Married men cheated on their wives with surprising (to some) frequency. Five years later, in the wake of WWII, and the war in Korea, 1953, Kinsey’s results for females were just as shocking to the public. They took five years longer because women had more variety in their sexuality. Women masturbated, in many ways. Some married women had affairs.
It was in this background of public outrage and interest in sexuality in the 1950s that William Masters, a gynecologist, began studying the biology of human sexual response. He and Johnson have been criticized for their focus on the raw biology of the biological pattern which includes the four stages we call arousal, plateau, orgasm, and resolution. Sure enough, as biology researchers in a biology lab, they had their hands full studying the anatomy and physiology of their subjects during sexual arousal. They never denied the sacred and spiritual in sexuality, the social and psychological aspects, the relation of biology to gender roles, the endocrinology (hormones) of sex, and all the other areas that must be understood to gain a working appreciation of human sexuality. So this criticism is unwarranted, and acknowledged. To tell Bill Masters and Virginia Johnson that their research was limited and narrow is truly preaching to the choir. Yet, it had general application to almost every human being.
To hear Master’s in his own words and voice describe the history of how this research developed, is a wonderful opportunity to view science unfold. I have listened to it over ten times, each time finding new connections to other events, other data in science, and renewed appreciation of the work by him and his associates. The audio quality is not ideal, but if I have found it worth listening to so often, and assigning, then that should be a hint to you that this is worth the effort.