The Contributions and Controversy of Sexual Science Pioneer, Virginia Johnson

We look at the legacy of the woman who helped put the "good" back in female orgasms

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If not for Virginia Johnson and her longtime collaborator William Masters, clitoral orgasms, the most common form women experience, might still be considered “bad,” and penis size might be considered the universal determinant of whether a woman climaxes at all. The pioneer of sexual science died of natural causes this week at age 88, leaving behind a somewhat controversial, but unarguably important legacy.

Considering her background and the time in which she lived, few could have predicted that Johnson, a midwestern girl from a conservative family, would one day become a sexual revolutionary. Born on Feb. 11, 1925 in Springfield, Missouri, Johnson’s mother was a Republican State Committee woman. Her paternal grandparents were members of the Church of Latter-Day Saints, a religion that beholds chastity. She was raised to believe that a woman’s primary purpose was to be married, and bought into the notion, according to numerous interviews. (Some might say she overdid it, marrying and divorcing four times.)

A naturally bright student, Johnson skipped numerous grades in her youth and at age sixteen began studying music at Drury University in Missouri. After a four-year hiatus, she switched gears, pursuing sociology coursework at Washington University in St. Louis in 1957. There she met gynecologist, William Masters, who became her mentor, teaching her everything she needed to know about medical terminology and its research applications. Together they developed the first instruments used to assess sexual arousal in humans.

Employing the tools, Masters and Johnson observed nearly 700 men and women willing to have sex or masturbate in a laboratory and determined four stages of sexual arousal: the excitement phase (Come on, baby!), the plateau phase (This is fun; let’s keep at it.), the orgasmic phase (Yes, yes, YES!) and the resolution phase (the cool down. Sigh…). Before then, no one even had attempted to measure physical responses like lubrication, pulse and vaginal and penile size changes, during sexual stimulation and orgasm.

In 1964, the pair established the Reproductive Biology Research Foundation, a nonprofit institution in St. Louis, which was later renamed the Masters and Johnson Institute. In 1971, Masters divorced his wife and married Johnson—a union that would last 21 years.

In addition to debunking the popular myth that vaginal orgasms were superior to clitoral orgasms (the “bad” kind, according to Sigmund Freud) and proving that a woman’s sexual satisfaction doesn’t rely on her partner’s penis size, they brought light to another common misperception—that sexual desire and engagement shrivel up with age. “We’re born man, woman and sexual beings,” Johnson is quoted as saying. Based on their research, the age of the “beings” isn’t important; more than merely possible, vigorous sexual activity among the elderly is normal.

Masters and Johnson stirred up ample controversy along the way, particularly upon release of their book, Crisis: Heterosexual Behavior in the Age of AIDS (Grove Press, 1988), written with Dr. Robert Kolodny. The book used what were considered off-base scare tactics to warn straight individuals about AIDS. In a chapter called, Can you Catch AIDS From A Toilet Seat? they wrote: “If infected blood (from a cut, scrape, ulcer, blister or rash on the buttocks) or infected semen (either dripped from the penis or spilled from a condom) is inadvertently left on a toilet seat and someone who comes in contact with this material also happens to have a break in the skin at the point of contact, the virus may enter the body and infection may occur.” The book also suggested that HIV could be acquired through casual contact with things like food prepared by an infected restaurant worker or contaminated contact lenses.

In all, Masters and Johnson collaborated professionally for 35 years, ending with their amicable divorce in 1993. Masters remarried then later died in 2001.

It’s difficult to say whether Masters would have pursued the female elements of sexuality to such a degree without Johnson or if either of the pair would have obtained such fame and accomplishment alone. Regardless, Masters and Johnson will go down in history as the founding father and mother of sexual science.

Sadly, Johnson died just two months before the premiere of Masters of Sex—a series based on Masters’ and Johnson’s legacy. The one-hour drama will air on Showtime beginning in September.


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