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RIP Virginia Johnson

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by thepleasurechest

On Wednesday, we lost Virginia Johnson, one of the trailblazers of modern sex research. Along with her partner, William H. Masters, she revolutionized the study of human sexuality. Masters and Johnson made their initial splash in 1966 with Human Sexual Response, a straightforward, non-sensational approach to the physiology of sex. From her New York Times obituary:

More than any investigator before them, Masters and Johnson moved sex out of the bedroom and into the laboratory, where it could be observed, measured, recorded, quantified and compared. While Kinsey had relied on interviews and questionnaires to elicit accounts of his subjects’ sexual habits, Masters and Johnson gathered direct physiological data on what happens to the human body during sex, from arousal to orgasm.

Early in his research, Dr. Masters realized that he lacked a female perspective and sought out a woman who could help put his subjects at ease, while offering insights into women’s sexuality. He found Johnson, a divorced mother, onetime country singer and psychology student when she responded to an ad seeking an assistant. .

As Slate’s Amanda Hess explains:

 He eventually recruited Johnson to advise him on the finer parts of female sexuality because she was a woman and willing, but also because she was not a fellow MD. As Thomas Maier detailed in his 2012 biography of the duo, female doctors in the 1950s were fighting an uphill battle in the male-dominated world of medicine just to earn their degrees and secure jobs; they didn’t yet have the social clout to turn their attentions to the highly stigmatized study of sex. “When women went to medical school at that particular time, an MD was so hard-won they would never have jeopardized it, being associated with sex research,” Johnson recalled Masters as telling her. Instead, Masters leveraged his own social positioning to undertake the research, with the help of a woman who had no social standing to lose.

Together, Masters and Johnson debunked myths about sex and aging, challenged the Freudian bias against clitoral orgasm and helped thousands of men and women overcome problems with orgasm, by shifting from a psychoanalytic model to a physiological one. In the process, they helped take sex therapy to the mainstream. Their partnership and their pioneering work has even inspired Masters of Sex, a new dramatic series on Showtime.

To learn more about Virginia Johnson, we recommend the remembrances in the New York Times and at Slate.

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