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Remembering Virginia Johnson, Real-life Master of Sex

Updated: Mar 12, 2021

March is Women’s History Month, so I’m writing a series of posts honoring important female pioneers in the fields of sex education, research and therapy.

Virginia Johnson (1925-2013) was a pioneering sexologist who, along with her partner William Masters, MD, did groundbreaking research in human sexuality starting in the 1960s. They were the first to extensively employ laboratory observation and measurement of adult subjects engaged in various forms of sex. They conducted their research initially at Washington University in St. Louis, and later at their non-profit Masters and Johnson Institute.

Their frank, compassionate approach to researching and writing about sexual topics—such as female orgasms, homosexuality, sexual dysfunction, and sex and aging—was instrumental to demystifying sex and exploding many of the taboos in our highly-repressed culture. They made it okay for many Americans to talk about sex for the first time and helped catalyze the sexual revolution of the late ‘60s and ‘70s.

Masters and Johnson’s studies outlined the four phases of sexual response—excitement, plateau, orgasm, and resolution—now widely used as a clinical framework. They also studied sexuality in older adults, confirming that there is no absolute age at which sexual abilities or desires disappear. They demonstrated that even chronic sexual dysfunctions could be resolved by a combination of sex education, whole-body massage (“sensate focus”), and specific sexual techniques. Johnson’s contributions in particular are credited with essentially creating the profession of sex therapy—for which I and my colleagues in the field are deeply grateful.

Virginia Johnson was determined to have a meaningful career, despite her lack of formal academic credentials. She had great instincts and was a sex research visionary. She and William Masters were a wonderful research team: he was the brilliant scientist (but out of touch with his feelings), and she was what would now be called a “sex coach” (very intuitive with high emotional intelligence).

In the 1980s, I was thrilled to meet Virginia Johnson at a conference. My first impression of her as a warm and genuine person was later confirmed by reading Masters of Sex by Thomas Maier and then viewing the complete Showtime TV series inspired by the book. I admired and identified with Virginia Johnson. Like her, I came to live life out loud – with openness and a personal love of sex. Yes, she was a lusty lady!


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