Masters of Sex is based extensively on Thomas Maier’s countless hours of interviews with Virginia Johnson, whose fictional counterpart is played by Lizzy Caplan. (Read our interview with “Masters of Sex” author Maier here.) There have obviously been some liberties taken, but Masters of Sex seems to capture the spirit of Masters and Johnson’s relationship, as well as many of the details involved in their sex studies.
To goose your interest in the Showtime series, I have included 10 quick real-life facts about Masters and Johnson, some of which we have already seen play out, 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 eventually leave his wife and marry Virginia Johnson. They married in 1971, though they would divorce 20 years later in 1992. Their sexual relationship did begin as part of their scientific research and it is true that Masters convinced Johnson to have sex as part of their sex study.
In the end, their divorce, however, was amicable. Afterwards, while they no longer interacted socially very much, they did continue to work together (including a book called Heterosexuality).
Incidentally, Dr. Masters left Johnson for a woman he met 55 years earlier in medical school. Johnson — who claims that she never romantically loved Masters, though she did like being married to him — was happy for her ex-husband.
Here’s a picture of the real Bill Masters and Virginia Johnson.
Oh, and if you’re curious, by the time that Masters and Johnson married in 1971, Masters had two children with his first wife, Libby, who conceived through fertility treatment. However, Masters and Johnson’s sexual relationship does appear to have begun early on in their sex study.
It’s also true that Johnson had two children with a former husband (her second), a bandleader. Johnson herself was briefly a country singer.
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. In 1964 they established the Reproductive Biology Research Foundation in St. Louis, Missouri. He was its director, although Johnson would not be named its co-director until 1973, when the organization’s name was changed to the Masters and Johnson Foundation. 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 toward 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. However, Virginia Johnson had major reservations with that study and later revealed that she suspected Bill Masters may have fabricated some of the results. Author Thomas Maier later confirmed that the results were faked.
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 2013, due to complications from several illnesses. He was 85 at the time of his death, while she was 88.
— Provost Scully (Beau Bridges) is a composite character (made up of two real-life characters, whose names were changed for the series).
— Masters often did deal with cases of sexual identity with his real-life patients.
— Masters was a huge fan of sports, so the boxing episode from season two certainly fits within the spirit of that obsession.
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