Ginny Johnson Not Given Enough Credit for Sex Study Contributions


Ginny Johnson's death brings back a lot of memories. I remember, as a new Ph.D. and young professor, sitting around many living rooms with her and her even more famous husband, Bill Masters, talking about sex research, about women in the field, and about differences in opinions between the behavioral scientists (my group) and  the medical people (Bill's and, to some extent, Ginny's group).

Ginny was Bill Masters' partner in sex research. Starting out as a secretary in his office, she transitioned to the research team. She brought warmth, compassion and new kinds of questions into the pre-interviews that Bill, a pretty cold fish in the office or at cocktail hour, simply had no idea how to provide - or even truly appreciate why they were so important. Ginny helped get the deeper, more honest reactions out of the people who volunteered for the path-breaking, and shocking, research that took pictures of people masturbating and having various kinds of sex, all the time hooked up to heart and blood monitors and other data-taking devices.  Putting those people at ease was no small trick.

Ginny was not really given enough credit from the more credentialed sexologists. Coming into the scene as Bill's paramour didn't help, but she also was more instinctual than trained. They did have to make up a lot of their protocols as they went along, because they were just about the first people to do their kind of observational research; very few people had systematically observed actual sexual behavior, and none with the technology they could bring to the table in the 1960s.

When the first book was published under Masters' and Johnson's names (but written with Bob Kolodney, another doctor), it was a smash best seller, and was on just about everyone's coffee table or bedside table. The book itself was intentionally stodgy, full of turgid medical prose, in order to make sure the findings had dignity. Few people had actually read the book - they just wanted people to think they had! In fact, that was such a problem that several popular writers did analysis of the book, so the actual findings could get to a broader public. After the first book, however, Kolodney's name went on the subsequent volumes. The books also became more readable, as the authors relaxed and believed that the public accepted the science and not just the titillation of the findings.

Ginny was a nice person. She lived a big life with Bill, but she was never stuck-up. She knew what it was like to be marginalized and she never put anyone else, at least that I saw, in that position. She and Bill had a partnership, but only insofar as Ginny did whatever Bill wanted. When that ceased, the marriage did as well.

But the book, and the books that followed, were a huge contribution to our knowledge about different kinds of sexualities, and helped create the modern field of sex therapy.

Not a bad legacy for Ginny Johnson.

Dr. Schwartz  answers questions every Monday, Wednesday and Friday.  Submit your question here. Read more of Pepper's  columns here. And be sure to follow Pepper on Twitter  @pepperschwartz.

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