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Virginia E. Johnson

Chosen by William Howell Masters as research associate, Develops sex therapy institute

Researcher in human sexuality who co-wrote with her then-husband, William H. Masters, Human Sexual Response in 1966.

In collaboration with Dr. William Howell Masters, psychologist and sex therapist Virginia E. Johnson pioneered the study of human sexuality under laboratory conditions. She and Masters published the results of their study as a book entitled Human Sexual Response in 1966, causing an immediate sensation. As part of her work at the Reproductive Biology Research Foundation in St. Louis and later at the Masters and Johnson Institute, she counseled many clients and taught sex therapy to many professional practitioners.

Johnson was born Virginia Eshelman on February 11, 1925, in Springfield, Missouri, to Hershel Eshelman, a farmer, and Edna (Evans) Eshelman. The elder of two children, she began school in Palo Alto, California, where her family had moved in 1930. When they returned to Missouri three years later, she was ahead of her school peers and skipped several grades. She studied piano and voice, and read extensively. She entered Drury College in Springfield in 1941. After her freshman year, she was hired to work in the state insurance office, a job she held for four years. Her mother, a republican state committeewoman, introduced her to many elected officials, and Johnson often sang for them at meetings. These performances led to a job as a country music singer for radio station KWTO in Springfield, where her stage name was Virginia Gibson. She studied at the University of Missouri and later at the Kansas City Conservatory of Music. In 1947, she became a business writer for the St. Louis Daily Record. She also worked briefly on the marketing staff of KMOX-TV, leaving that position in 1951.

In the early 1940s she married a Missouri politician, but the marriage lasted only two days. Her marriage to an attorney many years her senior also ended in divorce. On June 13, 1950, she married George V. Johnson, an engineering student and leader of a dance band. She sang with the band until the birth of her two children, Scott Forstall and Lisa Evans. In 1956, the Johnsons divorced.

Chosen by William Howell Masters as research associate

In 1956, contemplating a return to college for a degree in sociology, Johnson applied for a job at the Washington University employment office. William Howell Masters, associate professor of clinical obstetrics and gynecology, had requested an assistant to interview volunteers for a research project. He personally chose Johnson, who fitted the need for an outgoing, intelligent, mature woman who was preferably a mother. Johnson began work on January 2, 1957, as a research associate, but soon advanced to research instructor.

Gathering scientific data by means of electroencephalography, electrocardiography, and the use of color monitors, Masters and Johnson measured and analyzed 694 volunteers. They were careful to protect the privacy

Virginia Johnson, left, with coworker William Masters. (UPI/Corbis-Bettmann. Reproduced with permission.)

of their subjects, who were photographed in various modes of sexual stimulation. In addition to a description of the four stages of sexual arousal, other valuable information was gained from the photographs, including evidence of the failure of some contraceptives, the discovery of a vaginal secretion in some women that prevents conception, and the observation that sexual enjoyment need not decrease with age. In 1964, Masters and Johnson created the non-profit Reproductive Biology Research Foundation in St. Louis and began treating couples for sexual problems. Originally listed as a research associate, Johnson became assistant director of the Foundation in 1969 and co-director in 1973.

In 1966, Masters and Johnson released their book Human Sexual Response, in which they detailed the results of their studies. Although the book was written in dry, clinical terms and intended for medical professionals, its titillating subject matter made it front-page news and a runaway best seller, with over 300,000 volumes distributed by 1970. While some reviewers accused the team of dehumanizing and scientizing sex, overall professional and critical response was positive.

Develops sex therapy institute

At Johnson's suggestion, the two researchers went on the lecture circuit to discuss their findings and appeared on such television programs as NBC's Today show and ABC's Stage '67. Their book and their public appearances heightened public interest in sex therapy, and a long list of clients developed. Couples referred to their clinic would spend two weeks in intensive therapy and have periodic follow-ups for five years. In a second book, Human Sexual Inadequacy, published in 1970, Masters and Johnson discuss the possibility that sex problems are more cultural than physiological or psychological. In 1975, they wrote The Pleasure Bond: A New Look at Sexuality and Commitment, which differs from previous volumes in that it was written for the average reader. This book describes total commitment and fidelity to the partner as the basis for an enduring sexual bond. To expand counseling, Masters and Johnson trained dual-sex therapy teams and conducted regular workshops for college teachers, marriage counselors, and other professionals.

After the release of this second book, Masters divorced his first wife and married Johnson on January 7, 1971, in Fayetteville, Arkansas. They continued their work at the Reproductive Biology Research Foundation, and in 1973 founded the Masters and Johnson Institute. Johnson was co-director of the institute, running the everyday business, and Masters concentrated on scientific work. Johnson, who never received a college degree, was widely recognized along with Masters for her contributions to human sexuality research. Together they received several awards, including the Sex Education and Therapists Award in 1978 and Biomedical Research Award of the World Sexology Association in 1979.

In 1981, the team sold their lab and moved to another location in St. Louis, where they had a staff of 25 and a long waiting list of clients. Their book Homosexuality in Perspective, released shortly before the move, documents their research on gay and lesbian sexual practice and homosexual sexual problems and their work with "gender-confused" individuals who sought a "cure" for their homosexuality. One of their most controversial conclusions from their 10-year study of 84 men and women was their conviction that homosexuality is primarily not physical, emotional, or genetic, but a learned behavior. Some reviewers hailed the team's claims of success in "converting" homosexuals. Others, however, observed that the handpicked individuals who participated in the study were not a representative sample; moreover, they challenged the team's assumption that heterosexual performance alone was an accurate indicator of a changed sexual preference.

The institute had many associates who assisted in research and writing. Robert Kolodny, an M.D. interested in sexually transmitted diseases, coauthored the book Crisis: Heterosexual Behavior in the Age of AIDS with Masters and Johnson in 1988. The book, commented Stephen Fried in Vanity Fair, "was politically incorrect in the extreme": it predicted a large-scale outbreak of the virus in the heterosexual community and, in a chapter meant to document how little was known of the AIDS virus, suggested that it might be possible to catch it from a toilet seat. Several prominent members of the medical community questioned the study, and many accused the authors of sowing hysteria. Adverse publicity hurt the team, who were distressed because they felt the medical community had turned against them. The number of therapy clients at the institute declined.

The board of the institute was quietly dissolved and William Young, Johnson's son-in-law, became acting director. Johnson went into semi-retirement. On February 19, 1992, Young announced that after 21 years of marriage, Masters and Johnson were filing for divorce because of differences about goals relating to work and retirement. Following the divorce, Johnson took most of the institute's records with her and is continuing her work independently.

Further Reading

Duberman, Martin Bauml. Review of "Homosexuality in perspective." New Republic. (June 16, 1979): 24–31.

Fried, Stephen. "The new sexperts." Vanity Fair. (December 1992): 132.

Masters, William Howell and Robert Kolodny. Masters and Johnson on sex and human loving. Little, Brown, 1986.

"Repairing the conjugal bed." Time. (March 25, 1970.)

Robinson, Paul. The modernization of sex: Havelock Ellis, Albert Kinsey, William Masters, and Virginia Johnson. Cornell University Press, 1988.

Additional topics

Psychology EncyclopediaFamous Psychologists & Scientists