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A few years into her thirties, Virginia Johnson was lost. Divorced three times and a mother to two children, she gave up her singing career and decided to enroll in Washington University to get a degree in sociology. By chance, she applied for a job as a research assistant for Dr. William H Masters and within a decade, she was a rock star in popular American culture. During a lengthy career that lasted more than fifty years, she co-wrote numerous books, made an untold number of advances in human sexual research and perhaps most importantly, made Americans a little more comfortable talking about what happened between their sheets at night. Yesterday, Johnson passed away in St. Louis. She was 88 and by all accounts, remained fiercely opinionated throughout her life.
Large scale societal shifts rarely happen because of the actions of a single person. Instead, the public perception typically moves slowly thanks a series of forward-thinking people. When it comes to sex in the United States, much of the work began in the 1940s and 1950s with Dr. Alfred Kinsey. His rigorously detailed analyses of human sexuality relied on interviews and questionnaires to accumulate a ton of raw data on how often Americans were engaging in sex, masturbating, cheating, etc. During the late 1950s, William H Masters decided to expand on that research by soliciting men and women to have sex and masturbate inside a laboratory environment so the physical acts themselves could be studied as more than just numbers and percentages. To help put the female participants at ease, Masters decided to hire a woman to help, and after meeting Johnson, he knew she was the right one for the job. She had a poise and maturity about her that was both professional and warm.
Throughout a partnership that spanned a marriage, a divorce and worldwide fame, Masters oversaw the scientific elements of the experiments and Johnson oversaw all of the administrative duties. Together, they were able to prove there was no difference between clitoral and vaginal orgasms, prove some women are multiorgasmic and prove penis size has little to no bearing on sexual satisfaction. In addition, they also let the world know impotence and premature ejaculation are very common problems many males face and difficult achieving orgasm is a very common problem many women face. This openness made many people comfortable enough to start seeking help for the first time and assumedly, helped add happiness to a lot of relationships.
At the height of their fame and popularity, Masters & Johnson were a regular source of gossip and discussion on American late night television. Their work graced bestseller lists across the country, and an entire facility was built at Washington University to house their research. The two married in 1971 and stayed together until 1993 when they divorced amicably on account of his relentless work habits and her desire to slow down and live a normal life.
In the coming months, Showtime will roll out a new series entitled Masters Of Sex that will follow the lives of the two famed sex researchers. No doubt Johnson would have enjoyed the nod, but with her gone, it will just have to serve as a tribute to her independent spirit and gratifying work. She will be missed.