The woman who explained the female orgasm

Thomas Maier is the author of
"Masters of Sex: The Life and Times of
William Masters and Virginia Johnson, the
Couple Who Taught America How to Love,"
which is being reissued next week by Basic
Books to coincide with the September 29
debut of Showtime's "Masters of Sex," based
on the book and starring Lizzy Caplan and
Michael Sheen.
(CNN) -- Virginia Johnson once told me
something surprising about her famous
partnership with Dr. William Masters, which
helped revolutionize America's understanding
of human sexuality.
Despite Masters and Johnson's worldwide
fame, "We were absolutely the two most
secretive people on the face of the Earth,"
she said. "There's simply no one who knew
us well. People have a lot of speculation, but
they don't know."
On Thursday, as I read the obituaries about
Johnson's death at age 88, I was reminded of
Virginia's words. There's a sense of marvel
about her life story and how she managed to
affect the lives and happiness of so many
people, especially independent-minded
women like herself who wanted to make their
own decisions about sex outside the dictates
of men.
Johnson's life seems like a
modern-day Pygmalion story.
Down on her luck, a twice-
divorced women and with two
kids, she went back to
Washington University at age
32 looking for a degree. She
was working as a secretary at
the university-affiliated
hospital in St. Louis when she
met Masters, the top ob-gyn
and fertility expert in town.
A hard-driving, ambitious physician, Masters
wanted very much to win a Nobel Prize for
documenting clinically just how the human
body responded during sex, so that medicine
could come up with effective treatments for
married couples having troubles in the
bedroom. Bill realized he needed a female
partner for such a risky venture. The few
female doctors around in the 1950s didn't
want to go near his potentially explosive
experiment that could bring career ruin. Not
even Masters' wife -- with two young
children at home in the suburbs -- wanted to
get involved.
Virginia changed everything. Almost
immediately she showed a native genius for
what made men and women tick, sexually
and in matters of the heart. First as a dutiful
associate and eventually as the full-fledged
partner to Masters, Johnson convinced dozens
of women and men -- nurses, residents,
graduate students and various people around
St. Louis -- to become part of their secretive
decade-long study, the biggest sex
experiment in U.S. history.
Their work was published in 1966 in "Human
Sexual Response," which outlined, in its own
obtuse medicalese, just how the body worked
during sex. Like cartographers, they mapped
how each body part vibrated, sweated and
became aroused during lovemaking. Without
Virginia Johnson's extraordinary zeal and
persuasiveness, Masters conceded their study
would have failed. To his everlasting credit,
Bill gave "Gini" credit for her remarkable
contributions, far more than any male doctor
in the 1950s would have done, sharing his
byline with her on their first book.
Time would underline Johnson's impact even
more. Despite their guarded language, the
first book documented the power of female
sexuality, showing that women were capable
of multiple orgasms -- a veritable fireworks
display -- compared to most men's single
firecracker.
Their clinical evidence became
part of the spark for America's
so-called sexual revolution of
the 1960s and 1970s, reflected
in everything from key feminist
writings to Hugh Hefner's
Playboy magazine. Even the
rosy women's magazines, filled
with recipes and homey
bromides, began writing about
sex, using the same clinical
phrases that Masters and Johnson made
acceptable in polite society.
But Virginia's impact became particularly
evident in the duo's second book, 1970's
"Human Sexual Inadequacy," which landed
them on the cover of Time magazine and
television talk shows. It was Virginia who
largely developed the team's "sensate"
therapy from a hodgepodge of influences --
including behaviorism, Freudian talking
methods and even urology studies from other
medical researchers -- that soon had couples
flocking to their clinic for a cure for their
sexual difficulties.
That a woman without a degree had come up
with such an effective approach heralding a
quintessentially America quick-fix -- an 80%
success rate within a mere two weeks (as
opposed to years on a Viennese analysts'
couch talking about your feelings about poor
old Mother!) -- was galling to the medical
establishment. Yet Masters and Johnson's
pioneering work created the modern sex
therapy industry, with clinics around the
world relying on their methods and wisdom to
this day.
Later in life, Virginia would say her 24/7
devotion to her research and their patients
hurt both her relationship with her children
and her marriage with Masters (they divorced
in the 1990s shortly before their clinic
closed) --expressing this with the same
regret some women today share in balancing
work and family life. She was also concerned
that their pioneering work on sex might be
used by libertines to avoid the necessity of
caring for their partners as real, loving
human beings, rather than pornographic
holograms in the bedroom.
But mostly, Johnson became aware that many
younger women today had adopted her
independent-mindedness about sex, once so
verboten in 1950s America. Only they, and
not some fatherly figure in a white lab coat,
would rule their bodies and set the terms for
when, how and with whom they would share
themselves.
Johnson's remarkable personal and
professional adventures make her one of the
most extraordinary American women of the
20th century. Her passing should remind us
of just how great an impact her life had on
all of us.