“Masters of Sex”: Research and Personal Lives of Masters and Johnson

Based on a 2009 nonfiction book about William Masters and Virginia Johnson is a new Showtime series on Sundays called Masters of Sexstarring Michael Sheen and Lizzy Caplan. From the publisher’s description of the book:

Highlighting interviews with the notoriously private Masters and the ambitious Johnson, critically acclaimed biographer Thomas Maier shows how this unusual team changed the way we all thought about, talked about, and engaged in sex while they simultaneously tried to make sense of their own relationship. Entertaining, revealing, and beautifully told, Masters of Sex sheds light on the eternal mysteries of desire, intimacy, and the American psyche.

The coupling and uncoupling of Masters and Johnson, in brief: In the 1950’s Johnson became a research assistant to the OB-GYN fertility specialist Masters. Although they eventually married, Masters divorced Johnson a couple decades later to be with someone else from his past.

According to many of the reviews, the show grows increasingly better with each episode. Thomas Maier, the book‘s author and a series consultant, has seen at least six of them. He tells Sharon Jayson, USA Today, “The show really reflects that vibrant, dynamic, combative, creative, lustful aspect of this extraordinary relationship between Masters and Johnson. Their relationship goes from a very uneven relationship — boss to low-level secretary filling out forms — to a more equal relationship.”

Emily Nussbaum, The New Yorker, indicates that not all is real in the show’s portrayal, however:

The show departs in several key ways from the true story, blurring chronology and conflating characters, and adding in one or two questionable twists for the sake of drama. In a few cases, it makes events less strange than they were in reality: in the actual experiments, anonymous couples mated with paper bags over their heads.

Yes, the sex research—how does the show handle it?

Hank Stuever, Washington Post:

…(I)t’s easily the only show in the fall crop of series that makes me want to watch more, more, more, and not just because it’s got sex in it. Hoo-boy, does it have sex in it. It’s technically soft-core sex and narrative-appropriate, but there’s sex from the front, from the back, from the side, from the top, from the bottom — mattresses a-squeakin’ and EKG needles a-zippin’ back and forth.

Matthew Gilbert, Boston Globe:

It contains plenty of sexual content, when the pair monitor their subjects — most of them prostitutes and johns — during sexual activity; but it isn’t sexed-up so much as it is about sexuality. It’s also about science, primitive then compared with what it is now, and the cultural resistance at the time to talking openly about sex.

Maureen Ryan, The Huffington Post:

‘Masters of Sex’ brings us sex workers (gay and straight), repressed St. Louis matrons, closeted white-collar workers, blue-collar moms and entitled, arrogant doctors, and it slowly peels back their layers and allows us to feel compassion for what they don’t know and haven’t been taught.

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