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Pioneering Sex Researcher Virginia Johnson, 88, Talked About Sex Before It Was Okay

As half of the Masters and Johnson duo, she published books on sexuality like Human Sexual Response and Human Sexual Inadequacy, which became bestsellers.

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Image: Chris Blakely

Virginia Johnson talked about sex in a time when it wasn’t okay to talk about sex. As half of the Masters and Johnson duo, she published classic books on sexuality like Human Sexual Response and Human Sexual Inadequacy, which became bestsellers. With Masters, Johnson helped usher in new forms of sex therapy and create an atmosphere in medicine where sex was not something to be ashamed of. On Wednesdsay, Johnson died at the age of 88.

Biographer Thomas Maier, who wrote Masters of Sex: the Life and Times of William Masters and Virginia Johnson, the Couple Who Taught America How to Love, told the CBC, “She has one of the most extraordinary lives of any American woman in the 20th century. She literally came in without a degree and became one of the most well-known female figures in medicine in her time.”

Johnson met William Masters while she was working as a secretary at the medical school at Washington University in St. Louis. The Los Angeles Times describes their meeting this way: “Then, in 1957, a balding, middle-aged gynecologist named William Masters teamed up with a divorced mother of two named Virginia Johnson in a research collaboration that would permanently illuminate the taboo subject.”

Their early relationship was a dark one. Masters told Johnson that having sex with him was part of her job. They wound up getting married in 1971 and divorcing 20 years later. In between, however, Johnson slowly became a co-collaborator on Masters’ research. She was responsible for breaking up classic myths, like the Freudian concept that clitoral orgasms were an immature sexual response, the idea that a man’s penis size is important in pleasing his partner and the myth that elderly people cannot have satisfying sex. The New York Times adds:

The medical establishment had long treated sexual dysfunctions psychoanalytically, but Masters and Johnson took a more physical approach. They were credited with helping thousands of men with impotence and premature ejaculation, and thousands of women with difficulty in achieving orgasm, among other problems. In doing so, they helped establish the field of modern sex therapy, training a generation of therapists throughout the country.

Of course, no woman working in science has an easy path, especially not a woman working on sexuality research in the 1980s. The CBC says that Johnson received lots of criticism and even threats. And not all of her work was received well. The pair had controversial ideas about AIDS and homosexuality.

But between them, they made sexuality a less terrifying subject for people to approach. “We’re not trying to make perfect lovers,” Johnson told the Washington Post. “We tell them to take what they feel at the time and translate it into a physical ‘shared’ moment. The turn-on is knowing he ‘really’ wants to touch you, and vice versa. Even the most double-standard male and the equivalent of that in a female learns eventually if you don’t give, you don’t get enough back.”

In September, a TV series called Masters of Sex will debut on Showtime based on their lives and work.

More from Smithsonain.com:

Documenting Sexual Assault in The Invisible War
What Can We Learn From the Porn Industry About HIV?

About Rose Eveleth
Rose Eveleth

Rose Eveleth is a writer for Smart News and a producer/designer/ science writer/ animator based in Brooklyn. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, Scientific American, Story Collider, TED-Ed and OnEarth.

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