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Virginia Johnson was a sex therapist famous for her work assisting William Masters in his research about human sexuality and sexual response. The pair worked together for more than three decades, transformed society’s attitudes towards sexuality, and were married from 1971 to 1993. Their professional relationship continued after their divorce.
Together, Masters and Johnson identified the four stages of sexual response: excitement, plateau, orgasm, and resolution. They brought words like "masturbation," "clitoris," and "orgasm" to the mainstream, and helped individuals overcome sexual dysfunction.
Virginia Johnson died in 2013 in Missouri.
When Virginia Johnson commenced her work with William Masters, discussion about human sexuality was still considered taboo, despite the ground-breaking work of Alfred Kinsey before them. She was a sociology student who began working as Masters’ secretary and later his assistant, but her contribution was so great that she became his research partner.
Originally Masters had observed the behavior of prostitutes, but he knew that he needed to study “ordinary people” to get a more comprehensive picture of human sexuality. He felt that taking on a female research assistant like Johnson would help facilitate this. Her warmth and people skills compensated for her lack of formal training, and helped balance Masters’ somewhat more technical approach, informed by his formal education and research skills. The subjects of their study trusted Johnson, and so were willing to share their sexual history, and even masturbate and have sex in front of her and Masters in the name of science. Over the course of a decade, the pair studied the sexual responses of 382 women and 312 men.
Masters’ and Johnson’s research helped refute Sigmund Freud’s theory that female orgasms were either vaginal or clitoral. They found no matter whether it was achieved through masturbation or intercourse, the female orgasm always came from the clitoris.
They offered short courses to help couples overcome their sexual dysfunction through sensate focus exercises, which are still used today. While Johnson’s work with Masters is celebrated as a whole, it was not without controversy.
Gay rights activists objected to the “treatments” for homosexuality suggested in the 1979 publication "Homosexuality in Perspective." Their views in "Crisis: Heterosexual Behavior in the Age of AIDS" was also seen as alarmist. Johnson herself admitted that this was the first of their works published without a decade of research to support it, although the pair felt they had little time in the midst of the AIDS health crisis.