The American Historian
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Review: Masters of Sex

Andrew E. Clark-Huckstep

Showtime network is known for its edgy and provocative productions. Masters of Sex based on the eponymous 2009 biography of William Masters and Virginia Johnson by Thomas Maier, is no exception. Following the life and work of Johnson (Lizzy Caplan) and Masters (Michael Sheen), two sex researchers from the Midwest, Masters of Sex provides a revealing look into two important American figures who arguably “touched off the sexual revolution.” Now in its third season, Masters of Sex addresses not only the research of Masters and Johnson but also the context in which the research took place. The writers capitalize on the social movements and pressures of the 1950s and 1960s, and the series will appeal most to those interested in sexuality as it intersects with feminism, women’s experience of medicine, and race relations.

The first season focuses on Masters and Johnson at the start of their work together. Johnson, a single mother possessing a curious mind, was trapped in “women’s” jobs of secretarial work. Masters, on the other hand, was at the top of his field in gynecology and a star surgeon at Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri. His research took a turn, however, as he received questions from his patients regarding sex and sexuality. The two meet as Masters is searching for an assistant for his new project: a study of the physicality of human sexual response. The study was met with immediate criticism that reflected cultural anxieties about sex during the 1950s. As more people were willing to participate in the study, Masters and Johnson discovered that sex, even when viewed from behind a glass in a sterile setting, could not be contained. Masters and Johnson were soon having an affair under the guise of research, and subplots in the first season follow some of the problems the pair encountered with their subjects and document the all too human passion, elation, and shame that can be associated with sex.

Tension between the emotional and physical sides of sex continues into the second season as it shifts focus from Masters and Johnson to the grueling work of sex research in a medical field that opposed frank conversations with patients about sex. Here Masters of Sex aptly re-creates the tone Masters and Johnson used in prologue to their 1966 book Human Sexual Response. Fear, they argued, too readily immobilized the scientific community and shrouded questions of sex in mystery. The two continued their love affair while struggling to maintain intuitional support for the research. By the end of the season Masters and Johnson were forced to move to a private practice as they prepared the manuscript for Human Sexual Response.

Season three shifts gears, beginning with the distribution of advance copies of Human Sexual Response and the reactions of readers at a press conference. The first episode switches between Masters and Johnson fielding questions about the manuscript and scenes of a family trip during which Masters has to balance his relationship with his wife, Libby, their two children, his relationship with Johnson, and editing the manuscript. In one moving moment, Johnson, accused by a reviewer of capitalizing on the sexual revolution, responded with “we are the sexual revolution!” The research, too, was experiencing a revolution of its own. Initially the two tried to exclude patients with sexual dysfunctions but discovered that researching a functional, practical way to treat sexual dysfunction would further their research agenda. Dysfunction, too, characterized Masters’s relationship with his wife as Libby deals with deep depression. Early in the season Libby and Johnson are forced to come to terms with each other and the role each plays in Masters’s life.

For historians, Masters of Sex offers an interesting view of identities in the 1950s and raises issues of biography and public history. Women, for example, challenge pervasive oppression as Johnson struggles to find credibility in her work, while Dr. Lillian DePaul (Julianne Nicholson) continues her cancer research despite how (predominately male) doctors ignore women’s illnesses. Historians of sexuality will find the ambiguity of queer sexualities surprising and refreshing; the portrayal is closer to the range of sexual experiences Kinsey found in his 1948 and 1953 studies. And—as has been mentioned by other critics—the treatment of race has already sparked controversy. The team behind Masters of Sex added a fictional, all-black hospital to explore race during the 1950s: Masters was barred from recruiting black subjects for the study at Buell-Green Hospital, while Libby witnessed individuals toss a beat-up black man out of an unmarked van; a civil rights group later asked her to report what she had seen as the press and police whitewashed the beating—a marked departure from the biography of Masters and Johnson. In the original biography Masters and Johnson left Maternity Hospital at Washington University and went straight to private practice, and Libby never witnessed a hate crime. Some historians might find this and other fictionalizations (such as DePaul’s character) a dangerous move, while others more interested in counterfactual histories might find the move productive as it throws into stark relief the social tensions of race, class, and gender during the 1950s. The overall presentation characterizes the era as a time of social relationships that were ready to boil over. This is perhaps at odds with common depictions of the 1950s as a decade of conformity just after WWII that presaged the social upheaval of the 1960s and its “sexual revolution.” Ultimately, Masters of Sex uses the research as a way into exploring sexual problems of the 1950s and 60s and foregrounds more human—and complex—narratives, extending the series beyond the genre of biography.

As of this writing, Masters of Sex has been scheduled for a fourth season. Showtime network has certainly not disappointed thus far and promises to continue exploring the lives of these two important Americans who revitalized and popularized sex research. Their work forever changed how American’s understood sexual desire and sparked a national conversation about the role of sex in Americans’ lives.

Andrew E. Clark-Huckstep is a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of History at Indiana University, and an editorial assistant for The American Historian.