Masters and Johnson: Research, Study & Technique

Instructor: David White
The controversial work of William Masters and Virginia Johnson has contributed significantly to scientific and social understandings of human sexuality. Read on to learn about their research, how they approached their work, and how their findings changed society.

Who Were Masters and Johnson?

It may be hard to imagine now, but there was a time not so long ago where certain topics simply weren't discussed in the United States, much less studied in an academic context. Sex, for example, was something that was spoken of in hushed tones and studied in a general, non-specific sense. That is, of course, until the late 1950s when William Masters began his pioneering research on human sexuality.

William Masters was an American gynecologist who began his controversial work on human sexual response at Washington University in the late 1950s. Working with his research assistant, Virginia Johnson, Masters conducted observational research into the anatomical and physiological process of human sexual intercourse and sexual response.


When Masters and Johnson began their work in 1957, human sexuality was a largely under-analyzed area of study. Although Alfred Kinsey had published two volumes on the subject some years earlier, Kinsey's work was largely focused on the behavioral aspects of sex (frequency, fetishes, etc.). Masters, on the other hand, was interested in the technical specifics of sexual intercourse (i.e., what goes where, what happens, and why).

William Masters was particularly interested in sexual dysfunction. Additionally, of interest to Masters and Johnson was the physical structure of female anatomy, which was widely misunderstood or ignored at the time. Their research was heavily focused on the physiological process that occurred in the body during intercourse and at the point of orgasm. They would monitor breathing and heart rate during the act and observe - often up close - the internal and external processes of lubrication and dilation during sex.

The work of Masters and Johnson was highly controversial at the time for its subject and continues to be criticized in the present for its lax methodology and ethical standards. Nevertheless, their work contributed substantially to a better-developed understanding of anatomy, which in turn advanced gynecological medicine.


Among the more prominent objections that people had and have to Masters and Johnson's research is their technique and methodology. Given the controversial nature of the work, Masters was unable to recruit volunteers and began his study using local prostitutes as participants. This was mostly done out of necessity, since prostitutes were easily accessible and knowledgeable about sex, which was lacking among others in the area. This aspect of Masters' early work made it difficult to publish or find funding, leading Masters to strengthen his search for additional participants.

Once they were able to recruit other participants into a clinical setting, their research became more formal and had structure. Usually, participants were interviewed and statistical data was gathered, after which the physical part of the study began. Depending on the circumstances, participants would engage in manual masturbation or intercourse, which was observed by the researchers, who were collecting physiological and anatomical data throughout. The final phase of participation involved an exit interview in order to gain insight into the psychological process.

Initially, the work was conducted with white heterosexual participants, a large percentage of whom were married at the time of engaging in sex acts with their randomly assigned partner. In their later years, however, Masters and Johnson began to conduct research into the sexual practices of gay and lesbian participants. While their early research is widely regarded as being profoundly important, the research into homosexual couples was heavily focused on conversion therapy, with results claiming that a significant percentage of participants were successfully converted to heterosexual. In the present, it is believed that William Masters falsified or misrepresented this data.

It is important to note that the methodologies used in Masters and Johnson's work is one of the reasons that it was, and in some ways still is, controversial. By modern standards, using prostitutes, sex surrogates, randomly assigned sex partners, and conversion therapies can have some serious and long-term social, emotional, and legal consequences. As a result, these methodologies would have little chance of gaining any approval from an institutional review board.

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