Masters of Sex: The Life and Times of William Masters and Virginia Johnson, the Couple Who Taught America How to Love (Anglais) Broché – 26 septembre 2013
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The story takes you from the very beginning - the formative years of Masters and Johnson, their career shifts, their research and partnership, their sexual and emotional attraction to each other, and the world they built around them while gradually crumbled. While Masters and Johnson remained quite private throughout their body of work and private lives, Maier does excellent research to give us a view that only a fly on the wall could achieve.
A fascinating story by an excellent writer. I can't rave enough about the quality of writing and storytelling. Bravo!
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The biography is packed with two profound paradoxes that should have a major impact on the development, testing and construction of social science theory - but probably won't - we tend to make the same mistakes in our history rather than learning from our errors.
First, in my academic background I found theory construction be to paradoxical. In theory construction, we learned that devotion to a theory produces a blinder that can prohibit the researcher from identifying more meaningful explanations. In quantitative research, we are taught to begin with a hypothesis that emerges from a theory to avoid "type I errors." Masters was trained in traditional quantitative science and his world view was contaminated by theory (particularly Freudian theory). Because of her lack of formal education, Johnson (probably with greater innate intelligence than Masters) had NO academic world view. Her vision of sexology has no theoretical limitations. She was able to envision sexuality in a manner that was theoretically unparalleled. She, with the assistance of Masters's knowledge of science, was able to institute a major paradigm shift in sexology. Johnson's lack of academic training enabled her to guide Masters to employ his academic creditability to reshape our thinking. It is ironic that the chauvinism from the 1940's (which denied Johnson educational opportunities) was the catalyst for our current world view of sexuality.
Second, the relationship that created the emotional/intellectual bond between Masters and Johnson built AND destroyed our sexuality knowledge base. Both Masters and Johnson were victims of unrequited love. As a consequence, their bond was a marriage of convenience. At age 76, Masters divorced Johnson to marry his childhood sweetheart, while Johnson's desires were smashed by the death of her young love. Masters emotional betrayal of Johnson became the catalyst for the major intellectual tragedy of the 20th century - Johnson destroyed decades of unpublished cutting edge research. The sexology community was devastated.
The entire book is reminiscent of the Shakespearean Tragedy
1) I never liked talking to Masters. Although he had a kind and gentle voice, his eyes were sterile and piercing. I never understood how he could be a GREAT therapist. Here again Johnson saved him. Unknown to most people, he had an eye disorder that produced the piercing characteristic. According to the author, he had it surgically altered - but never was able to achieve an empathic expression.
2) Maier addressed the famous article in PSYCHOLOGY TODAY. After I read this article, I immediately wrote Clive Davis the editor of THE JOURNAL OF SEX RESEARCH and insisted that he ask Masters and Johnson to write a rebuttal. In the next issue of JSR, Kolodny provided the scientific rebuttal. For the past 30 years, I have been using this material as an example of external validity.
At the end of the book we realize that besides their 1950's lab techniques, the necessary secretiveness of their work and their reluctance to franchise, they, themselves, were of this time as well. While the author doesn't speculate, besides Masters' deterioration with age, deeply rooted values probably affected his later work on homosexuality and AIDS. The norms of their youth and childhoods certainly informed both their attitudes towards each other.
The book is a great read, you can't put it down. I gave it 4 not 5 stars because there are some significant missing pieces in Johnson's portrait. While Masters' family life is well covered, Johnson's is vague. (How did she/someone else raise her children? "Uncle" Larry, whose death upsets her children had been mentioned only once.) Before and after the divorce, what was the actual governance/ownership of the institute, the copyrights and all the property associated with the partnership? Maier writes that Johnson lost heavily, but how is not clear. She has the very valuable tapes, which implies significant ownership.
The portrait of Virginia Johnson is so provocative it calls for more. Perhaps, someone can build on this and may get also get her cooperation, as had Maier.
But more importantly, I was really hoping for a critical examination of the lives and work of Masters and Johnson. What I got was just overwrought gossip and all surface. To me, it felt like the book was mostly just a string of interviews the author conducted and had only started to make sense of. There is so much in here that does not require direct quoting and where the full quote was overkill, or only serves to repeat an idea that has already been drilled into our heads: Masters was distant, Johnson was independent, yeah, yeah, we got it. A bunch of random doctors and colleagues talking about the speculation going around the office about whether or not Masters and Johnson were having sex with each other. The narrative is driven by this collection of quotes, rather than the other way around. That only works if the people being quoted have anything interesting to say, which is rarely the case here. It's pretty vapid stuff - Wow, Bill Masters liked football! And he sometimes annoyed his friend (a former pro turned coach) with his chatter - not exactly riveting. You could condense this entire book to less than 100 pages without losing any substance and without really losing too many details, either.
Additionally, the dramas here aren't dramas, but the real dramas are ignored. For example, Johnson's looking up of an old boyfriend near the end of her life and feeling sad when she heard he'd died does not qualify as a drama in my book, but a normal human response. Yet the real dramas, such as the revelation that Johnson's initial employment was contingent on her having sex with Masters while he was still married and that she didn't want to, are dropped, only to be resolved by a short, seemingly unsubstantiated statement that she came to enjoy it eventually. WTF?
One of the parts of the story in which the author does attempt a more in-depth analysis is in the depiction of sexual mores in 20th century America - but even this is dumbed-down and uncritical. One of the more slightly interesting parts of the story was to consider how Masters and Johnson became a touchstone for feminists for a brief time - but even this is treated breezily and without any real tension.
I think good biography not only needs to reveal the details of people's lives, but to make sense of them. I really wish the author had treated this version as a draft and taken the time to provide an in-depth analysis and not avoided the real contradictions of Masters and Johnson's story.
He observes that "Masters confided that his intended goal... was to study sex itself. 'People are sent from all over the world to you---why are you switching into something so controversial?' asked Dodie... '...I want to make a discovery,' Masters stated plainly. 'I want my name in history.'" (Pg. 56) He states, "Ideally, Masters preferred a female physician as his partner, but such a candidate---far more qualified than Johnson---was too difficult to find... a female physician would likely demand more equanimity as a partner... From the outset, Masters and Johnson's remarkable success sprung from their dual approach, the matrix of male and female therapists exploring the boundaries of human sexuality together." (Pg. 91)
He notes, "Virginia was disquieted by her two failed marriages and the personal shortcomings they suggested at at time when divorce in America was still relatively rare. She had enjoyed sex and sharing affection with both men but never forged the deep bond she had always sought, the kind of true, lasting love she sang about but never found." (Pg. 26-27) He adds, "After she became his assistant, Johnson threw herself headlong into recruiting well-educated females in their twenties and thirties willing to engage in a sex study in exchange for a nominal fee and the promise of anonymity. Many believed Johnson when she proclaimed, with her infectuous enthusiasm, that they were breaking through a cultural barrier... By discovering truths about their bodies, Johnson envisioned, they would benefit all womankind." (Pg. 103) Ultimately, Masters suggested to Johnson [while Masters was still married to someone else] "they could test out the most effective methods of reaching orgasm... Masters pitched his idea purely in the name of medicine, part of a long history of practitioners practicing on themselves." (Pg. 125-126)
He reports, "Female surrogate sex partners, though relatively rare in Masters and Johnson's therapy, became one of the program's most controversial but highly effective assets. In the first eleven years, they made surrogates available to forty-one unmarried men who felt sexually inadequate... Under this new treatment, thirty-two of the forty-one men with surrogate partners---nearly 80 percent---had their symptoms reversed." (Pg. 197-198) Some of the surrogates were married women (pg. 201). After they became famous, "Masters and Johnson's vision to teach the world about their methods now seemed undermined by staffers who abandoned them and by strangers who shamelessly exploited their techniques solely for profit. Even con artists and hacks, with their flawed offerings, referred to Masters and Johnson as their touchstone. 'The amount of garbage in this field and the number of people without credibility!' Johnson decried to the press. 'There aren't a dozen people in this field who really know what they are talking about.'" (Pg. 256-257)
When being interviewed on Meet the Press about their book Homosexuality in Perspective, which claimed a two-thirds "success" rate in treating homosexuality, Masters admitted, "one hastens to point out, as we make very clear in the publications, that there is a very high degree of selectivity in those individuals we would accept into treatment." (Pg. 281) Maier states that "The public reception of Crisis: Heterosexual Behavior in the Age of AIDS jeopardized Masters and Johnson's reputation. For the second major book in a row, Johnson had invested only a minimal amount of herself in a coauthorship with [Robert] Kolodny and Masters... She could no longer rely on Masters, as she once did, to check all the assertions and to make sure they were on solid ground, medically and scientifically." (Pg. 324)
For anyone wanting to know more about Masters and Johnson, and their research, this marvelous book will be absolutely "MUST reading".
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