Showtime’s new dramatic series “Masters of Sex” is based on Thomas Maier’s biography of sex researchers William Masters and Virginia Johnson. Their scientific work at a Midwest university hospital -- studying more than 10,000 orgasms in a decade-long experiment -- sparked America’s 1960s sexual revolution still felt today. Here’s an excerpt from the new edition of “Masters of Sex”, published today by Basic Books, with a cover featuring actors Michael Sheen and Lizzy Caplan who play the famous duo. Showtime’s “Masters of Sex” premieres Sunday September 29 at 10 pm.
A young woman wandered into the examination room garbed in a white terry-cloth robe and a pillowcase over her head. Two ragged holes carved into the linen allowed her to see. She wore nothing else. Casually, the mystery female walked across the bare floor. She dropped her robe and stretched herself across a padded chaise longue, tilted slightly back. In repose, she appeared only slightly anxious, as though she had done this many times before—but never with a hood on her head.
Dr. William Masters and his associate Virginia Johnson, both clad in white medical jackets, introduced the woman, without revealing her real name. The sight of this nude volunteer bewildered their guest, Paul Gebhard, director of the Kinsey Institute for Sex Research. “Maybe she wasn’t counting on me being there, so they had to improvise a mask quickly,” Gebhard recalled with amusement.
For a few moments, Gebhard found himself exchanging pleasantries with the naked young woman lying on the chaise longue, while Masters and Johnson fiddled with their medical devices, wires, and gauges assembled together to record her sexual response.
“I’d say she was a perfectly average female,” Gebhard remembered. “She wasn’t obese or skinny. She just looked like what you’d expect a graduate student or nurse to look like. She didn’t have shaved pubic hair like a model might. She had normal pubic hair.”
The most conspicuous object in the room was a long cylindrical plastic mechanism created by Masters and attached to a small camera. It resembled a baker’s rolling pin formed of clear acrylic Plexiglas, with an optical eye made of plate glass. Without revealing the nature of his experiment, Masters enlisted the help of another professor, well versed in miniature photographic equipment. To anyone in the room, the purpose of this elaborate device was quite clear. “It was a dildo,” Johnson explained. “Bill was never reluctant if he thought something would work.”
No one had ever photographed the inside of a woman during coitus, documenting the female reaction to the entry and penetration of the phallus. This rather ingenious contraption allowed for cold-light illumination, enough that Masters and Johnson and their staff could observe the vaginal cavity, filming in living color without distortion. The electric equipment could be adjusted for physical variations in each woman’s size, weight, and vaginal development. “It looked like a serious piece of medical equipment, and rather cleverly done too,” said Gebhard, who marveled at the fastidiousness of Masters and Johnson as they checked each detail. “You had to watch the wiring or you’d electrocute somebody. It was fairly simple, with an electric motor and a handheld rheostat to control it. It had some pretty good adjustments; otherwise it might have been painful.”
Moments before the young woman inserted the device into herself, Johnson went into an adjoining room. She returned with something rather thoughtful, as only a woman scientist might consider under these circumstances. She “came in with a warm, moist towel and draped it over the phallus for a few minutes,” Gebhard recalled. “Sort of reminded me of a hot towel in a barbershop.”
Then the experiment began.
By the late 1950s, most at Washington University’s medical school still harbored only a vague idea what was going on with Masters and Johnson. In hushed voices, faculty and students spoke of experiments in snide or sinister tones. “Everybody was interested but they thought he must be crazy,” remembered Dr. Robert Burstein, another ob-gyn on staff.
One of the few outsiders granted access was Gebhard, a tough-minded scientist with a gravelly voice and Clark Gable mustache, whose professional approval Masters coveted. In 1956, Gebhard had taken over the mantle of his boss at Indiana University, Alfred Kinsey, who had died of a heart attack two years earlier, leaving the future of sexual research in doubt. Privately, Masters considered Kinsey’s sex studies as brave but flawed, relying on patients’ recollections rather than clinical observation. Masters believed Kinsey’s lack of medical research undercut his search for definitive answers. Mindful of such criticism, Masters kept an aura of secrecy around his work, aware that any news might hamper his efforts or frighten away supporters. To Gebhard, however, Masters shared his experiment’s overall goal --- charting each twist and turn of the body during sexual response with the precision of a cartographer. Johnson listened attentively without saying a word. She nodded her head with supreme confidence, as if she could bear witness with her own eyes to his descriptions. “It was a complete revelation—nobody had done anything as intensive as this,” Gebhard said. In strictest confidence, Masters mentioned how they employed prostitutes and other paid volunteers to study female orgasm, perhaps their biggest mystery.
“How do you get to see the interior of the vagina and the cervix during sexual activity?” Gebhard inquired.
At that point, Masters revealed they had come up with a device to document a woman’s orgasm on film. “Would you like to see it?” he pried.
Gebhard, a bit dumbfounded, nodded his head. Bill and Gini motioned for him to follow them into a green examination room nearby. In the middle of this sparse, almost empty room was the chaise longue, a baseboard riddled with electrical outlets, and another machine, best described by Gebhard as “a motor-powered, Plexiglas phallus.” Masters, a proud progenitor, beamed with satisfaction as he explained its gadgetry.
“Well, do you want to see it in action?” Masters demanded.
Though the question caught him by surprise, Gebhard quickly agreed. Johnson disappeared into another room and returned several minutes later with the anonymous female graduate student wearing the pillowcase over her head.
When everyone was ready, the young woman rested on the leather-padded lounge chair, with her feet in stirrups and her body nearly flat. Her pink, bare skin was fitted with numerous dark wires connected to a bulky electroencephalograph machine, which hummed, whirled, and beeped. A tiny television screen tracked the swirling patterns of electrical impulses coming from her brain. Little sensors attached to the woman’s breasts monitored each heartbeat, recorded in squiggly lines across white paper rolling out slowly from an electrocardiograph machine. These tools served as a kind of sexual polygraph, as detectors of the truth in an area so often filled with exaggeration and lies.
In the meantime, Masters grabbed a metal office chair, which he placed in front of the chaise. He instructed Gebhard to sit down if he wished to observe the inner actions of the vagina and cervix during this experiment. Gebhard found himself within two feet of the young woman’s opened legs, close enough to stare through the optical lens of the long-stemmed device.
“Keep your eye some distance from the end of the phallus or you’ll get poked!” Masters advised, after Johnson removed the warm towel. Masters allowed a slight grin before returning to his studied grimace.
With the machinery in place, Masters gazed around the room. He made sure the color camera was turned on and his staff was ready to register and tabulate each reaction. Once settled, the young woman was handed "Ulysses"—the nickname given to the cylindrical plastic device. Among the staff, it seemed only natural to call this one-eyed monstrosity by the same name as a recently released Kirk Douglas movie featuring a giant cyclops. Gebhard viewed the fully illuminated vaginal cavity through the cameralike lens with remarkable clarity. “It was completely transparent,” he remembered.
At her own speed, the young woman in the chair rubbed Ulysses against her labia, first gently and then firmly. She massaged the moist outer lips of her vagina, enough so that the plastic device made a slight scratchy sound against her pubic hair. She followed a prepared routine, as if she had been trained to perform certain practices for the benefit of her clinical audience. Eventually, she felt a rush of blood and energy with her vulva feeling lubricated. She slipped the device inside almost effortlessly, with barely any pressure at all.
For the next few minutes, the entire room seemed caught up in a minuet of movement, syncopated to the young woman’s thrusting of Ulysses into her vagina and the chronicling of each impulse it provoked. As tension rose and her climax neared, the woman’s body glistened with sweat. The room’s warmth, monitored carefully by Johnson, now felt even hotter. In those days, Maternity Hospital didn’t have air conditioning, and climate control became a critical factor in testing the volunteers’ physiologic response. The young woman threw her head back, wiggling her hips up and down, sideways and back. To reach the stated goal of orgasm, she’d been instructed beforehand on controlling the motorized device, increasing the rapidity and depth of its plunging as she desired. Rather than convulsing in ecstasy, however, she appeared relatively calm. Her simulated lovemaking appeared almost workmanlike.
Masters and Johnson scribbled notes while watching the machines and the young woman’s gyrations. Gebhard kept watching through the Plexiglas device with utter amazement, enough that he lost track of its thrusting motion. “She speeded it up too much, and the phallus came back and hit me in the eye,” Gebhard recalled. Flustered after being struck by a mechanical dildo, Gebhard “kept my eye a little further away from the phallus so it wouldn’t happen again.” Despite years of study at the Kinsey Institute, Gebhard felt as if he were observing sex for the first time. As the woman neared climax, he recalled, “I got to see the cervix sort of retreat up into the recesses of the uterus and become more prominent. Eventually she did have an orgasm and that did not take too much time.”
Through this looking-glass widget, Gebhard confirmed Masters’s significant discovery that dispelled a longstanding—but fundamentally incorrect—medical belief about a woman’s body prior to orgasm. Masters and Johnson showed that vaginal lubrication during intercourse didn’t pour forth from the Bartholin’s gland, located in each of the minor labia, as believed by organized medicine. Nor did it come from the cervix, as others theorized. Instead, they discovered “a transudation-like reaction” of mucous material, seeping or “sweating” through the walls of the vagina. It formed a smooth, glistening coating, like perspiration on an athlete’s forehead. It left a woman sufficiently lubricated usually within less than thirty seconds of initial sexual excitement. This basic misunderstanding about a woman’s sexual response existed for decades before being corrected with their direct scientific observation. As Gebhard said, “You had to have a researcher like Bill, because no other way were you going to find out.”
When the young woman finished, she put her clothes back on, picked up her money, and returned to life on campus. Masters and Johnson counted her among more than a dozen women recruited in the early days of their study. Gebhard never learned her name. Her identity remained a tightly kept secret. “Bill said nothing—he watched,” Gebhard remembered of the solemn demonstration that day. Once the experiment was completed, however, Masters beamed with inventor’s pride. “Males hate this machine,” he quipped, “because invariably the females speed up the machine at a rate that no male can equal!”
Gebhard couldn’t resist a laugh. “I can understand that,” he replied.
Years later, Masters defended the supreme practicality of this Rube Goldberg–like device. “Doctors put mirrors inside the stomach to study the stomach,” he observed. “You do the same thing with the vagina and people say, ‘How dare you do that?’”