Newsday writer Maier (The Kennedys: America’s Emerald Kings, 2003, etc.) offers a dry look at the research team who unlocked the secrets of America’s bedrooms, ushering in the sexual revolution of the late 1960s.
The authors of Human Sexual Response, the incendiary 1966 primer that inaugurated the field of couples sex therapy, William Masters and Virginia Johnson had been research partners since 1956, when Masters, a doctor specializing in fertility and reproductive dysfunction, hired Johnson as an assistant at Washington University. Johnson, a 31-year-old divorcée with two children, was a college graduate from Missouri with little knowledge of medicine but a good deal of aplomb. Masters, ten years her senior and married with two children, had just gotten the green light to explore the uncharted terrain of human sexuality. Warned that he was committing academic suicide, Masters nonetheless delved into the clinical observation of coupling, masturbation, climaxing and performance anxiety. All the while Johnson was at his side, coaching the testing partners, filming, recording data and remaining admirably uncritical. Over ten years the two cemented their research and, discreetly, their amatory partnership. Though they were forced out of the umbrage of the university, they enjoyed remarkable success in their private practice, unseating psychoanalysis as the preferred mode of healing sexual dysfunction. With the publication of their work, they also became famous and rich, though later books on homosexuality and AIDS tarnished their reputations. Maier tries to get at the kernel of this curious and enduring partnership—they finally married in 1971, divorced in 1992—though Masters in particular remains a hard nut to crack, and the narrative lacks the punch that such a subject should merit.
An unsatisfying biography of a bold team whose influence on cultural mores and women’s sexual emancipation cannot be underestimated.