William Masters (1915-2001) and Virginia Johnson (born 1925) were two researchers who took a biological and feminist approach to their studies of the human sexual response, which they performed from 1957 until the early 1990s. Differing from Kinsey’s method of using personal interviews, they used the direct observation method. In this method, subjects were observed as they were engaging in a variety of sexual activities which included masturbation, stimulation of the breasts, and sexual intercourse with a partner (Kolodny, 1981). They used various measurement devices to measure muscular and vascular responses to sexual arousal. Thus, instead of placing a focus on personal histories of sexual behaviors as Kinsey did, Masters and Johnson focused primarily on the biology of sex as they examined physiological responses to sexual activity.
Their work was important because, prior to them, women’s sexuality had not been extensively studied or researched. However, in publishing their books Human Sexual Response and Human Sexual Inadequacy, they brought female sexuality into public awareness (Hockenbury, 2011). Their feminist approach and celebration of women’s sexuality became apparent in these books because they always mentioned the female response prior to the male response, they presented the idea that women should have an authoritative role in treating their own or their partner’s sexual disorders, and they disagreed with the idea that women’s sexuality was a reflection of men’s sexuality (Robinson, 1976).
In regards to their studies on women, one of the areas that Masters and Johnson studied was arousal. Their biological approach led them to study the stages of arousal and the physiological changes which occur during each stage. They created a four stage model of arousal, which consists of excitement, plateau, orgasm, and resolution (Hockenbury, 2011). Arousal causes many changes in women including a rapid rise in pulse and blood pressure, increased breathing, clitoral swelling, expansion and opening of the vaginal lips, vaginal lubrication, and nipple sensitivity. Following this phase, women reach the plateau phase in which they continue to experience increases in pulse and breathing, as well as a tightening of the vaginal entrance. The shortest phase of sexual arousal is the orgasm, in which women undergo rhythmic contractions of the vaginal and uterine muscles. Physiological changes return to normal levels during the resolution phase (Hockenbury, 2011).
Another issue of women’s sexuality that Masters and Johnson examined was the inability of some women to achieve orgasm. Among the women that they studied, they found that 50 to 60% of women were not able to achieve orgasm during intercourse (Klein, 1992). They related this to anxiety, poor communication between partners, distrust, and low-self esteem. Masters and Johnson were the first to define primary orgasmic disorder as a sexual disorder. This disorder is the most severe orgasmic disorder that is diagnosed in women, and it is characterized by having a complete and lifelong lack of orgasms. This lack of orgasms is present during all sexual activities, including masturbation (Klein, 1992). Prior to Master and Johnson’s introduction of this disorder, it was believed that women should be able to attain orgasm during masturbation because they would not be exposed to the anxiety which may be experienced with a partner. Having defined this as a sexual disorder, it became apparent that women may require treatment or therapy in order to have fulfilling sexual experiences.
In discussing the ways in which a woman becomes aroused and the difficulties which may be present in this arousal process, Masters and Johnson were effective in bringing women’s sexuality into the public’s focus. Because their study methods involved direct observation, they were viewed as somewhat controversial, which brought a higher degree of attention to their findings. This was beneficial towards showing the public the importance of women’s sexuality as well as the importance of aiding women in overcoming their sexual difficulties.
By Larisa Kerrigan
Hockenbury, D. (2011). Discovering psychology (5th ed.). New York, NY: Worth Publishers.
Klein, S. S. (1992). Sex equity and sexuality in education. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press.
Kolodny, R.C. (1981). Evaluating sex therapy: Process and outcome at the Masters & Johnson Institute. The Journal of Sex Research, 17 (4), 301-318.
Robinson, P. (1976). The Modernization of Sex. New York, NY: Harper & Row, Publishers.
Wakefield, J. (1988). Female primary orgasmic dysfunction: Masters and Johnson versus DSM-III on diagnosis and incidence. Journal of Sex Research, 24, 363-377.
Pictures retrieved from: