Michelle Ashford, the creator of the Showtime hit series Masters of Sex, was a part of the sexual revolution, and appears to have been a supporter of the second wave feminism, along with the gay movement and the early civil rights movement.
There are four seasons in the series and they span different time periods throughout the show. As the seasons move forward, the storyline broadens and takes viewers beyond aging social issues by going into the nuances that take place behind the scenes of the pioneering sex research done by William Masters and Virginia Johnson.
The series picks up their story in 1956, at Washington University in St. Louis, where we first meet Dr. Masters played by Michael Sheen who is the star of the obstetrics and gynecology faculty.
Dr. Masters, in his own time, is secretly conducting a study of human sexuality. Due to limited support and also limited sample size the good doctor begins his study at a brothel where he observes a prostitute with her clients through a peephole.
Before the scientific study of sex was accepted, not just by society but in elite academic circles, Dr. Masters had to find his research subjects in what many considered at the time to be deviant places.
Research ethics may have been on the lax side as he resorts to paying prostitutes not for their “services” but for their insight. In an early scene from the pilot, Dr. Masters’ scientific curiosity seemed misguided by his astonishing naivety about sex and his overwhelming judgments he has towards people who lusted after pleasure. He also was unable to comprehend why women, in particular, would fake orgasms and asked whether it was a common practice among prostitutes.
Dr. Masters poses this question to his research subject to which she replies in a matter of a fact attitude that “it’s common practice amongst anyone with a twat.” This then becomes the jumping point for his research.
Research on sex in that era was indeed limited. There was only one other published research on female sexuality, the Kinsey report that came out in 1953 and the findings were based on interviews with 6,000 women. The Kinsey report just proved how little the average person understood about sex while Masters and Johnson set out to measure scientifically what the Kinsey report had in fact reported secondhand.
One of the cooler aspects of this show is that you get to learn as the researchers did and be able to relate firsthand the effect of their findings on human sexuality. The findings of the Masters and Johnson study paved the way for diagnosing and treating many common sexual dysfunctions and infertility issues.
However, what drives the show is the intricate and incredibly complicated personal relationship between the two main characters – William Masters and Virginia Johnson. As the show mirrors real life events, the two became intimate with each other – under the facade of acting as participants in their own study.
The hotshot doctor, however, has a very infuriating attitude towards everyone throughout the show. He suffers from extreme egotism that ends up limiting what he can do with his study. For that reason, he takes Johnson as a research partner and she gives the feminine perspective and a social balance to the doctor’s inadequacy.
Johnson is both a freethinker and a rebel of that era. Despite being emotional, yet independent, she works hard to be taken seriously. She has to negotiate various obstacles such as not having completed a degree or having a background in scientific research. Aside from this, she is a single mother, twice divorced, and often accused of being part of the test subjects. Throughout the first season she is ridiculed and sexually harassed by Dr. Masters’ esteemed faculty members.
The lives of Masters and Johnson get transformed as they support each other in their own endeavours. While there mutual desire to have the study published and read by the public, the cornerstone of the show is the emotional relationship between Masters and Johnson. Eventually they end up in a relationship that Masters’ wife agrees to.
If you’re looking for extreme pornification this may not be the show for you. The writers decided not to over sexualize or romanticize the act of sex. Instead, they opted to depict the awkward and often funny, and at the same time, traumatic qualities of laboratory voyeur sex.
The show also attempts to address the issue of racism in the US in the 1950s and 1960s. It’s important to note that through most of US history, African American men and women were used as test subjects in scientific experiments without their consent, in the absurd attempt to “prove their inherent inferiority” over whites.
Thus when the show moves from the university hospitals into a black hospital, keeping in mind Jim Crow laws were very real at that time, the drama and complexities of race become more apparent.
One of the most riveting and critically acclaimed episodes of season one focuses on Barton Scully, the provost of Washington University and his sexual “deviant behaviour”. It turns out that he has been leading a double life as a gay man who pays for male sex and this could ruin his career along with the reputation of his family.
If I have aroused your interest (pun intended) check out Masters of Sex, now streaming on Netflix.