Page to Screen: Masters of Sex

Cover image for Masters of Sex by Thomas Maier by Thomas Maier

Written by Michelle Ashford

Directed by Michael Apted

ISBN 978-0-465-0799-5

Sexual research is legitimate field of scientific inquiry that continues to be restricted by social mores. Dr. William Masters and his colleague Virginia Johnson were among the first to breach those taboos in the mid-1950s. While their predecessor Alfred Kinsey collected subjective sexual histories for his work at Indiana University, Masters and Johnson ventured into the much more objectionable direct study of human subjects engaging in sexual acts. In Masters of Sex, author Thomas Maier chronicles the complexly intertwined lives and work of the two researchers, who also eventually married, and then divorced. In 2013, Showtime adapted his biography for television under the same title.

Dr. Masters gained the leeway to perform his controversial research through fifteen years of work as a renowned ob-gyn and fertility specialist at Washington University in St. Louis. He was personally responsible for the reproductive success of many of St. Louis’ most prominent citizens, including the police commissioner, a debt he did not hesitate to cash in when he wanted to begin conducting research in the city’s brothels. Although Johnson is clearly portrayed as the people person in their duo on the television program, the biography shows that Masters was adept enough at leveraging his professional relationships and credentials to get what he wanted. This would become evident again when he needed to assemble a board for his research institute in order to secure tax-exempt status.

By starting their work in the less accommodating 1950s, Masters and Johnson were poised to break onto the scene when the sexual revolution took hold a decade later. However, their controversial work was not without consequences or complications, professional and personal; Masters was ousted from Washington University’s hospital, with the aura of respectability it provided, and had to set up his own institute to continue the work. Their ground-breaking research debunked many myths about human sexuality, and particularly female sexuality. However, while their goals were laudable and necessary, their means were not always kosher by modern standards, beginning with Masters’ asking Johnson to have sex with him in the lab, ostensibly for the purposes of the study. Today we recognize the unacceptable power differential inherent in this proposition, as well as the unethical nature of being involved as subjects in their own study. They are far from unimpeachable scientists, though their legacy is significant. Moreover, they make for fascinating biography subjects, and things only become more tangled in later years.

Maier was able to draw from the unpublished memoir of William Masters, who died in 2001, as well as interview the then somewhat reclusive Virginia Johnson, who was living under the name Mary Masters. Though she was known to turn other writers away, she shared her complicated feelings about her relationship with Masters, and grappled with the question of whether or not she ever really loved him.  She passed away in 2013, only a couple months before the TV pilot was set to air. And though he touches on controversies, such as their later work on conversion therapy and AIDS, Maier is certainly a friendly biographer, which perhaps explains the cooperation he was able to obtain.

The Showtime series Masters of Sex is based on Maier’s book, and he also serves as a writer and producer on the program. Three full seasons have now aired, with a fourth scheduled for later this year, but for the purposes of this review, I have only covered seasons one and two. Although plenty of the content comes directly from Maier’s book, there are ample departures from its pages. In particular, Maier devotes little attention to Masters’ wife, Libby, in the book, but on the show she is one of the primary characters, and things must be found for her to do. With Maier along for the ride, it is hard to say what is entirely fictional, and what might be drawn from research that didn’t find its way into his book. However, he has definitely stated that Libby’s storyline with racism and the Civil Rights Movement is the writers “creative interpretation.”

The lead characters are played by Lizzy Caplan and Michael Sheen. They capture the push and pull of the extremely complicated relationship that existed between their real life counterparts, and both possess the necessary ability to shift from confident portrayal to vulnerability, often in quick succession. The power dynamic is a fraught one, as is especially evident in the early episodes when Virginia has to figure out how to say no to Bill’s proposal that they have sex together as part of the study. As much as Masters’ needed Johnson’s skills, without credentials of her own, she could not walk away from him without also having to give up the work they were doing. The conflict is quite evident, even without being addressed in modern terms within the show. In this respect, the book has the advantage of being able to pull back from the time in which the events took place to address this more explicitly, including broaching the subject with the real Virginia Johnson in interviews.

One disturbing aspect of the book is Masters’ and Johnson’s involvement in early conversion therapies for gay people, who at that time were considered to have a mental illness. Homosexuality would not be removed from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders until 1973. Although the TV series does not reach this period in the first two seasons, the character of Provost Scully, played by Beau Bridges, follows a story arc that addresses views of homosexuality at that time. Masters and Johnson’s later work (1968-1977) would delve more directly into this area, though Johnson later expressed serious reservations about the conversion therapy work, and Thomas Maier concludes that much of the data was probably faked by Bill Masters. It will be interesting to see how this topic is treated in later seasons.

Scully is far from the only composite or fictionalized character in the series. Combining various plot points inspired by different real events and people into an ongoing set of largely fictionalized secondary characters both allows the cast to be kept small, and potentially avoids some legal issues. Though both Masters are Johnson are now dead, their respective children are still alive, and there has been much speculation about changes to the program in order to avoid legal entanglement with the families. My own favourite character is Lester, the videographer who is charged with documenting Masters and Johnson’s work. In reality, most of their documentation was in the form of audio tapes, as well as readouts from the machines they attached to their subjects, but Lester’s work ties much more nicely into the visual format of a TV program. He drops bon mots about film theory, and takes his dates to obscure foreign films. In the second season, he is recruited to double duty as a study subject for the foray into the field of sex therapy to treat sexual dysfunction.

The Showtime series clearly dramatizes and condenses, and has the added advantage of two extremely compelling performers. However, for those, like me, who are always curious about what is really true in a historical drama, Maier’s book is a necessary companion. Maier does much to elucidate the legacy of Masters and Johnson, most of which has faded from popular memory. However, his clear admiration is not always sufficiently critical of their more flawed endeavours.

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2 thoughts on “Page to Screen: Masters of Sex

  1. This sounds like it would for an interesting and dramatic story! TV shows that try to fun for seasons off of one nonfiction source can drive me a little crazy though. Orange is the New Black is the example that comes to mind and I hated how they upped the drama to the point where you could no longer learn about what a women’s prison is really like from the show.

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