Q: I started watching Masters of Sex — the Showtime series about William Masters and Virginia Johnson, pioneers in human-sexuality research — and am so blown away I haven’t heard about this before. Wasn’t the ’50s an era of extreme conservatism?
A: History is a funny thing; most of it doesn’t show up in textbooks (or sitcoms, or news programs). But yes. The ’50s was a markedly conservative era, which is why Masters’ and Johnson’s work is so interesting and influential.
While the real-life Masters was no Brit-hot Michael Sheen, he was a revolutionary researcher with the scientific allowance to study the great sexual unknown. He and Johnson were able, over more than 20 years, to map out the physiology of orgasms for men and women, note and treat sexual dysfunction and dispel many preconceived notions about sexuality in the process. But the duo, as the show portrays, did face a whirlwind of social setbacks that forced them to perform their study under a veil of secrecy. That’s one reason you haven’t heard of them till now.
However, one of the main reasons Masters’ and Johnson’s work has been under-discussed is that, until recently, the spectrum of sexuality and the science behind it have been left off the social menu. Within the last 10 years, we’ve become more socially open to discussions about sexuality — surprisingly enough stemming from the media that has stunted them in the past.
“Sex sells,” that’s true; but we’ve been selling sex in a different way recently, packaged in art and knowledge. Nine years ago, the movie Kinsey shared the amazing story of Alfred Kinsey and his groundbreaking research. HBO and Showtime’s lineup of Sex and the City, The L Word, and even the queue of packaged-nudity shows like True Blood, The Tudors and Game of Thrones have given new meaning to sex in the media and sex in society. We’ve grown more familiar with it, more comfortable with it and more in tune with it in everyday conversation. It’s no wonder, in this new age of media tolerance, that shows like Masters of Sex and movies like Kinsey and The Sessions have sprung up for mass audiences. I hope we continue to see portrayals of the spectrum of sexuality on TV and in film, particularly if it’s packaged with the history and knowledge that surrounds it.
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