who were masters and johnson?

During my first year in grad school, my human sexuality professor came into class one day and announced, “William Masters died last night.”

A few students responded immediately. One said, “Man, he was such a pioneer.” Another cut in, “Yeah, but what about all that homosexual conversion stuff?”

I, on the other hand, attempted a look of serious contemplation that one gives when she has no idea what is being discussed. Who was this man whose death was eliciting such a response?

It turned out that William Masters was one half of a sexology duo that made a name for itself with work that began in the 1960s.

Masters, along with his partner Virginia Johnson, studied human sexuality, conducted experiments and treated patients with sexual problems. At the time this was all considered very radical. The thing that the two are best remembered for is their identification of the four phase human sexual response cycle. 

They discovered that during sexual arousal, both men and women go through an ordered sequence of phases that look like this:

  1. The Excitement Phase: The body’s process of getting aroused (e.g.: the vagina lubricates and the penis becomes erect).

  2. The Plateau Phase: The maintenance of arousal for a period of time.

  3. Orgasm: The peak of arousal when pleasurable sensations occur as muscle tension is released.

  4. Resolution: The final stage, which occurs as the body returns to it’s normal state of non-arousal.

Masters and Johnson learned that while arousal could stop at any phase, (for example, you might only get to the plateau phase and never reach orgasm), it isn’t possible to jump around from one phase to another without going in order.

Putting human subjects in a lab and charting sexual response was a completely new thing to do and the findings contradicted a lot of the old fashioned thinking about orgasms. As a result, Masters and Johnson have been seen as trailblazers.

But what about this “homosexual conversion” stuff that my classmate had mentioned? In this area, these folks were a lot less progressive. In fact, for a number of years they actually ran a clinic that claimed to turn gay people straight!

Today, some people still buy into the myth that this is possible. But pretty much every respected medical organization, from the American Psychological Association to the American Academy of Pediatrics, states that sexual orientation can’t be changed and attempting to do so can actually cause a lot of harm.  Masters and Johnson worked during a time when homosexuality was considered a psychological disorder (that changed in 1973). But even then–in the late 1960s–others in their field were calling for a greater acceptance of gay people.

After a few years, Masters and Johnson abandoned their poorly conceived straight-making attempts and focused on other projects.

Though this aspect of the famed sexologists work doesn’t get as much airtime as their other work, it is interesting to realize that this pair, who get so much credit for being ahead of their time, also bought into a lot of the stereotypes of their day.

Have you heard about Masters and Johnson? Do you think their contributions to our knowledge about sex make up for their de-gaying attempts?


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  • adanarama

    It is sad that such intelligent people had such narrow-minded views, but at least they did make significant contributions to their field in spite of their misconceptions. If nothing else, we can learn from their mistakes as well as their successes.

  • Ethan

    These two aren't the only famous historic figures who have questionable pasts.
    Humans are by nature imperfect. Edison kept slaves, Newton tried to use science to prove his religion superior, Salanger was a nutjob, and the less said of the folly and sexisim of Sigmund Freud the better.
    The point is to not focus on the people, but on the work. Was it valid or not. If it is, then they deserve their place in history, wheather they were homophobes or not.

  • Elinor

    Darwin has strongly racist views, but I think most of us will remember him for his work on evolution. Certainly considering most of the society in which he lived had similar views. With science we have to take the good with the bad, they were groundbreaking, and did some important research. Yes it's a shame they bought into the 'deprograming' of gays, but one hopes we learnt something from that too.