HomeEmotional aspects of sexualityBill Masters and Virginia Johnson’s research (1966)

Bill Masters and Virginia Johnson’s research (1966)

William Masters and Virginia Johnson observed volunteer couples having intercourse in the laboratory. Female orgasm was simply assumed to occur as a result of intercourse. This laboratory-based approach was much more popular than Alfred Kinsey’s complex statistical approach and has remained the predominant model. The public is easily impressed by people who wear laboratory coats, assuming that they must be applying scientific principles. By observing sexual activity, scientists appear to provide empirical evidence.

Their sampling technique made no attempt to be representative of the general population. Their approach involved selecting women who believed they had orgasms from intercourse. The objective was political rather than scientific. The implication was that if it can be shown that one woman thinks she has an orgasm from intercourse then every woman can be convinced that she should orgasm through intercourse. This research was popular because it promoted vaginal intercourse as a means of pleasuring women.

Masters and Johnson accepted Kinsey’s conclusion that the clitoris was the female sex organ and source of female orgasm. They simply assumed that the clitoris was indirectly stimulated during intercourse. They suggested that the area of skin around the clitoris is stretched or pulled as the penis thrusts into the vagina, thus providing enough clitoral stimulation for orgasm. Later Shere Hite suggested this stimulation did not cause orgasm in most women.

Virginia Johnson started out as Bill Masters’ assistant. Given she was not his professional equal, she would have lacked the authority to challenge his views. Later they married. Given she was involved in a sexual relationship with him, she could hardly be deemed an objective researcher. Neither would she be the first woman to mistake emotional sensations for orgasm.

Masters and Johnson are famous researchers but no one reads their book today. Unlike Kinsey and Hite, Masters and Johnson’s work produced no detailed research findings. Anyone who reads their book will find it difficult to identify any scientific conclusions drawn from their work. Their analysis, being vague and lacking objectivity, has little impact on modern sexology.

Scientists (who are typically male) assume that a woman must have had an orgasm simply because her body returns to its normal state once sexual activity ceases. There are many physiological changes that occur in the human body during sexual activity. Such changes are observed in other mammals, both male and female. But only the male provides evidence of orgasm. Rather than ask women, modern researchers use machines to prove that a woman has had an orgasm. They measure increases in electrical impulses, blood-flow or vaginal secretions that they assume are evidence of arousal even though these women may not be conscious of any pleasure.

Regardless of what we call such phenomena, they do not prove that women experience sexual pleasure in the way that men do. Researchers ignore the role of psychological arousal in women’s accounts of orgasm because so few women consider it necessary. This is clear evidence that they have never experienced erotic arousal. For men, the arousal process is trivial but few women ever discover how their minds might respond to erotic stimuli.

Our body responds to a fight or flight situation by producing adrenaline. Adrenaline in the bloodstream increases our heart rate and rate of breathing in anticipation of exertion. In a sexual situation, a male animal potentially anticipates a struggle if he needs to subdue a female into accepting intercourse. A female is potentially in a flight situation. Both of these fight and flight situations cause the increased blood flow necessary for arousal.

But only a man is conscious of being erotically aroused. Likewise, even with orgasm we may not always experience pleasure. For example, if a man ejaculates then he must have had an orgasm because orgasm is the trigger for ejaculation. But there may be no accompanying psychological pleasure. The quality of the orgasm we have, our sexual satisfaction, is primarily linked to the effectiveness of the erotic stimuli that cause our mental arousal. A new sexual fantasy may be particularly effective as well as having a new lover, engaging in more adventurous sex play or having sex in different situations.

Sex research is not considered a priority in our society partly because of the taboo but also because no one has been able to convince society that there is a scientific way of analysing such an emotional topic. For political and emotional reasons, men are motivated to establish that women can enjoy intercourse (this is equated to being able to orgasm from the activity) just as men do. Any research that supports intercourse as a means of providing female orgasm is promoted. Research that contradicts that belief is ignored.

People often object to old sex research and they suggest that more modern research must exist. They don’t seem to appreciate that if such research existed then they would know about it. Sex research of any consequence is likely to be headline news. But it is in fact very rare. This is because facts are very unpopular when they challenge people’s beliefs about how sex should work. It is noticeable that people object much more often to any research that promotes the role of the clitoris. Research that promotes intercourse, such as Masters and Johnson or the G-spot proposal, are never denounced by anyone. This is not just because of men’s biological need for regular intercourse. It is also because women associate the positive aspects of sex with marriage and family, which rely on offering a man regular intercourse.

Women, on the other hand, can become physically aroused (increased blood flow in the reproductive organs) without becoming psychologically aroused even in the slightest. (Robert Weiss)

Excerpt from Learn About Sexuality (ISBN 978-0956-894748)