If you ever happened to catch an episode of the TV show Masters of Sex, you’ll have had a glimpse into the compelling world of William Masters and Virginia Johnson, the pioneering researchers who dedicated themselves to studying human sexuality. Their work, which began in the rather prudish 1950s and produced the book Human Sexual Response (1966), revolutionized our understanding of sex.
They witnessed a lot of sex.
Much of the duo’s research consisted of observing people engaged in sexually stimulating activity either with a partner or by themselves (they were said to have witnessed as many as 10,000 complete cycles of sexual response). Many of the initial participants were prostitutes, but Masters and Johnson also began to find other volunteers who were curious about exploring their own sexuality. In order to preserve anonymity, participants reportedly wore paper bags over their heads.
They used themselves as guinea pigs.
Even though he was married at the time, Masters hired Johnson as his assistant with the understanding that they themselves would be having sex with each other for, you know, research purposes. The two eventually married in 1971 and divorced in 1992.
They were all for masturbation.
In Human Sexual Response, Masters and Johnson debunked the myth that masturbation was bad for you and could cause insanity. They also revealed that it’s common practice—according to their fellow researcher Alfred Kinsey, 92% of men at the time masturbated, while 62% of women reported doing so.
They defined sexual arousal.
Thanks to their research, the twosome were able to define what we now know as the stages of sexual arousal: excitement, plateau, orgasm, and resolution. They also discovered that women were capable of multiple orgasms in a short period of time and that they usually reached their sexual prime in their 30s.
Read more about the work of Masters and Johnson here.