10 Real-Life Facts About Bill Masters and Virginia Johnson, the Inspiration for Showtime's 'Masters of Sex'
In its second week on Showtime, the new drama, Master of Sex improved on its first week ratings, jumping around 100,000 viewers, which suggest not only that viewers of the pilot were pleased, but that word of mouth is slowly starting to spread (Masters debuted against the series finale of Breaking Bad with 1 million viewers, which is close to the number of viewers who tuned in to the first episode of Breaking Bad). It’s a fantastic show — sexually charged, brilliantly acted, fascinating, and playful — and I’m pushing it on everyone I know.
What I love about Masters of Sex is that, like Boardwalk Empire, it masterfully weaves fiction with reality. It doesn’t have the colorful gangsters of the HBO series, but it is based extensively on countless hours of interviews with Virginia Johnson, whose fictional counterpart is played by Lizzy Caplan. There’s obviously been some liberties taken, but from what I’ve read on Wikipedia, and in several articles and interviews, Masters of Sex seems to capture the spirit of Masters and Johnson’s relationship, as well as the details involved in their sex studies.
I encourage you to watch the show (and come back for our weekly recaps). To goose your interest, I have included ten quick real-life facts about Masters and Johnson, some of which we have already seen play out in the first two episodes, while others we can expect to see in the future of the series. There are spoilers both for episodes that have aired, and for future episodes, so if you don’t like being spoiled by history, skip the rest of this post and seek out the series wherever you can find it.
1. Despite the initially creepy nature of their relationship in Masters of Sex, 15 years after the study began, Masters would leave his wife and marry Virginia Johnson, though they would divorce 20 years later in 1992, which also ended their academic relationship. Their sexual relationship began as part of their scientific research.
Here’s a picture of the real Bill Masters and Virginia Johnson.
2. Over the course of the study, Masters and Johnson observed 10,000 complete cycles of sexual response, which has got to become numbing after a certain period. That has to be the equivalent of around 1,000 hours of Internet porn, which I suspect would be enough to turn anyone off of sex.
3. The two revolutionary books that came out of the studies, Human Sexual Response and Human Sexual Inadequacy, were best-sellers, translated in over 30 languages.
4. As reflected in the show, the study did, indeed, begin with prostitutes. One hundred and 45 prostitutes participated in the study before Masters and Johnson moved studying members of the community.
5. Included among the findings in Masters and Johnson’s study was scientific proof that men need a break after ejaculation before they can orgasm again, while women need no such break and could have multiple orgasms. They also found that the rhythmic contractions of orgasms in both sexes occurring initially in 0.8 second intervals and then gradually slowing in both speed and intensity.
6. They also found that, though it takes longer to become aroused, older people age 70 and beyond were perfectly capable of intense orgasms and a healthy sexual life.
7. They also found that gay men — with little discussion — quickly managed to figure out who was top and who was bottom. Likewise, with no verbal communication, one partner in lesbian couples quickly assumed sexual control.
8. Between 1968 and 1977, Masters and Johnson treated homosexuality, which was considered abnormal at the time. They actually reported a 71 percent success rate in converting homosexuals into heterosexuals over a six year period, which — to me — calls into question their findings in other areas of sexual response. Virginia Johnson had major reservations with that study and, in fact, later revealed that she suspected Bill Masters may have fabricated some of the results.
9. Masters and Johnson were also pioneers in the field of sexual dysfunction, developing a form of rapid treatment psychotherapy with an 80 percent success rate. Before that time, treatment had a very low success rate.
10. Masters died in 2001 due to complications from Parkinson’s Disease, while Virginia Johnson died in July of this year, due to complications from several illnesses. He was 85 at the time of his death, while she was 88.
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