Masters and Johnson

Although people have always had sex, the scientific study of it has remained taboo until relatively recently. In fact, the study of sexual anatomy, physiology, and behavior wasn’t formally undertaken until the late 19th century, and only began to be taken seriously as recently as the 1950’s. Notably, William Masters (1915-2001) and Virginia Johnson (1925-2013) formed a research team in 1957 that expanded studies of sexuality from merely asking people about their sex lives to measuring people’s anatomy and physiology while they were actually having sex. Masters was a former Navy lieutenant, married father of two, and trained gynecologist with an interest in studying prostitutes. Johnson was a former country music singer, single mother of two, three-time divorcee, and two-time college dropout with an interest in studying sociology. And yes, if it piques your curiosity, Masters and Johnson were lovers (when Masters was still married); they eventually married each other, but later divorced. Despite their colorful private lives they were dedicated researchers with an interest in understanding sex from a scientific perspective.

Masters and Johnson used primarily plethysmography (the measuring of changes in blood- or airflow to organs) to determine sexual responses in a wide range of body parts—breasts, skin, various muscle structures, bladder, rectum, external sex organs, and lungs—as well as measurements of people’s pulse and blood pressure. They measured more than 10,000 orgasms in 700 individuals (18 to 89 years of age), during sex with partners or alone. Masters and Johnson’s findings were initially published in two best-selling books: Human Sexual Response, 1966, and Human Sexual Inadequacy, 1970. Their initial experimental techniques and data form the bases of our contemporary understanding of sexual anatomy and physiology.


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UPEI Introduction to Psychology 1 Copyright © by Philip Smith is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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