“Masters of Sex” explores all kinds of sexuality

Showtime’s new series Masters of Sex is based on real life sex researchers William Masters and Virginia Johnson, who began studying how humans get it on in the 1950s. Michael Sheen and Lizzy Caplan star in the title roles and in the pilot, premiering on September 29, viewers will be introduced to how the two met and began to work together on figuring out orgasms, intimacy and other related endeavors.

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“Kinsey’s work was quite different because it was all anecdotal and it was based on interviews,” says executive producer Sarah Timberman. Masters and Johnson were pairing  partners together and watching them, studying them as they actually participated in the act of sex.

And this research included homosexuality, so the show will reflect that.

“In a very big way,” said creator/executive producer Michelle Ashford. “There will be more exploration of people who are gay.”

In the pilot, we meet Betty DeMilo (played by theater star Analeigh Ashford), a prostitute who sleeps with men for money but is actually in love with a woman. She’s the one at the beginning of the trailer.

“I can’t say too much more than Analeigh is in the first three episodes,” Michelle said. “We would have had her in more because she’s so wonderful and such a great character. She’s a gay woman who is also a prostitute and she faces a very difficult dilemma and it does have to do with what the options were for someone in 1956 an 1957 if you were a gay single woman.”

Analeigh Ashford

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Even though Betty is only part of those first few episodes, Michelle said there are many other gay and lesbian themes, because it’s based on the real research Masters and Johnson did at the time. What isn’t part of this season, but could be in the future, is some of the studies of conversion therapy that the pair conducted in the late ’70s.

“If we have a long life, knock on wood, that’s something we’ll address later on because they didn’t publish that book until much later,” Michelle said, referencing the 1979 book Homosexuality in Perspective. “But the issue of being gay and how that was manifested in the 1950s was very very precedent.”

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The fact that the Masters and Johnson Institute ran an ex-gay conversion program from 1968-1977, Michelle said, “was a bit of a misstep. It was a complicated story though, why they came down that way and proposed gay conversion. But we actually start the exploration of what it means to be gay in the ’50s in this season and will reverberate seasons down the road if we get there.” It was noted that Virginia did not agree with the program, and Lizzy Caplan herself called her character “sexually adventurous,” which means it could be possible she’s interested in testing out some of her own theories on “ambisexuality” (the word they use for bisexuals). The real Virginia Johnson recently passed away at the age of 88.

What Masters and Johnson eventually found about lesbians is kind of funny to read now in 2013. A Time magazine piece from the time it was published has some notes on their findings:

In lesbian lovemaking. which many sex researchers believe can teach heterosexual males a thing or two about how to approach women, committed couples devote an “extraordinary” amount of time to sexual play. For example, stimulation of the breasts, usually begun by heterosexual men within 30 seconds of sexual activity, begins much later among lesbians.

A third of all heterosexual women said that their breasts are not a particularly important erogenous zone, yet many considered breast play exciting because men seemed to enjoy it. Unlike lesbians, who knew that touching the breasts can be painful during certain times of the menstrual cycle, heterosexual men almost always touched the breasts in the same way.

The preliminary findings show that fantasies of forced sex were the most popular fantasies among lesbians and the second most popular among homosexual men, heterosexual men and heterosexual women…. In most cases the lesbian version of these fantasies showed a theme of revenge against another woman.

Eventually, it appears that Masters and Johnson felt strongly that gays and lesbians are just like everybody else, even when it comes to orgasms. From the Time piece:

“People who stop and think will say, hey, these are somebody’s brothers and sisters, wives and husbands, sons and daughters, friends and neighbors, and they are loved and loving human beings.” The book has another implicit message for heterosexuals: it is that homosexuality is not going to go away, whether society ignores it, accepts it or rejects it. In fact, by looking honestly, if critically, at the gay life, straight men and women may learn important lessons in lovemaking. Among them: that nothing succeeds so much as treating sexual partners with consideration, understanding and unhurried gentleness. Says Masters, “These are the big things to come out of this book at long range, I have a hunch.”

William Masters and Virginia Johnson
Sex therapists Dr Virginia Johnson and Dr William MastersGetty Images

An entire chapter of the book upon which the show is based (also titled Masters of Sex) is dedicated to this part of their research and details all of the people that challenged their conversion methods and ideas. Ultimately it was decided that there wasn’t any kind of infallible proof that gay people could be turned straight.

For better or for worse, Masters and Johnson were a part of figuring out America’s sex lives and producing their findings. Whether or not you agree with the results, you can still watch the show and enjoy the discussions.

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