The XX Factor

RIP Virginia Johnson, Pioneering Femalesplainer

Virgina Johnson with husband and research partner William Masters in 1988

Photo by Mark Cardwell/AFP/Getty Images

Virginia Johnson, a trailblazing sex researcher whose study of human sexuality spanned five decades, died Wednesday at age 88. In 1957, Johnson was a twice-divorced mother of two with no college degree. Then, St. Louis OB-GYN William Masters plucked her from his hospital’s secretarial pool and asked her to provide a female perspective to his pioneering studies of the human body during sex. Johnson initially contributed only the lightest academic insight into Masters’ work, but she brought with her the invaluable personal experience of a sexually active woman. She became an example of the radical possibilities of a woman’s touch in a male-dominated field.

Masters learned about the importance of female perspective early in his experiments, when a sex-worker subject told him she faked orgasms with her clients, and he tried—and failed—to understand why a woman would ever feign climax. “At an early age, I learned something that most men never learn—that I knew nothing at all about female sexuality,” Masters said later. He eventually recruited Johnson to advise him on the finer parts of female sexuality because she was a woman and willing, but also because she was not a fellow MD. As Thomas Maier detailed in his 2012 biography of the duo, female doctors in the 1950s were fighting an uphill battle in the male-dominated world of medicine just to earn their degrees and secure jobs; they didn’t yet have the social clout to turn their attentions to the highly stigmatized study of sex. “When women went to medical school at that particular time, an MD was so hard-won they would never have jeopardized it, being associated with sex research,” Johnson recalled Masters as telling her. Instead, Masters leveraged his own social positioning to undertake the research, with the help of a woman who had no social standing to lose.

Their teamwork proved essential to their research. Together, Masters and Johnson cracked more than just the mystery of the fake orgasm; they also debunked Freudian theories that prioritized the importance of a man’s penis in female sexual pleasure, revolutionized the treatment of female sexual dysfunction, and successfully recruited hundreds of men and women to have sex in their lab to inform their findings. “The presence of the two sexes in the laboratory team makes the difference,” Johnson said once. “The volunteers feel at ease; he or she does not have suspicions about our motives. There is, if I may say so, a certain dignity in having us both present.”

Women now enjoy the social positioning to secure advanced degrees and apply them to the study of sex. But gender discrepancies in the field didn’t end with Johnson. As Daniel Bergner detailed in his recent survey of the science of female sexuality, What Do Women Want?, the field is still stunted by its historical prioritization of male researchers who studied male bodies. The individual contributions of women like Johnson were important (and her life and work will be immortalized this fall in Showtime’s Masters of Sex), but gender representation in the field is only now gaining the critical mass necessary to affect permanent change. (I recently interviewed a group of sports scientists who are currently pioneering the study of breast biomechanics; the scientific understanding of how breasts move through space stalled for decades because the work—which involves asking everyday women to run topless on treadmills, while scientists look on—can only be executed at universities that employ a high concentration of female researchers.)

“He created me,” Johnson once said of Masters, who would become her research partner, her lover, her spouse, and finally, her ex-husband. But Johnson created Masters, too. Without her, Masters would have understood only one side of the human sexual experience. That sounds like half, but it isn’t very much at all.