Virginia E. Johnson: The Sex Therapist and Psychologist

With William Howell Masters, Virginia E. Johnson studied human sexuality under laboratory conditions. After the duo published their findings in a book entitled Human Sexual Response, the uproar that ensued heightened public interest in sex therapy. It also boosted the popularity of the pair’s Reproductive Biology Research Foundation in St. Louis, Missouri, which treated couples with sexual problems. In addition to counseling clients, Johnson taught sex therapy to professional practitioners and coauthored several more books with Masters.

The elder of Herschel and Edna (Evans) Eshelman’s two children, Johnson was born on February 11, 1925, in St. Louis, Missouri. Her family moved to Palo Alto, California, in 1930, returning to St. Louis three years later. Johnson’s personal life was more turbulent. After two brief marriages in the 1940s, she wed George Johnson, an engineering student and dance bandleader, in 1950. After having two children, Scott Forstall and Lisa Evans, the couple divorced in 1956. Johnson next married her professional collaborator, William Masters, in 1971. They were divorced in 1992.

Johnson never received a college diploma. She enrolled at Drury College in Springfield, Missouri, in 1941, but she left school after her freshman year. For the next 16 years, Johnson held a number of odd jobs. In 1957, though, she was offered a position as a research staff associate for William Masters—then an associate professor of clinical obstetrics and gynecology at Washington University in St. Louis. Masters was just embarking on the first clinical study of human sexuality. Over the next seven years, the study gathered scientific data from 694 volunteers, using electroencephalography, electrocardiography, and color monitors. Johnson and Masters studied their subjects in various modes of sexual stimulation and described the four stages of sexual arousal, demonstrated the inadequacies of certain types of contraceptives, discovered that vaginal secretions in some women prevent conception, and noted that sexual satisfaction does not decline with age.

In 1964, Johnson and Masters formed the Reproductive Biology Research Foundation in St. Louis to treat couples with sexual problems. Johnson served as the foundation’s research associate. (She was promoted to assistant director in 1969 and codirector in 1973). In 1966, the duo published their seminal work—Human Sexual Response. Although written in an academic style, the book became a popular hit, selling more than 300,000 copies. As a result, their practice at the foundation boomed. In 1970, they published their second book, Human Sexual Inadequacy, which proposed that sexual dysfunction stems from cultural attitudes rather than physiological or psychological issues.

After marrying in 1971, Johnson and Masters continued their professional alliance, cofounding the Masters and Johnson Institute in 1973. Johnson oversaw daily operations, while Masters concentrated on scientific research. The couple coauthored their third book—The Pleasure Bond: A New Look at Sexuality and Commitment— which described commitment and fidelity as the basis for enduring sexual bonds. Masters and Johnson subsequently began training dual-sex therapy teams and leading regular workshops for college professors and marriage counselors. Masters and Johnson’s fourth book, Homosexuality in Practice (1981), asserted that homosexuality was a learned behavior. The work engendered significant controversy over both its conclusions and its methodology. Masters and Johnson’s final collaborative publication was released to even more criticism. Published in 1988, and coauthored by Robert Kolodny, Crisis: Heterosexual Behavior in the Age of AIDS inaccurately predicted an epidemic of AIDS cases among heterosexuals and suggested that it might be possible to contract the disease from toilet seats.

Masters and Johnson’s personal and professional bonds frayed. The board of their institute was dissolved, and Johnson’s son-in-law, William Young, became acting director. In 1992, Masters and Johnson divorced. Johnson took most of the institute’s records and continued to pursue her research. She formed the Virginia Johnson Masters Learning Center in St. Louis in 1994, where she remains director. Her new organization produces instructional materials for couples with sexual dysfunction.

Johnson is credited with helping to launch the scientific study of human sexuality. With Masters, she formed a new field of scientific inquiry as well as a new branch of counseling and psychology. She trained countless professionals in the practice of sex therapy, and with Masters, she brought sexual dysfunction out of the bedroom and into the medical community. She and Masters jointly received the Sex Education and Therapists Award in 1978 and the Biomedical Research Award of the World Sexology Association in the following year. Johnson is a member of the American Association for the Advancement of Science and the Society for the Study of Reproduction.

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