Our Years Spent Working with “The Real Masters of Sex,” Masters and Johnson, Long Before the Television Program

PHOTO_SchwartzGalperin_MJ1980s_300pxwTo tell you that the experiences gained from working with Masters and Johnsons for as many years as we did were invaluable, would be an understatement. Their professionalism, tenacity, and daring curiosity for the subject matters they ventured to study left a lasting mark on both Lori Galperin and myself. Their work and dedication has continued to inform our research, processes, and therapeutic style to this day.

The building where Dr. William Masters and Virginia Johnson conducted research into human sexuality in the 70s and 80s looked a lot like a physicians’ office. Privacy and professionalism reigned. Clients worked their way past a conscientious and well organized receptionist, through locked doors, intercoms, and buzzers as they were escorted to their therapy session. Even the name on the door would never belie what went on behind it: Reproductive Biology Research Foundation.

Photo_MJ_Publication_400pxwDr. Masters often said that one must be “beyond reproach”—meaning, that those of us who worked with sexuality daily were at risk of seeming lascivious, so we combatted that by being hyper-professional and “squeaky clean.” Everyone wore a white lab coat and addressed each other by formal name (Dr. Schwartz or Mrs. Bowen) or — oddly — three initials (WHM and VEJ). Nobody inside those doors had sex with one another unless they were married. There was no flirting. The names of couples attending therapy were kept extremely private.

Occasionally the institute conducted research on fertility and the effectiveness of birth control, which required a supply of sperm samples. Paid donors, mostly medical students from Washington University, were warned to be mature and discrete or risk being banned from the program. They disappeared quietly into an otherwise sterile bathroom with a few issues of Playboy and a collection cup.

Couples from all over the world would present daily for the unique and highly effective Masters and Johnson model of therapy. Arabs visited with several wives, movie stars hid behind sunglasses, troubled couples flew in from Israel and South America. We treated husbands and wives in 30-year unconsummated marriages, bisexuals having compulsive affairs in the days of HIV terror, and some garden variety impotence and anorgasmia — each for two weeks of daily intensive therapy. Their future was in our hands as the therapy team. We worked within the curious paradox that we had to remove the pressures to perform from the relationship, and had only two weeks to accomplish it!

The therapy was powerful and the success rate was high. Traditional psychiatry had considered impotence difficult to treat in longer psychodynamic therapies, but the newly invented Masters and Johnson short-term approach had a high success rate. Traditional therapists were incredulous and skeptical of these rates; many critics emerged. On the positive side, though, many therapists wanted to be trained in the method. So most weekends, we were off training professionals throughout the world. While on the road, Dr. Masters would tell us that if someone in the audience initiated a sexual liaison, “We should feel free to accept. Just don’t return to work on Monday.” This was one of the many ways he meant by “beyond reproach.”

At first, married professionals were trained to do co-therapy at the institute. This worked well until most of the therapist couples divorced. Working together in intensive therapy and living together was too difficult. It was hard to “practice what one preached” occupying the same space 24 hours a day. Living and working together may have been particularly stressful for Masters and Johnson themselves. The politics and interactions at work were slightly dysfunctional as might be expected with such a driven married couple in charge.

Virginia Johnson was creative, insightful, extroverted and good with people. William Masters was like a Tootsie Pop: hard on the outside (as you would expect from a Full Professor of Gynecology at a top teaching hospital), but soft and sweet on the inside. He had a warm kindness that made him almost childlike with close friends. And he had so much charisma in therapy. Unfortunately, much of what made his style effective could not be duplicated by his students. As we gained experience, we learned to develop our own personally effective styles rather than having tried to tried to unsuccessfully copy his.

Surprisingly as a couple, Masters and Johnson never seemed to get along very well. Masters had a plaque on his desk that read, “Nothing you say makes any sense to me.” I suspect the message was aimed mainly at his wife. But when the two of them conducted therapy sessions, their electricity, focus, and insight was palpable and unrivaled. They breathed magic into the air and sexual health back into the lives of hundreds of grateful couples. There will never be another research and therapy team like them. They opened our eyes and changed the world.

Book_MastersandJohnson_HumanSexualResponseTheir first book, written very scientifically and intentionally as to not present as unsavory, Human Sexual Response (1966), was a bestseller. One of the most important findings of their research refuted Sigmund Freud’s claim that the female orgasm was either clitoral (and according to Freud, immature or even bad) or vaginal (and according to Freud was the mature method, as it was given by men and thus good). The polygraph-like instruments Masters and Johnson designed and used inadvertently showed that female orgasm, whether stimulated directly or indirectly, involved clitoral response.

Masters and Johnson identified the four stages of sexual response – excitement, plateau, orgasmic and resolution – and showed that these four stages occurred in both men and women. Using this understanding, Masters and Johnson began offering therapy focused on counseling couples struggling with sexual dysfunction. Instead of a long-lasting psychoanalytical therapy, they instead designed a short, focused program to help the individuals in the coupleship to recognize their own triggers, sexual blocks and personal preferences. This kind of therapy became known as “sensate focus.” Sensate Focus is process for couples to reconnect with other more deeply and a method for individuals to develop sexual self-awareness. It’s this same sensate-focused therapy that we both learned along side Masters and Johnson that we now use at Marriage Therapy Institute in addition to other very successful models, when working with couples.


Marriage Therapy Institute specializes in the issues couples, particularly married couples or long-term partners, face. Often intimacy disorder and/or addictions have plagued the relationship with additional layers of difficulty. Splitting up, separating or divorcing without first looking closely at what’s going on within each individual often leads to each finding new partners that simply bring forth the same exact issues all over again.

If your marriage is in evident trouble, if one of you is consistently unhappy, or if sex has completely gone out of your marriage, contact us for a free consultation. Talk to us about what’s happening (or not happening) and let’s see what we might recommend.

Marriage Therapy Institute offers customised, highly specialized Marriage Retreats, located on the Monterey Bay Peninsula, designed to put couples back on track with each other. Ask us about attending.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *