Virginia Johnson dies at 88; teamed with husband in pioneering sex research
In the 1950s, couples who wanted better sex lives had few places to turn for help. They could confide in a priest or rabbi and pray for enlightenment or see a psychiatrist and pay for it, only to learn, after months or years, that their mothers were probably to blame.
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.
Johnson, Masters’ collaborator, lover and later wife, who played a leading role in their crusade to turn sex into a science and legitimate field of therapy, died in St. Louis on Wednesday of natural causes, said her son, Scott Johnson. She was 88.
She and Masters co-wrote two landmark books: “Human Sexual Response” (1964), which described with clinical precision the physiological responses to sexual stimulation; and “Human Sexual Inadequacy” (1968), which prescribed specific remedies for such problems as premature ejaculation, impotence and the inability to achieve orgasm.
The latter book, which made the cover of Time magazine, “was a product of Virginia’s particular insight,” said Thomas Maier, who wrote the biography “Masters of Sex: The Life and Times of William Masters and Virginia Johnson,” published in 2009. “She was the genius who put together their stew of a therapy that was incredibly effective.”
At the Masters and Johnson Institute, which they founded in St. Louis in 1978, the researchers observed and treated thousands of couples, producing findings that empowered women in particular to seek sexual satisfaction with their partners.
Working with an initial group of 694 volunteers, almost equally divided between men and women, they used tiny cameras and other equipment to collect data on heart rate, brain activity and metabolism during every phase of sex, from arousal to climax.
Their findings shattered many long-held beliefs. Contradicting Sigmund Freud, for example, they found no difference between a vaginal and clitoral orgasm.
They reported astonishing long-term cure rates. Of the more than 2,300 cases treated between 1959 and 1985, 84% of the men and nearly 78% of the women had lasting results after undergoing a two-week treatment program. The regimen included intensive work with a team of two therapists — one male, the other female — who sent the couples back to their hotel rooms every day to perform “homework.”
Despite the cumbersome language in their books — “reacting units,” for instance, meant women having an orgasm, while “tension increment” referred to mounting sexual desire — Johnson said the Masters and Johnson approach was fairly simple.
“We’re not trying to make perfect lovers,” Johnson told the Washington Post in 1978. “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.”
Their approach was used around the world but drew many critics. Some questioned the data and methodology that produced their high success rates, while others found fault with what they saw as an over-emphasis on the mechanics of sex.
Most of their books were provocative, including “Homosexuality in Perspective” (1979), a clinical study of homosexual couples that included the authors’ claim that they had turned some gays into heterosexuals, and “Crisis: Heterosexual Behavior in the Age of AIDS” (1988), co-written with Robert C. Kolodny, which was ridiculed for its errors, including the assertion that the AIDS virus could be spread by contact with toilet seats and mosquito bites. It was repudiated by then-Surgeon General C. Everett Koop.
But “Masters and Johnson on Sex and Human Loving” (1986) was praised for its clarity and comprehensiveness. The Washington Post said it “may be the last book on sex you’ll ever have to read.”
Mary Virginia Eshelman was born on Feb. 11, 1925, in Springfield, Mo., to Harry and Edna Eshelman. When she was 5, her family moved to Palo Alto, where her father was a hospital groundskeeper, but the family eventually returned to Missouri and farming.
Aspiring to be an opera singer, she studied music at Drury University near Jefferson City and sang with a band during World War II.
By her early 20s, she had been married and divorced twice. After the second marriage ended, she moved to St. Louis, where she met bandleader George Johnson. They were married in 1950 and divorced in 1956.
She is survived by their two children, Scott Johnson and Lisa Young, and two grandchildren.
At 32, she began studying for a sociology degree at Washington University in St. Louis. She was a secretary in the university’s maternity hospital when Masters tapped Johnson as his research partner.
Although she was often described as a psychologist in later accounts of her work with Masters, she never earned a college degree, a lasting regret. The demands of working with Masters had prevented it.
He had begun his sexual research in 1954, determined to build on the pioneering work of Alfred C. Kinsey, who pioneered the field with two statistical studies, “Sexual Behavior in the Human Male” in 1948 and “Sexual Behavior in the Human Female” in 1953.
But where Kinsey largely relied on hearsay, Masters was keen on direct observation. He had been collecting data in brothels but was convinced by a prostitute that he needed a more representative sample, particularly if he wanted to accurately gauge the sexual responses of women.
He began looking for a female research partner, preferably one who had been married and knew something about sex. Johnson, who said that sex was “never a problem” in any of her marriages, fit the bill and became an essential part of what was described as the “biggest sex experiment in U.S. history.”
“She was the one who convinced women in the St. Louis area to be in the study. Without her,” Maier said, “there was no study.”
She soon was spending long hours with Masters watching couples masturbate and copulate. Within a year, she and Masters became sex partners, climbing into the laboratory bed together after their subjects went home.
What began as a purely physical relationship gradually deepened. But Masters did not bring up marriage until a wealthy businessman proposed to Johnson. He divorced his first wife and in 1971 married Johnson.
On Christmas Eve in 1992, Masters announced that he wanted to end the union. He and Johnson were divorced in 1993 and closed the research institute in 1994. Masters, who subsequently married an old flame, died in 2001.
Johnson never remarried. After the institute closed, she established the Virginia Johnson Masters Learning Center in Creve Coeur, Mo., and produced videos and other material about dealing with sexual dysfunction.
Well into their marriage, Masters was asked how he and Johnson managed both living and working together.
“One simply doesn’t bring one’s work home with him,” Masters told the Associated Press reporter who raised the question, in 1985.
Johnson laughed. “Well,” she said, “that’s a funny way to put it.”
Times staff writer Valerie J. Nelson contributed to this report.
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