More than 50 years ago, a gynecologist, Dr. William Masters, and his associate, Virginia Johnson, began a research project that would focus, they said, on “reproductive biology.” That innocuous-sounding description led, over the next two decades, to a study involving 1,076 volunteers, whom Masters and Johnson observed masturbating, fondling one another, performing oral and anal sex and having, in a multitude of creative positions, plain old intercourse. The two analyzed thousands of orgasms (they stopped counting after more than 14,000), treated 3,500 couples for sexual problems and wrote seven books about their work.

The first Masters and Johnson book, Human Sexual Response, was released in plain brown paper wrappers in 1966. Intended for physicians and written in dense scientific jargon, it became a surprising best-seller, catapulting its authors into the limelight. They appeared on the covers of magazines and on TV. The book was translated into more than a dozen languages. It and subsequent Masters and Johnson books broke ground with candid discussions of the function of the clitoris, the question of whether size matters, the mechanics of vaginal lubrication, proof of multiple orgasm in women, the advisability of sex during pregnancy and among the aged, the joys of homosexual sex (and what heterosexuals could learn from it) and more.

Masters and Johnson’s work was one of the engines of the sexual revolution (PLAYBOY, of course, was another), which is why we conducted two landmark interviews with them – one in May 1968 by Senior Editor Nat Lehrman and one in November 1979 by James R Petersen, then the PLAYBOY Advisor. Petersen wrote, “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 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. Johnson is the flip side of Masters. For 23 years she has been a partner in the research. She has had to edit her natural loquaciousness. She is wary of the media, tired of their being viewed as the Ma and Pa Kettle of Sex Research.”

Nearly 50 years after our first interview with them, Masters and Johnson are again in the public mind, thanks to the new Showtime series Masters of Sex. Remarkably, as these highlights from our two interviews show, the pair’s findings are still crucial to our understanding of the hows, whys and wows of sex half a century later.

IN THE BEGINNING
PLAYBOY: How did you find your subjects?
MASTERS: In the early stages we talked to people who we thought might be interested.

PLAYBOY: You did some work with prostitutes too, didn’t you?
MASTERS: We started with a prostitute population because we didn’t know where else to start. But because we knew it would be relatively rare to find a normal pelvis in a prostitute – due to chronic pelvic blood congestion – we stopped working with them after the first 18 or 20 months.

PLAYBOY: In your book you state that the subjects were recorded and observed performing “manual and mechanical manipulation,  natural coition with the female partner in supine, superior or knee-chest position and, for many female study subjects, artificial coition in supine and knee-chest positions.” What was the reaction of the subjects to being observed?
JOHNSON: There was never a situation where everyone was lined up looking. I might add, there is interrogation before each session; there is  some communication during it and there is a great deal of interrogation afterward. The subjects’ own statements indicated that many times they absolutely lost a sense of the environment.
MASTERS: I think even when they didn’t completely lose awareness of the investigators’ presence, they learned to pay no attention to them or at least to ascribe no importance to them.

PLAYBOY: Did you watch from behind a oneway mirror?
JOHNSON: In one of the environments at the medical center there was a mirror, but we rarely used it. 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.

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: You have to achieve as much objectivity as you can and then maintain it. But there are many people who shouldn’t work in this field simply because they cannot separate personal and professional requirements.

MAIL CALL
PLAYBOY: Did you anticipate censorship problems when you published Human Sexual Response?
MASTERS: No. Nor did we encounter any.

PLAYBOY: What does your mail suggest about the public’s attitude toward your research?
MASTERS: We’ve gotten thousands of letters. About eight percent of them fall into the “down with” category, of which half are vicious, obscene and unsigned. The other half of the negative letters are from fine people who simply feel that sexual behavior should not be investigated. They sign their names, they write well and we respect their opinions. Twenty-two percent of the mail has been supportive in character, and the remaining 70 percent – the part that really matters – comes from people asking for advice about their problems of sexual inadequacy.

VERY CANDID CAMERAS
PLAYBOY: One of the greatest areas of misinterpretation relates to the purpose of the mechanical devices and equipment used in your experiments. Would you tell us about them?
MASTERS: Besides the artificial phallus, we used the routine cardiograph type of recordings for heart rate, blood pressure, pulse, respiratory rate and so on. We also used cameras so that we could study in slow motion what happened.

 

(continued) … state. Actually, the vagina is virtually an infinitely expandable organ. After all, it goes from a collapsed state to a size large enough to accommodate a baby’s head.
MASTERS: Of course, we have been talking about physiological response. Psychologically, if the woman really believes that the larger penis in its flaccid state is going to make a difference when it becomes erect, then for her it might. But the really experienced woman would agree that size doesn’t make a crucial difference.

BLUE BALLS  (FOR MEN AND WOMEN)
PLAYBOY: One of your most widely publicized findings concerns the four phases of sexual response – excitement, plateau, orgasm and resolution. What happens to those individuals, particularly females, who don’t go through the full cycle to orgasm?
MASTERS: There are periods of irritability, emotional instability, restlessness, pelvic discomfort, lack of sleep. You see, orgasm is a release point for the congestion of blood in the pelvis. This vasocongestion – which is the medical term for it – is relieved very rapidly if there is orgasm. If not, the release of vasocongestion is slowed, particularly if the woman has had babies and has enlarged blood vessels in the pelvis. Her period of frustration, irritation and pelvic discomfort may last for hours; sometimes – though rarely – a day or two.

PLAYBOY: How about the male? There is a well-known malady among young men, variously referred to in slang as “blue balls” or “lover’s nuts,” in which the male complains of severe pain in the testicles if he is stimulated without reaching orgasm. Is there a similar explanation for this affliction?
MASTERS: Yes. We’ve discovered in our experiments that when the male is sexually excited and approaching ejaculation, the testicles increase in size; the average size increase may be as much as 50 percent over the unstimulated norm. A young male who is forced to maintain this degree of local vasocongestion for a period of time – without release – may well develop some pain and tenderness. Those males who suffer from long-continued “plateau phase” frustration usually either masturbate or have a nocturnal emission and the ejaculation relieves the congestion that way.

ORGASM VERSUS EJACULATION
PLAYBOY: You used the term ejaculation, not orgasm. In the male is there a distinction between the two?
MASTERS: Male orgasm is actually a two-stage affair. The first stage  is identifiable by a sensation of “ejaculatory inevitability.” This is when he no longer can control the ejaculation but before he actually has any seminal-fluid emission. This stage of ejaculatory inevitability lasts two to four seconds and is occasioned by contractions of the prostate gland and possibly the seminal vesicles. The remaining part of the male orgasm – that of actual ejaculation – is the expulsion of the seminal fluid throughout the length of the penile urethra by contractions of the penile and urethral musculature. The female orgasm, by contrast, is but a onestage affair.

PLAYBOY: Did you discover any evidence that women ejaculate?
MASTERS: We have heard from four women who claimed that, with  orgasm, they have an overwhelming release of fluid. But we’ve never had  the opportunity to evaluate these women in the laboratory.

PLAYBOY: In your book you also discussed female multiple orgasm.
MASTERS: Apart from several physiologic observations of a technical nature, one of the important things we established – to our own satisfaction, at least – is that the female is naturally multiorgasmic.

PLAYBOY: Picking up on the phrase “naturally multiorgasmic,” do you believe that, all other things being equal, the female should achieve orgasm as easily as the male?
MASTERS: Yes, indeed. We have nothing to suggest otherwise. It would seem that puritan and Victorian social restraints have destroyed or altered significantly the female’s natural responsivity.

VAGINA VERSUS CLITORIS
PLAYBOY: Let’s get this straight. There was the debate about clitoral versus vaginal orgasms. We just read an abstract from the Third International Congress of Medical Sexology in which a sexologist claims there are clitoral, vaginal and uterine orgasms.
JOHNSON: Oh, Saint Christopher! The amount of garbage in this field, and the number of people without credibility! Of course, the uterus responds with orgasm – if the woman responding has a uterus. Every other part of her system responds in some fashion as well. The variables are in degree of involvement and intensity and in subjective perception.

IMAGINATION AND FANTASY
PLAYBOY: What role do such psychological factors as fantasy and imagination play in enhancing sexual response for either sex?
JOHNSON: It depends on how you define those terms. What some people call imagination could be described as recall. The only psychological constant in sexual response is the memory of, or the conditioned response to, the pleasure of sensation – in other words, to those things that have become sexually endowed for that person. These may be deliberately invoked during masturbation or during intercourse to help overcome a particular environment or occasion – a time or a place  that doesn’t turn the individual on.
MASTERS: Imagination, as we define it, plays a very real part in sexual response, but it varies tremendously with individuals. Usually, it is employed during the excitement or early–plateau phases; but at the moment of orgasmic expression, the individual usually is immersed in his own sensate focus.

PLAYBOY: Obviously, imagination would have great value with a sex partner who was not physically attractive. Have you found that physical attractiveness is important to successful sex response?
JOHNSON: Again, all these things are terribly individual.

PLAYBOY: In your experience as investigators, however, aren’t there certain aspects of appearance that seem more stimulating than others for many American men – characteristics such as breast size, for example?
MASTERS: If you talk about breast size, you have to mention Madison Avenue and PLAYBOY, because they have created connotations of sexuality in connection with it. As a matter of fact, the larger-breasted female may not be more responsive.
JOHNSON: Worse yet, a woman’s preoccupation with her symbolic sex quality might cancel out her attention to, or her involvement with,  her real sexuality. On the other hand, her symbolic sexual qualities might make her conceive of herself as more of a sexual person; consequently, she might involve herself with more enthusiasm. I’m not an anthropologist, but I think there is evidence that the attraction of the female breast relates to the mother–figure concept.
MASTERS: And yet, in the male population, there are hip watchers, leg watchers. It varies.

PLAYBOY: Do you have any idea how these individual predilections develop?
MASTERS: Personal conditioning, I would guess. Maybe the first exposure to sexuality was a woman with particularly attractive legs or breasts.

PREMATURE EJACULATION
PLAYBOY: The final sexual inadequacy you mentioned is premature ejaculation. Is this as difficult to define as the others?
MASTERS: As a working definition, we describe a premature ejaculator as a male who can’t control the ejaculatory process long enough to satisfy his partner at least 50 percent of the time. Obviously, such a definition does not hold up if the partner happens to be nonorgasmic. As for the causes, they vary. I suppose one of the greatest causes in a 40-year-old male is exposure to prostitutes in his late teens and early 20s, with its pressure for speed and performance and lack of regard for time, place and circumstance.

PLAYBOY: Many men try to overcome their problem of premature ejaculation or that of orgasmic failure on the part of their partners by developing a self-conscious sexual technique. Assiduously memorizing sexual lore and following the suggestions of many marriage manuals, they recite the multiplication tables silently during intercourse, or think of the stock market.
JOHNSON: It shouldn’t be necessary to recite multiplication tables in order to withhold ejaculation.… When we first treated cases of premature ejaculation, we noticed an almost stereotypical case history. Usually the person’s first experience had been under circumstances in which it was necessary to rush through intercourse under a great deal of pressure. For instance, the backseat of a car. There was no sense that you should linger and appreciate the act; there was just the fun of doing it.

AS TIME GOES BY
PLAYBOY: Another area of medical uncertainty and misconception relates to sex among the aged. What can you tell us about your research on this subject?
MASTERS: There are two fundamental constants necessary for the human male and female to maintain effective sexual function into the 80year age group: One, the individual must be in a reasonably good state of general health, and two, he or she must have an interested partner. For the female, an effective sexual function in her earlier years encourages continued successful functioning as she ages, primarily because she isn’t contending with fears of nonperformance. If the female has not been particularly effective before menopause, then the added concerns of the aging process may make her totally ineffective thereafter. But if she has been responsive and well-oriented sexually, she usually sails through the menopausal situation with no significant variation in her sexual–response pattern.As for the male, if he has had satisfactorily active sexual experience during his teens, 20s, 30s and 40s, there’s no reason he can’t maintain sexual effectiveness into his 50s, 60s and 70s, if he meets the criteria already described.
JOHNSON: The only thing I’d like to add is that aging may cause some reduction in the urge to ejaculate – that is, in the need for frequency of ejaculation. But, contrary to popular belief, this has nothing to do with the older man’s ability to achieve and maintain an erection.

THE GAY FACTOR
PLAYBOY: There have been predictions that another by-product of  increasing sexual freedom will be the proliferation of homosexuality. What do you think?
MASTERS: If the majority of reasons given by scientists and by homosexuals themselves for turning to homosexuality are true, a liberalization of sexual attitudes would remove some of these reasons; it would help lessen the homosexual’s self–rejection. This is, of course, only theorizing. We have no evidence to support it. We’re doing a great deal of work in homosexuality. We’re studying the female homosexual in particular, as we feel she has never been examined in depth. We want to learn as much as we can from the sociological, physiological, biochemical, endocrinological – and, ultimately, the therapeutic – points of view.

PLAYBOY: What is your goal in the homosexual research?
MASTERS: We hope eventually to move into some concept of sexual reversal for those who wish it. From what we know now – which is very little – we can’t conceive of homosexuality itself as an inversion or abnormality. It seems to be a basic form of sexual expression – a minority form but a very definitive one.

PLAYBOY: Why should heterosexuals be interested in the findings in Homosexuality in Perspective [a later book that focused on homosexuality]?
MASTERS: The book is as much about how heterosexuals make love as  about how homosexuals make love.

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: 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. 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.

PLAYBOY: Were there differences in the way homosexual couples and heterosexual couples stimulated each other in heavy petting?
MASTERS: The homosexual couples took their time. They moved deliberately through excitement to linger at the plateau stage. 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.

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. 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 sex play.

PLAYBOY: Obviously, a woman would know that about another  woman. But how does a man progress if his partner doesn’t tell him?
JOHNSON: 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. Lesbians, on the other hand, exhibited a general willingness to find out what their partners like and appreciate.

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 10 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.

THE MISSIONARY POSITION
PLAYBOY: Is there any single trait or pattern that characterized intercourse [in heterosexuals]?
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 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. 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.

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.

PLAYBOY: How?
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.

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.

THE IMPORTANCE OF SEX
PLAYBOY: What do you think the future holds for sex research in general?
MASTERS: Sufficient maturity and controlled expansion, we hope, so that research may be done in the total area of sexual behavior – not just from the psychological and physiological points of view, the “why” and the “what,” but also, for example, from the sociological and theological perspectives. Human sexual behavior is of vital concern to every single individual throughout his or her life. Aside from the instinct for self-preservation, it is the most forceful response we know. Yet it is the response about which we know least. Look at the massive amount of time and effort that has been spent on the control of poliomyelitis, for instance – an effort that was worthy, since it brought the disease under control – but compare the occasional individual who contracts polio with the daily concern of every individual about his or her sexuality. Although we are obviously in favor of any medical approach that helps eliminate the major pathologies, it must also be realized that the one physiological activity, after eating and sleeping, that occupies the greatest part of human life is no less worthy of definitive and objective research. We intend to devote the greatest part of our lives to that research.

PLAYBOY: Just how important do you think sex is?
JOHNSON: For most people, sex is of paramount importance in their life. One thing you can be sure of: The more one knows about sex, the  better chance there is of dealing with it effectively when something is not satisfactory. That is the principle, at least, by which we are committed to sex research. That, plus the fact that we continue to believe that “sex is a natural function.” We’ve proclaimed that for so long now, people surely are tired of hearing it. Maybe in another 10 years beyond that, our society will allow us to live it.

Published in Playboy South Africa September 2013