Masters of Sex, Starring Female Sexual Liberation

By Amber Jamilla Musser
Assistant Professor of Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies

The breakout star of Showtime’s hit television show Masters of Sex isn’t St. Louis’ magnificent arch or Wash. U.’s gorgeous campus but the spectacle of sexually liberated 1950s womanhood. As portrayed by Lizzy Caplan, Virginia Johnson, one half of the pioneering sex-researching duo of Masters and Johnson, raises two children as a single mother, enjoys casual sex, and teaches Bill Masters, her boss and eventual lover, about the specific joys of uninhibited sex. Beautiful, smart, and in control of her sexuality, she is 2014’s version of the 1950s dream girl. Unapologetic about her love of orgasms and willing to stand up for her convictions about the primacy of sexual pleasure and women’s right to it (and contraception), this character actually represents the new model of femininity that Masters and Johnson’s research helped to usher in.

Working out of Washington University’s medical school in the late 1950s and 1960s, Masters and Johnson collected physiological data on human sexual response, which they published in 1966’s Human Sexual Response. Building on Alfred Kinsey’s research, the text outlined four different stages of male and female sexual response—excitement, plateau, orgasm, and resolution. It was designed to help troubled couples work through their sexual incompatibility in order to achieve multiple mutual orgasms. Unsurprisingly, despite the scientific language and technical graphs, the text found an audience beyond marriage counselors and sex therapists. Playboy editor Nat Lehrman wrote Masters and Johnson Explained in 1970 in an effort to distill only the most relevant information for the public. According to Lehrman, Masters and Johnson provided “authoritative information,” which included discerning the function of the clitoris, the source of vaginal lubrication, and the nature of multiple female orgasms. These findings were then further distilled and popularized by a spate of sex manuals including, notably, The Joy of Sex by Alex Comfort.

Many second wave feminists were also eager to embrace Masters and Johnson’s findings about multiple female orgasms and the importance of the clitoris. The liberating potential of Human Sexual Response was part of a conceptual shift that treated women as desiring sex. Cultural historian Jane Gerhard writes, “In contrast to the psychoanalytic view of women as passive, dependent, and less sexual than men, sexology discovered a responsive, sexually capable and potentially autonomous female body underneath social and expert myths of female passivity. The sexologists hoped to use this responsive female body toward their goal of establishing sexual similarity between women and men.”

This challenge to the dominant Freudian model of sexuality impassioned second wave feminists, particularly radical feminists, and made sexuality a central concern within feminism in the 1970s. This much is evident in Anne Koedt’s 1968 passionate essay on female pleasure, “Myth of the Vaginal Orgasm.” Koedt equated the vaginal orgasm with patriarchy and penetration because it catered to male ego, sexual pleasure, and sense of superiority while neglecting women’s desires; it was emblematic of the structural inequality between men and women. On the other hand, the clitoral orgasm illuminated the potential for equality and female autonomy in both sexual and nonsexual ways. Masters and Johnson’s research lies at the center of this feminist reclamation of the clitoral orgasm because it emphasized anatomic knowledge over societal influences in its model of female sexuality.

The Virginia Johnson that we see on television is a product of this set of values. In a strange way we could say that this Virginia Johnson is a daughter of Virginia Johnson, the sexologist. The Virginia Johnson on TV is autonomous, sexually liberated, and frank. We understand her, as feminists in the 1960s did, as a version of an ideal woman with an appetite for sex and a straightforward embrace of her sexuality. The ways that this matches up with actual women and with the actual Virginia Johnson are more complicated, as are the implications of Masters and Johnson’s research and the idea of sexual liberation, but perhaps that’s a topic for another television show.

For more reading please see:

Amber Jamilla Musser, Sensational Flesh: Race, Power, and Masochism 

Amber Jamilla Musser, “On the Orgasm of the Species: Female Sexuality, Science, and Sexual Difference" Feminist Review (2012) 102