The Real “Masters of Sex”

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The “Real Masters of Sex,” My Many Years Working with Masters and Johnson and the Company Culture That Made It Work

by Dr. Mark Schwartz



The building where Dr. William Masters and Virginia Johnson conducted research into human sexuality in the 70s and 80s looked a lot like a physicians’ office. Privacy and professionalism reigned. Clients worked their way past a conscientious and well organized receptionist, through locked doors, intercoms, and buzzers as they were escorted to their therapy session. Even the name on the door would never belie what went on behind it: Reproductive Biology Research Foundation.

Dr. Masters often said that one must be “beyond reproach”— meaning that those of us who worked with sexuality daily others were at risk of seeming lascivious, so we combatted that by being hyper-professional and “squeaky clean.” Everyone wore a white lab coat and addressed each other by formal name (Dr. Schwartz or Mrs. Bowen) or — oddly — three initials (WHM and VEJ). Nobody inside those doors had sex with one other unless they were married. There was no flirting. The names of couples attending therapy were kept extremely private.

Occasionally the institute conducted research on fertility and the effectiveness of birth control, which required a supply of sperm samples. Paid donors, mostly medical students from Washington University, were warned to be mature and discrete or risk being banned from the program. They disappeared quietly into an otherwise sterile bathroom with a few issues of Playboy and a collection cup.

Couples from all over the world would present daily for the unique and highly effective Masters and Johnson model of therapy. Arabs visited with several wives, movie stars hid behind sunglasses, troubled couples flew in from Israel and South America. We treated husbands and wives in 30-year unconsummated marriages, bisexuals having compulsive affairs in the days of HIV terror, and some garden-variety impotence and anorgasmia — each for two weeks of daily intensive therapy. Their future was in our hands as the therapy team. We worked within the curious paradox that we had to remove the pressures to perform from the relationship, and had only two weeks to accomplish it!

The therapy was powerful and the success rate was high. Traditional psychiatry had considered impotence difficult to treat in longer psychodynamic therapies, but the newly invented Masters and Johnson short-term approach had a high success rate. Traditional therapists were incredulous and skeptical of these rates; many critics emerged. On the positive side, though, many therapists wanted to be trained in the method. So most weekends, we were off training professionals throughout the world. While on the road, Dr. Masters would tell us that if someone in the audience initiated a sexual liaison, “We should feel free to accept. Just don’t return to work on Monday.” This was what he meant by “beyond reproach.”

At first, married professionals were trained to do co-therapy at the institute. This worked well until most of the therapist couples divorced. Working together in intensive therapy and living together was too difficult. It was hard to “practice what one preached” occupying the same space 24 hours a day. Living and working together may have been particularly stressful for Masters and Johnson themselves. The politics and interactions at work were slightly dysfunctional as might be expected with a driven married couple in charge.

Virginia Johnson was creative, insightful, extroverted and good with people. William Masters was like a Tootsie Pop: hard on the outside (as you would expect from a Full Professor of Gynecology at a top, teaching hospital), but soft and sweet on the inside. He had a warm kindness that made him almost childlike with close friends. And he had so much charisma in therapy, that much of what made his style effective could not be duplicated by his students. As we gained experience, we learned to develop our own personally effective styles rather than to try to copy his.

Surprisingly as a couple, Masters and Johnson never seemed to get along very well. Masters had a plaque on his desk that read, “Nothing you say makes any sense to me.” I suspect the message was aimed mainly at his wife. But when the two of them conducted therapy sessions, their electricity, focus, and insight was palpable and unrivaled. They breathed magic into the air and sexual health back into the lives of hundreds of grateful couples. There will never be another research and therapy team like them. They opened our eyes and changed the world.