Main Page | See live article | Alphabetical index

Masters and Johnson

Gynecologist William Howell Masters (December 27, 1915 - February 16, 2001) and psychologist Virginia Eshelman Johnson (born February 11, 1925) pioneered research into human sexual behavior during the 1950s and 1960s. They recorded some of the first laboratory data on human sexual response and dispelled many long standing misconceptions about sexual behaviour through their work. Masters divorced his first wife to marry Johnson. They later divorced some thirty years later, largely bringing their joint research to an end.

Research Work

Masters and Johnson met in 1957 when William Masters hired Virginia Johnson as a research assistant to undertake a comprehensive study of human sexuality. Previously, the study of human sexuality (sexology) had been a neglected area of study due to the restrictive social conventions of the time.

Alfred Kinsey had previously published two volumes on sexual behavior in the human male and female (known as the Kinsey Reports), both of which had been revolutionary and controversial in their time. Kinsey's work however, had mainly investigated the frequency of which certain behaviors occurred in the population. In contrast, Masters and Johnson set about to study the structure, psychology and physiology of sexual behaviour, through observing and measuring masturbation and sexual intercourse in the laboratory.

As well as recording some of the first physiological data from the human body and sex organs during sexual excitation, they also framed their findings and conclusions in language that espoused sex as a healthy and natural activity that could be enjoyed as a source of pleasure and intimacy.

Four Stage Model of the Sexual Response

One of the most enduring and important aspects of their work has been the four stage model of sexual response. They defined the four stages as:


For both males and females excitement leads to an increase in pulse, heart rate, blood pressure and muscle tension. Similarly both sexes experience increase blood flow to the genitals and nipples.

In females, the vagina becomes naturally lubricated, lengthens and widens, whilst the labia swell.

In males, erection of the penis is the most obvious sign of excitment.


Further increases in circulation and heart rate occur in both sexes, sexual pleasure increases with increased stimulation, muscle tension increases further.

At this stage females show a number of effects. The areolae and labia further increase in size, the clitoris withdraws slightly and the Bartholin's glands produce further lubrication.

Males may start to secrete seminal fluid and the testes rise closer to the body.


Orgasm is the conclusion of the plateau phase in a release of sexual tension. Both males and females experience quick cycles of muscle contraction of the anus and lower pelvic muscles, with women also experiencing uterine and vaginal contractions.

Males ejaculate approximately 5-10ml of semen.


The resolution stage occurs after orgasm and allows the muscles to relax, blood pressure to drop and the body to slow down from its excited state.

Generally males experience a refractory period, meaning orgasm cannot be achieved again until time has passed. The penis meanwhile returns to a flaccid state. Females may not experience this refractory period and further stimulation may cause a return to the plateau stage. Otherwise, significant changes may also occur, such as the opening of the cervix and the reduction of blood flow to the genitals and nipples.

Sexual Dysfunction

By attempting to understand the structure, psychology and mechanisms of sexual behaviour, Masters and Johnson provided the ground work for a theory driven approach to treating sexual dysfunction and inadequacy. They started a clinic in St. Louis to treat sexual complaints such as impotency and inability to achieve orgasm, based on their findings in their laboratory studies.


Some sex researchers, Shere Hite in particular, have focused on understanding how individuals regard sexual experience and the meaning it holds for them. She has criticised Masters and Johnson's work for uncritically incorporating cultural attitudes on sexual behaviour into their research.

For example, Hite's work showed that 70% of women do not have orgasms through intercourse although are able to achieve orgasm easily by masturbation. She has criticised Masters and Johnson's argument that enough clitoral stimulation to achieve orgasm should be provided by thrusting during intercourse, and the inference that the failure of this is a sign of female 'sexual dysfunction'. Whilst not denying that both Kinsey and Masters and Johnson have been a crucial step in sex research, she believes that we must understand the cultural and personal construction of sexual experience to make the research relevant to sexual behaviour outside the laboratory.

External Links and References