Twenty-five years ago, the sexual revolution began in America. In St. Louis, a gynecologist by the name of Dr. William Howell Masters received permission from the Washington University School of Medicine to begin a series of pioneering experiments into what was discreetly called “reproductive biology.” In Chicago, a young man named Hugh Marston Hefner began to publish Playboy, a magazine that was discreetly labeled “Entertainment for Men.” Sex would never again be the same.
Masters was soon joined in the laboratory by psychologist Virginia Eshelman Johnson. Over the next two decades, the two observed 1,076 volunteers masturbate, fondle each other, perform oral sex, anal sex and coitus. They analyzed a multitude of orgasms (they stopped counting at over 14,000), treated some 3,500 couples for sexual problems and wrote six books that changed the way we think about sex. It has been said that prior to Masters and Johnson, most of us thought the clitoris was a monument in Greece, if we thought about such things at all. Playboy first interviewed the two researchers in May 1968—two years after the publication of “Human Sexual Response,” the landmark volume that defined for the first time the physiology of lovemaking. That interview was the beginning of a fruitful association. Over the next ten years, the Playboy Foundation contributed $300,250 to the Masters and Johnson Institute (or, as it was known in those days, the Reproductive Biology Research Foundation). It seemed fitting that we celebrate our silver anniversary together with an update interview.
It was about time. In April, the nation’s first family of sex research (Masters and Johnson were married in 1971) published the third volume of the epic inquiry into human sexual response. Like its predecessors, Homosexuality in Perspective precipitated a storm of controversy. The New York Times published a front-page story proclaiming “New Treatment For Homosexuals.” Newspapers across the country picked up the story, if not the book. Masters and Johnson had taken 67 homosexual men and women who had expressed a desire to function as heterosexuals and after two weeks of intensive therapy had managed to affect a change in all but about 35 percent of the patients. Time and Newsweek ran major stories. The couple appeared on special two-part shows with both Phil Donahue and Dick Cavett.
The controversy, and the resulting publicity, sold a lot of newspapers but did little to advance our knowledge of sex. We had to turn to the source. Upon reading Homosexuality in Perspective, we discovered that Masters and Johnson’s latest book is as much about heterosexuality as homosexuality. It is a gold mine of information about how we learn to be lovers, about the subtlety (or lack of subtlety) in the American way of sex. Like other Masters and Johnson books, it borders on the unreadable, written in a turgid Latinate prose designed to ward off potential charges of sensationalism. Playboy decided to send Senior Staff Writer James R. Petersen to interview the dynamic duo.
For the past six and a half years, Petersen has been the Playboy Advisor, answering all reasonable questions—from fashion, food and drink, stereo and sports cars to dating dilemmas, taste and etiquette, and, of course, kinky sex. This is his report:
“When people ask me what my qualifications were to become the Playboy Advisor, one of America’s most read sex experts, I say quite simply: I went to boy-scout camp. My motto is, Be prepared. I have read everything there is to read about sex, in case it ever happens to me. After six and a half years, I have discovered that there are three kinds of sex articles: ‘What We Know to Be True,’ ‘What We Think We Know to Be True’ and ‘What We Wish Were True.’ The first kind were written by Masters and Johnson. The second kind are written by people who have read Masters and Johnson. The third kind are written by people who work for Penthouse. Sex is an area in which everyone has an opinion or an old wives’ tale, or a war story, but in which there is almost no legitimate research. Masters was the first person in the history of Western man to take sex into the laboratory, to conduct controlled experiments, to objectively observe the human sex act. He is—above all—a scientist. He knows more about sex than any person in the world and is not afraid to admit what he does not know. In discussion, he limits himself to facts—time and again, I watched him mentally reviewing his findings, deciding whether or not they supported a statement. He refused to theorize, to speculate, to opine. His comments were brief and to the point. At times, I was acutely frustrated—every reporter wants a quotable anecdote to spark an interview. Eventually, my respect for his position grew. You don’t want your sex experts showing up on ‘Hollywood Squares.’ Masters had the courage and the resolve to say, ‘No comment.’
“Virginia Johnson is the flip side of Masters: For 23 years, she has been a partner in the research, with equal responsibility. She has had to edit her natural loquaciousness. She is perfectly willing to show anger, to comment on the state of her profession.
“In this research team, Masters is the close-up lens and Johnson the wide-angle. Her commentaries are an endless series of connections and qualifications. She does not want to be misinterpreted or taken out of context. She does not want to add to America’s sexual confusion by creating new stereotypes or new pressures to perform. She is wary of the media, tired of their being viewed as the Ma and Pa Kettle of Sex Research.
“The interview took place over several weekends at the Masters and Johnson Institute. The two were seldom in the room at the same time. Johnson would leave to take care of some scheduling disaster. Masters would excuse himself to conduct a physical examination of a patient. When the two were together, I had the sense of watching longtime business partners. They completed sentences for each other, used the same language in each other’s absence and always seemed aware of the entity ‘Masters and Johnson.’ There is great respect, and love, between them.
“If Masters confessed that the major fringe benefit of his research had been coming into contact with a woman as intelligent as Johnson, Johnson said that Masters had been an early liberated man who refused to let her take the traditional woman’s role of support troop. Their life together had been a great intellectual adventure. Since much of that adventure had taken place in the lab, watching research subjects in the act of love, I decided to start the interview there.”
Playboy: We’ll be discussing in some detail your new study, Homosexuality in Perspective, which has as much to say about the sex lives of heterosexuals as about those of homosexuals. But first let’s sketch in some background. As America’s foremost sex researchers, you’ve been the focus of a lot of controversy because of your work and methods over the past 25 years. Just how do you study human sexuality in a laboratory?
Johnson: Well, we haven’t actually observed any subjects since 1970, and the information in our studies is based on research conducted at least ten years ago. We had a series of laboratories over the years. Some of the equipment was changed, but the basic routine didn’t vary: First we had small rooms outfitted as soundproof offices, which were located in places at the hospital or the institute that would protect the anonymity of our subjects. That’s where we would first talk with them, make them relax and trust us.
We would introduce them to the “environment”—the places where sexual activity would take place—gradually. We would explain the particular activity we would want to study, then leave them alone in the room. We would then close the door and go away for a designated period of time—perhaps an hour—and leave them to do what they were being asked to do later, all by themselves, without observation. They would just let themselves out when they were through.
Playboy: Did you watch from behind a one-way mirror?
Johnson: In one of the environments at the medical center, there was a mirror, but we rarely used it. We found it didn’t make a difference. We would show people where the mirror was and how they could lock it from the inside so there was no chance of our tricking them. But we found that what was more important was getting them to trust us and being honest with them. If they had thought we might be behind a one-way mirror, it would have been just as distracting as if we really had been there.
After an initial session alone, we introduced a distraction factor: We would sit and work in an adjacent room, with the door ajar, after giving the couple our assurance that we would neither observe them nor enter their room. They thus became accustomed to having other people around. Next, we would tell them that occasionally we might enter their room and for them to simply continue with their activity. Finally, we would start our actual observations, but only when the people were comfortable with our occasional entrances and exits.
Playboy: How many observers were there at any one time?
Johnson: Always at least two of us. As the couple became more comfortable, we would introduce the physiologists who monitored the EKG or the polygraph or who ran the cameras for the department of illustration. You must understand that we weren’t there to watch sexual activity as a psychologist, or even a casual observer, might. We were trying to define what occurred in certain parts of the body. If we were measuring, say, lubrication at certain intervals, we might not even stay in the room the whole time. On other occasions, we would sit and stare for an hour at a four-inch-square patch of skin, trying to determine significant color changes.
Playboy: There’s one question that you must have been asked over and over again: How did you prevent your personal emotions from intruding as you watched hundreds of people having sex? Didn’t you ever feel astonishment or awe?
Johnson: I never felt awe in a laboratory setting. I have one kind of commitment in my personal life, when I have the freedom to feel awe, but a vastly different commitment to maintain professional objectivity in a research environment.
Masters: There’s an old secret to this work: You have to achieve as much objectivity as you can and then maintain it. It has never been a problem for us. But there are many people who shouldn’t work in this field simply because they cannot separate personal and professional requirements.
Playboy: Did you ever consider lowering your overhead and moving the entire operation to Plato’s Retreat?
Johnson: Plato’s Retreat?
Playboy: It’s a public-sex place in New York City where you can see several hundred couples making love in front of you. Or perhaps watch several acres of skin undergoing significant color changes.
Johnson: Oh, yes, I know of the place. It might make a nice busman’s holiday for a sex researcher, but we like our own recreation to be private.
Playboy: OK. Thirteen years after the publication of Human Sexual Response, here you are, embroiled in yet more controversy. Why should heterosexuals be interested in the findings in your latest book—Homosexuality in Perspective? What is there to learn?
Masters: The book is as much about how heterosexuals make love as about how homosexuals make love. That’s why I added In Perspective to the title.
Playboy: In a nutshell, what were the most interesting findings in your study?
Masters: One of the most striking features of the findings was the fact that homosexuals and heterosexuals demonstrated so little difference in ability to respond to noncoital sexual stimulation. Homosexuals and heterosexuals, male or female, were able to respond to masturbation, partner manipulation or fellatio/cunnilingus. We observed many hundreds of orgasm cycles, and less than one percent of the time was there failure to achieve orgasm.
Playboy: That may be what you find most interesting, but Time magazine, in its cover story on your book, drew the conclusion that gays are better in bed. Your findings seem to suggest that if we make love like homosexuals, our sex lives will improve.
Masters: Let’s put it this way: The greatest mistake is to say that you make love like anybody. Because that isn’t what you’re doing. You’re doing what you want to do, and, it’s hoped, what your partner would like to enjoy. If a partner enjoys it with you, it’s a partnership. If the partner merely makes herself available, it’s servicing, no matter what the technique. We have little concern with technique. We are most concerned with attitude, with the ability to communicate. In presenting our findings on homosexuality, we want to show the wealth of variation that is possible, so that it doesn’t become threatening. Inevitably, we are a little anxious about those things we don’t understand or aren’t familiar with.
Playboy: Nonetheless, your book suggests that homosexuals of both sexes know more about their partners’ needs and showed more interest in variety, which translates—to us—as saying they’re better at sex than heterosexuals.
Johnson: Well, they work at it a little more. They invest more of themselves in sex; therefore, they probably get a little more back. They don’t have more orgasms, mind you. They just seem more involved. But I want to stress that this is not strictly homosexual. The same thing could be learned from heterosexual couples who communicate well.
Playboy: Let’s examine your findings one at a time. Were there differences in the way homosexual couples and heterosexual couples stimulated each other in heavy petting?
Masters: The homosexual couples took their time. Generally, they preferred a deliberately slow approach to the entire stimulative process. They moved deliberately through excitement to linger at the plateau stage. Each step was something to be appreciated. The approach to stimulation generally was free-flowing rather than directive in character, and usually less forceful. In contrast, the heterosexuals created the impression that they were in it just to get the job done, to produce the orgasm in the shortest time possible.
Playboy: What differences did you notice in the ways heterosexuals and homosexuals masturbate?
Masters: The primary differences related to gender and not to sexual preference.
Playboy: How did women masturbate?
Masters: Approximately four out of five of the women masturbated while lying on their backs. They were generally less direct in their approach to the clitoris than were men in approaching the penis. Some women touched their breasts, others stroked the lower abdomen or the thighs. Most women tended to touch the glans directly only at the onset of the clitoral stimulation, if at all. But as sexual tensions elevated, they moved from the glans to the stimulation of the clitoral shaft. When they got tired or lost the thread of their response, they slowed the pace. Far more often than men, women deliberately varied the rate and pressure of genital stroking, at times even stopping and starting clitoral manipulation—as though teasing themselves.
Johnson: Or re-establishing contact with their level of excitement.
Playboy: How did men masturbate?
Masters: Men moved immediately to the penis. Approximately three out of five masturbated while lying on their backs; the rest did so standing, sitting or lying face down. The force and rapidity of the stroking increased as excitement increased. For the most part, men concentrated on the shaft. At orgasm, most men slowed, or even stopped stroking. In contrast, the women usually kept stroking or massaging through orgasm.
Playboy: How do you account for the differences?
Johnson: They not only were accommodating their anatomy, they also were doing what made it individually work for them. We are dealing with two different groups—in this case, men and women. Each has grown up with a different level of permission, not only to masturbate but to express themselves sexually. Through subliminal messages or deliberate teachings, most men in our culture are given permission to be sexual, to explore and experiment with their sexuality. This makes possible less guilt-ridden masturbation, or at least a more practical, more pragmatic approach to sexual activity and to masturbation per se.
Playboy: And the women were more tentative?
Johnson: Not really, but they were drawing upon a wider range of erotic stimuli and fulfilling a more complex set of requirements to achieve orgasm. Generally, this “complexity” evolved earlier in their lives as they coped with the “Can I?” or “Can’t I?” the “Should I?” or “Shouldn’t I?” right-or-wrong feelings about sex. Of course, there were women who apparently were troubled very little, if at all, by this cultural baggage and they tended to recognize and accept their sexual needs in a fashion generally attributed to men.
Masters: Women actually tended to be more sexually responsive, moving from one orgasmic experience to the next, while the men almost universally had one orgasmic experience during the session and that was it.
Playboy: How did gay women act in bed?
Masters: There was holding, kissing and caressing of the entire body area before any specific approach was made to the breasts or genitals. Only six out of 76 of the lesbians we studied moved directly to breast stimulation and only one woman approached her partner’s genitals at the onset of sexplay.
Playboy: That slight delay sounds like the pattern women developed during masturbation. Or is that a coincidence?
Masters: I think one of the truly fascinating things we observed was that when there was not good communication between a couple, they tended to approach each other as if they were masturbating themselves. The male would approach the female in the same way that he approached himself, where that technique might not be of any real interest to her at all. It is a variation of the golden rule: They did unto others as they did unto themselves.
Johnson: Men, having heard that the clitoris is the first line of stimulation, would often move directly to clitoral fingering. It is rare in our experience, in the lab or in the subjective histories that women have given, that they can tolerate direct, intense stimulation of the clitoral glans. One reason is its acute sensitivity. Manipulation can very rapidly become irritating. The best way I’ve ever heard it described was “too much sensation too soon.” It is the rare woman, in stimulating herself, or given the opportunity to direct the stimulation as she wishes, who will want the clitoral glans directly stimulated. Those we have found in the laboratory who do stimulate the clitoral glans use a lubricant that tends to diminish sensitivity.
Playboy: Obviously, a woman would know that about another woman. But how does a man progress if his partner doesn’t tell him?
Johnson: Let’s return to what Bill said. They do unto others as they have done unto themselves, and that’s not always what a woman can respond to. Quite often the male uses his fingers as he would a penis. If the lesbians used penetration with their fingers, they seldom went beyond the outer third of the vagina, which, in terms of nerve endings, is the most sensitive area. Husbands frequently used their fingers as a substitute penis, even though their wives merely tolerated this approach, especially when approached this way before they were really aroused. One third of the wives we questioned said that they felt deep manual penetration was more exciting to their husbands than to them. Lesbian women, on the other hand, exhibited a general willingness to find out what their partners like and appreciate.
Masters: They weren’t communicating: “Now! Do this!” and “Now! Do that!” But when a suggestion seemed indicated, the individual made it. I think it’s important to note, though, that communication was not always verbal. There was a good deal of communication by touch or by body language. Little was said. Just the suggestion, made by moving the hand, or moving the body toward the partner, or away.
Playboy: Once a lesbian woman turned to breast play, did she go about it any differently than a man would?
Masters: Breast play was significantly prolonged. The entire breast was consistently stimulated both manually and orally, with particular attention focused on the nipples. And almost scrupulous care seemed to be taken by the stimulator to spend an equal amount of time with each breast. Sometimes as much as ten minutes was devoted to the breasts before genital play was introduced. I’ve seen many a heterosexual couple engage in and complete intercourse in the time a lesbian couple would still be focusing on the breasts.
Johnson: It’s a matter of orchestration.
Playboy: Were there other differences?
Masters: It was our impression that when a woman played with another woman’s breasts, her intention was to provide pleasure for the other woman. She usually responded to any verbal or nonverbal communication of pleasure and made a specific effort to enhance the recipient’s experience of the moment. The lesbian couple tended to move slowly toward higher levels of pleasure. In contrast, men involved in stimulating a woman’s breasts seemed wrapped up in what they were doing and were relatively unaware of their partner’s pleasure, or lack of it.
Johnson: Usually, all female research subjects lubricated well during generalized touching. In contrast, the heterosexual woman lubricated only moderately when breast play was emphasized. Almost one third of the heterosexual women reported that the breasts were not a particularly important erogenous zone, that they seemed much more important to the husbands. One should not draw conclusions from this about the erotic potential of breast play for women, however. When and with how much sensitivity it is carried out are crucial to its acceptance by a particular woman. Certain women reported that breast play more than anything else seemed to elicit old ghosts of sexual guilt. I’ve heard similar histories and comments from breast-feeding mothers.
Playboy: It appears that the ideal of the American male as the strong, silent type who doesn’t ask questions of his partner has obvious disadvantages.
Johnson: There were several clear examples that lack of knowledge about a partner caused distress. The lesbian women were well aware that at times in the menstrual cycle a woman’s breasts or nipples may be tender—even painful—to touch. A number of times, we saw lesbians ask their partners if their approach caused discomfort. Throughout the years in the laboratory, no husband ever raised that question.
Playboy: We’re not sure that they would know enough to even ask.
Johnson: That was several years ago. Perhaps they would know enough now and realize that not every woman feels that tenderness. We are so used to information being overemphasized or distorted. Some man who reads this interview will say to his partner, “I read that women get sensitive during menstruation. What do you mean, you don’t? Is there something wrong with you? It says here you should feel tenderness.” The instant authority.
Playboy: Did homosexual men engage in breast play?
Masters: Gay men tended to approach each other the same way that gay women did—they took their time, teased each other, and the initial approaches usually involved the whole body. Also, they spent a significant amount of time in breast play. Only 11 of the 42 committed couples failed to include some form of nipple stimulation in sexual interchange.
Playboy: Did any heterosexual women stimulate their husbands’ nipples?
Masters: Only about three or four out of 100 married men were the recipients of such attention.
Playboy: Is there any explanation for the apparent discrepancy? Why don’t women know enough to stimulate their male partners?
Johnson: For the same reasons a man is reluctant to find out about women from women. I think it’s the cultural message that begins during adolescence: The woman is the object of sex, man is the subject and the predicate. No one, including the man himself, calls attention to man’s breasts or any other part of his anatomy as an erogenous zone. The very idea may embarrass both of them.
Playboy: We can see a whole generation of young girls trying to get to second base with their partners. Did you find that gay men followed the same pattern as gay women in touching?
Masters: Very close: Teasing techniques were employed frequently. The stimulating partner would watch the recipient and would alter his activity to try to prolong the excitement without bringing him to orgasm. Those men occasionally reached extremely high levels of sexual pleasure. In fact, we noticed that prolonged teasing—by a male or a female partner—could produce significant changes in the size of the erection. There was a noticeable increase in diameter of the shaft and in the size of the glans. A man’s erection is not a static thing.
Playboy: Would you elaborate on that?
Masters: We’ve noticed that a man with sexual problems tends to view his erection as a single-shot, single-caliber entity. He thinks that if he gets an erection, he must maintain it at all times. Unfortunately, he can’t. The erection comes and goes and comes and goes in any continuous sexual interchange. There’s a great variation in the degree of engorgement of the penis. It can go down to loss of erection completely and back. It can be partial loss of erection. It can be minimal loss of fullness of erection. You sometimes think the penis is as full as it’s going to be and then, with continued play, there’s even more engorgement. I’m never sure from observing the penis when it is fully engorged, because it always seems to be able to engorge a little more.
Playboy: How much variation have you observed?
Masters: I would estimate that a full erection is still capable of another five or ten percent increase in size.
Playboy: That reminds us of what Adam supposedly said to Eve: “Stand back. I don’t know how big this thing gets.” You have said that dysfunctional men are handicapped by their expectations of what the erection is or isn’t capable of. Can you be more specific?
Masters: Many a man observing the normal ebb and flow of the erection becomes extremely anxious and distracts himself. He clutches and loses the rest of the erection, when all he was doing was observing the natural physiologic variation.
Playboy: Did the teasing seem based upon what you call same-sex empathy?
Masters: Yes, the men said that they stimulated their partners the way they themselves would like to be stimulated. For example, many homosexual men frequently made selective approaches to the frenulum of the penis—a most sensitive area on the dorsal surface just beneath the coronal ridge. They would bring their homosexual partners to the point of orgasm, then allow them to return to lower levels of sexual excitation. Heterosexual women rarely approached the penile frenulum when they were stimulating the penis. And wives, when they detected increasing sexual excitement, usually rushed their male partners through to orgasm. On the few occasions when a woman deliberately teased her male partner with long-continued play periods, the heterosexual male’s level of sexual response was quite equal to that of the homosexual male.
Playboy: Was there a similar lack of communication about genital touching?
Masters: Many of the men said they wished that their wives had grasped the penis tighter, used more force or stroked more rapidly.
Johnson: The wives reported that they were concerned about stroking too vigorously and hurting the men. Only three of the men had ever given their partners specific directions about preferred ways for penile stimulation.
Playboy: Were there important differences in oral-sex techniques between homosexuals and heterosexuals?
Masters: The only real differences stemmed from the way lesbians and heterosexual men performed cunnilingus. The women were more inventive. They started with the breasts, moved to the lower abdomen and thighs and then skirted the vagina before focusing on the clitoris. The more variation they came up with, the higher the level of excitement for the recipient. But again, the most interesting thing was the degree of the stimulator’s own involvement—some of the women performing cunnilingus on their lesbian partners also experienced orgasm during the act.
Playboy: Did the husbands show the same variety or intensity of approach?
Masters: The heterosexual men rarely had devoted significant time to learning or improving their cunnilingal technique. They saw cunnilingus as a means to an end. Men proved themselves sexually in intercourse. In contrast, their wives often expressed the feeling that fellatio was a challenge, a technique that they should become expert in if they were to conduct themselves as sexually effective women.
Playboy: Did gays have the same notion of expertise as heterosexual women?
Masters: There was one difference—when it came to swallowing the ejaculate. Most homosexual males did swallow the ejaculate, while most heterosexual women did not.
Playboy: So far, we’ve been discussing the patterns of committed couples. You also studied a small group of singles, men and women who were previously strangers to each other, who met in the lab for this study. Was their behavior noticeably different?
Masters: All the assigned couples were very direct and goal oriented in their sexual interaction. Both men and women moved right to the genitals. Males did not engage in nipple play. There was almost no teasing. In short, they provided little of the “care” we noticed in committed couples.
Playboy: Did the assigned couples have more difficulty making love than the committed couples?
Masters: Yes, assigned couples had almost twice the failure rate of committed couples when it came to intercourse.
Playboy: Looking for Mr. Goodlab. Is there an explanation for the failure rate?
Masters: Intercourse was just mutual-masturbation exercise for the assigned couples. The males were experienced and had good ejaculatory control, so the females usually had time to respond orgasmically—but not always. With each partner concentrating on his or her own needs, there was not much communication or cooperation between strangers. They were not all that involved.
Playboy: Is there any single trait or pattern that characterized intercourse?
Masters: The great American formula for sex is: A kiss on the lips, a hand on the breasts and a dive for the pelvis.
Johnson: In terms of sexual behavior, although we seem to be a people who look for cookie cutters to shape ourselves after someone whose life is purported to be the sexual ultimate, when the moment arrives, we generally fall back on our early peer-group lessons. There is too little individual confidence to be sexually creative. Even in the lab environment, sexually sophisticated people sometimes fell back on the old familiar scenario.
Playboy: Which was?
Masters: Some 80 percent of the men made love in the missionary position. They mounted the female as soon as they had an erection and as soon as they thought the partner was ready. Usually, they decided that she was ready when she was obviously lubricated.
Playboy: Is that incorrect?
Johnson: Well, in theory, you might say it is true. Vaginal lubrication for the woman is essentially a counterpart of erection in the male. Ah, but it doesn’t stop there. I’m really going to tread in water I normally try to avoid, because we generally represent only on a same-sex basis—but I’m going to suggest the very real possibility that a man with an erection is not always a man who is ready for intercourse. Is that reasonable?
Johnson: OK, so that’s the point being made here. The woman may demonstrate physiological or anatomical readiness. But it’s a mistake to assume that because she is physically prepared, she has also arrived at the point of emotional or even spiritual receptivity. So often the man makes this assumption, penetrates and immediately sets the pattern of thrusting. She is even further distracted by the task of accommodating to the depth, frequency and the force of the man’s thrusting action before she ever establishes awareness of her own responsiveness. Although she ultimately may be orgasmic, her level of subjective involvement may remain low and her sense of satisfaction minimal. There is a high risk of hostility toward the partner developing in such a situation.
Masters: The man set the thrusting pattern in almost every act of intercourse we observed where the woman was supine.
Johnson: There’s a drumbeat out there that continues to beat a single message: The male is the sex expert. As a woman, you must always follow his lead or you will destroy him. Add, “Intercourse is the be-all and end-all of sexual expression” and you have the number-one basis for sexual boredom and disappointment in a relationship.
Playboy: One of the sacred tenets of marriage manuals is that if you engage in enough foreplay, everything will be all right in the end. Did you find that to be so?
Masters: I don’t even like the term foreplay. It sounds like something less than important or meaningful. Dividing sexual response into stages is a necessity for the scientific observer, but sex partners who do the same thing make the human experience a goal-oriented performance. In so doing, a woman’s capacity for spontaneous responsivity especially is victimized.
Masters: We found that when we requested a woman and a man in the lab to engage in, let’s say, genital touching or cunnilingus, the woman tended to lubricate freely, in direct proportion to the amount of stimulation she was receiving. However, when on another occasion we asked the same couple to engage in intercourse and, as part of the total process, the man engaged in the same activities—genital touching or cunnilingus—the woman frequently did not lubricate as freely, in direct proportion to the amount of stimulation she was receiving.
Johnson: Because she or they interpreted the request as specifically oriented to the goal of orgasmic attainment and the other pleasurable activities became merely “foreplay.”
Playboy: You seem to be saying that if you want to see a woman live up to her natural potential, don’t have intercourse. Do everything but.
Johnson: No, just don’t have intercourse to the exclusion of undemanding, enjoyable intimacy.
Masters: If you really want to learn something about her, you must not say, “I want to learn about you, therefore you will perform for me.” If you really want to learn about a woman, as a man, don’t go to her with the idea that you are always going to have intercourse.
Playboy: Should you make sure that she knows the evening has been set aside for casual exploration?
Masters: Better that you not limit your personal research to just one evening. Take more time—one exposure probably won’t provide all the answers to the range of any woman’s sexual potential. But if you and she can discover together that you can move to each other, that you both can let the chips fall where they may—then you get a great deal more information. Tonight have cunnilingus, tomorrow have intercourse. Another night you might just masturbate each other or you might do all of these things. You don’t prohibit a particular activity. You just say tonight I would like to try this—or this—or that.
Johnson: Even that sounds too programmed for me. Why not just agree to explore and improvise together over a period of time? No predetermined goals. No demands.
Playboy: Is it possible that the homosexual couples you observed—because they were not under any pressure to have intercourse—were better able to enjoy themselves?
Masters: Certainly. They give more of themselves to these activities—masturbation, fellatio, cunnilingus—because it is the only thing they have. Even when we told heterosexual women that cunnilingus was the point of the evening, they were so unused to it as a pleasurable end in itself that they initially did not get particularly involved.
Playboy: Do you have any explanation as to why heterosexuals seemed so unimaginative? For example, “the kiss on the lips, hand on the breast, dive for the pelvis” may be boring—but we have it on good authority that “a kiss on the lips, a hand on the breast, a dive for the pelvis, plus a piece of ice” can be astonishing.
Masters: I think heterosexual couples have too many social protocols that they feel they should follow. I’m sure there are many homosexual protocols as well, but they certainly aren’t depicted by the general media as heterosexual guidelines are. So, as I see it, if you don’t have a scenario, you tend to improvise more.
Playboy: You say that homosexuals do not have social protocols. But most people have a notion that in any given gay relationship, one partner assumes the male role and one partner assumes the female role. Is that a cultural stereotype?
Masters: That’s a cultural misconception. Of course, we observed such behavior in the lab. We observed almost everything in the lab. But if you’re asking me if it is the routine or the established pattern, the answer is no. I think we saw it in fewer than one out of 20 couples.
Playboy: Why are some members of the homosexual community so critical of your study?
Johnson: Because the press plucked out only one aspect of our therapy program—the clinical work that dealt with homosexuals who were dissatisfied with being homosexuals and are motivated to ask for conversion or reversion to heterosexuality—and played it up on the front pages: “Startling results—Masters and Johnson claim amazing success in converting gays to heterosexuality.” I dread the moment when people who are determined to rid the world of anyone who does not conform to their idea of “normal” decide to use this to demand programs of conversion. Among other things, the news stories ignored the equally important clinical help that is offered to homosexuals who are dysfunctional in their homosexual relationships and wish therapeutic assistance.
Playboy: But that’s the point some gay critics have made. On one hand, you seem to be offering hope of some kind of “cure” for an abnormal condition and, on the other, you seem to be saying that homosexuality is OK and you offer help in making them become better homosexuals. What is your position?
Johnson: Would the critics have us impose the terms under which a person can or cannot obtain help for sexual distress? We are not in the business of determining what is right or wrong in matters of individual choice. Incidentally, it’s hardly news that there are homosexuals who do not want to be homosexual, as well as those who are happy with their preference and just want health-care assistance that is available, presumably, to everyone. The focus of our clinical work is the same for everyone: the functional well-being of the person, in terms of his or her chosen environment. Our patients express their needs and distress, demonstrate motivation and its appropriateness to their resources, and in the clinical sense, we respond.
Playboy: But haven’t you, intentionally or not, given a lot of people the impression you can cure homosexuality?
Masters: We have never treated homosexuality as a disease or defined it to a patient as a handicap.
Playboy: There is currently a great debate raging as to the causes of homosexuality. Would you summarize the state of the art in analysis?
Masters: Well, I can’t give you a capsule summary, because different people have different ideas. In the first place—and this is not in order of primary importance—some people feel that homosexuality is genetically determined, that it is an unidentified function of the genes. Just as some babies are born with blond hair, some babies are born with a predisposition toward homosexuality. Other people feel that it is the result of hormone imbalance while the fetus is in the uterus, or a variation in hormone concentration at some point in life. There’s been some animal work to bear this out, and some work with humans where a major disturbance in the hormone imbalance apparently led to a higher instance of homosexuality. But that was followed up in such a small number of individuals that to apply it to the general public is stretching it further than I want to go.
We happen to think we learn our sexual orientation as a result of our environment. We are born sexual beings, genetically male and female. Is homosexuality learned? The current answer is yes, just as heterosexuality is learned behavior. But if I knew all the answers to your question, I’d write another book and it would be an immediate best-seller. Some people insist that homosexual orientation is the result of having a dominant mother or is learned from one’s peers in school. I tried to present a selection of case histories in the book that would cast doubt on the notion that preference is genetically determined or that it is the result of any one type of experience or any one influence.
Playboy: California State Senator John V. Briggs has recently sponsored legislation that would prevent homosexuals from getting teaching positions or from joining professions in which they might come into contact with young children. He seems to think that since homosexuality is learned, we should protect our children from it. Do you agree?
Masters: It is obvious that Briggs must be convinced that he knows the cause of homosexuality; otherwise, he surely wouldn’t be sponsoring such legislation. But we freely admit that we don’t know the etiology of homosexuality. Actually, we are waiting for Briggs to publish his research findings. Certainly, I can’t conceive of any state legislature’s trying to disenfranchise at least ten percent of the total male and female population unless it knew for sure that such legislation would resolve the problem.
Playboy: If he doesn’t publish it?
Masters: I guess that’s his privilege, too. But I shall continue to be curious as to how he learned something nobody else knows. And what his sources are. I hope he will share them with the rest of us.
Playboy: There are psychiatrists who say that you are doing your patients a disservice. According to them, a homosexual who is impotent is suffering the sexual dysfunction because he is guilty about his homosexuality. What’s your response to that?
Masters: Let’s put it this way: That’s a fair claim for those health-care professionals who firmly believe that anyone who is homosexually oriented is, indeed, abnormal—suffering from a mental disorder. Much of the criticism has been exaggerated, although occasionally it has contained pearls. However, if it is suggested that every homosexual who is sexually dysfunctional is dissatisfied with his sexual preference, that I can’t accept.
Johnson: Anyone, regardless of sexual orientation, can become sexually dysfunctional on the basis of misinformation or a multitude of social, emotional and attitudinal distresses that initially are unrelated to sex.
Masters: When we started treating heterosexuals for sexual dysfunction in 1959, critics said that we were just treating symptoms and that it was necessary first to treat the presumed underlying conflict. Yet we showed that you could treat the dysfunction per se, within the context of a relationship, and the realities influencing the person’s life at the time of therapy, with a relatively low failure rate. When we started treating sexually dysfunctional homosexuals nine years later, in 1968, we again were breaking new ground. We had reasonably clear case histories—both male and female—in which the person was unable to function effectively sexually and yet had no desire to be other than homosexual. The sexual dysfunction was reversed in a number of instances.
Playboy: It took you 14 years to write this book—were you waiting for the right time to release it?
Masters: We had a basic rule at the institute that we would not make a major report of individual research programs without a minimum of ten years’ work behind us. Human Sexual Response, the book on heterosexual physiology, and Human Sexual Inadequacy, the book on heterosexual dysfunction, each represented 11 years of work. Homosexuality in Perspective represents 14 years of work. It took a little longer, because it attempts to combine elements of both the physiology of homosexual dysfunction and the treatment of dysfunction and dissatisfaction.
Playboy: Why did you choose to combine them?
Masters: We had always intended to study the physiology of homosexual behavior. At first we thought we would report on what we found, just as we had in Human Sexual Response. But we discovered that from a physiological point of view, there was no difference between homosexual response and heterosexual response. Once that was established, there certainly was no indication for a major report.
By that time, we had also learned that we had made a mistake in withholding psychological data in the earlier books. After publishing Human Sexual Response, we were accused of being nothing but “mechanics.” One of the outstanding critics of the work pointed out that the word love isn’t even mentioned in the book—which is true. What that critic very carefully didn’t say is that the word love probably had never been mentioned in any other physiology textbook, either.
Johnson: When the world learned that we were working with people in the laboratory, they immediately developed this image of mad scientists, or technicians. I desperately do not want either of us to come through as making sex mechanical, in or out of the laboratory. The people for whom sex works very well are not mechanical people.
Playboy: How did you recruit subjects?
Masters: Fundamentally, by word of mouth. There were a few homosexual couples from St. Louis who worked with us first. When they were genuinely convinced that ours was an objective approach, they helped us contact other people in different parts of the country and encouraged them to participate.
Playboy: Did you get any help from national gay organizations?
Masters: When we started the homosexual-physiology work, in 1964, the national organizations were just fledgling—or were keeping a low profile. We also avoided the gay-bar society, because at that time it did not provide stable relationships. We needed committed couples, not singles.
Masters: We wanted to compare homosexual physiology with heterosexual physiology, and most of the subjects in our original heterosexual research were married couples. We needed “committed homosexual couples” in order to have a basis for comparison; but in the Sixties, most such couples were in the closet. However, we also studied a small group of singles, who met assigned partners in the lab.
Playboy: Would you describe the subjects you found? Were they exhibitionists or just curious?
Johnson: Most of the research subjects had an extraordinary interest in learning about their own sexuality. They tended to trust the protected conditions of a research environment. Frequently, they mentioned that someone for whom they cared had had a distressful sexual experience. They felt that this distress had been related to lack of knowledge, lack of concern, lack of compassion. They often expressed what appeared to be a genuine hope that our research would help mankind. Some, as you suggest, were just plain curious.
Playboy: Other than willingness to help, did the subjects have to have any particular characteristics?
Masters: All of the subjects had to be able to respond to self-stimulation, mutual stimulation and either fellatio or cunnilingus. In addition, the heterosexual subjects had to be able to respond effectively during intercourse. We would discuss this by telephone as part of the preliminary screening technique, before we took their histories or introduced them to the lab environment.
Playboy: Did you measure ability to respond by their capacity for orgasm?
Masters: Yes, although we certainly acknowledge that sexual proficiency is not synonymous with orgasmic responsiveness. Sexual gratification, sexual maturity and sexual interest are phenomena that must be considered somewhat apart from orgasmic attainment—or orgasmic failure—alone. But our ability to document orgasm as a precise, definable physiological event made it a useful form of measurement.