studying sex -- 7/13/17

Today's encore selection -- from Bonk: The Curious Coupling of Science and Sex by Mary Roach. Alfred Kinsey, and later William Masters and Virginia Johnson, endured rejection and ridicule to publish what ultimately became recognized as groundbreaking studies on human sexuality:

"Kinsey is of course best known for his daring, encyclopedic surveys of sexual behavior. In the 1940s and early '50s, Kinsey -- with colleagues Wardell Pomeroy, Clyde Martin, and Paul Gebhard -- interviewed 18,000 Americans about their sex lives and published his findings in two ground-breaking, best-selling, ultimately career-tanking volumes. ...

Kinsey in Frankfurt, November 1955

"[Kinsey's studies included] stutterers, amputees, paraplegics, even those with cerebral palsy were observed. Kinsey wanted to document the full spectrum of human sexuality, but it was more than that. He believed these people might have things to teach us about the physiology of sex. And he was right. These groups alerted Kinsey -- and the scientific community as a whole -- to the complicated and crucial role of the central nervous system in sex and reproduction. Kinsey had noted that a stutterer in the throes of sexual abandon may temporarily lose his stutter. Similarly, the phantom limb pain some amputees feel temporarily disappears. Even the muscle spasticity of cerebral palsy may be briefly quieted. The body's limiting factors seem to get shut off. The organism is driven toward nature's singular goal -- conception, the passing on of one's genes -- and anything that stands in the way is pushed into the background. Sensory distractions become imperceptible: noises go unheeded and peripheral vision all but disappears -- a fact some prostitutes use to their advantage, working with 'creepers' who emerge from the shadows when the action heats up and go through the john's pockets as easily as if he were unconscious. The most dramatic example of this biological priority shift is a sexually mediated disregard for pain and physical discomfort. Whatever ails you pretty much stops ailing you during really hot sex. ...

William Masters & Virginia Johnson

"It was 1954 when William Masters embarked on his own investigation of sexual physiology. Kinsey was under fire from conservatives. The Rockefeller Foundation, partly because of its funding of Kinsey's work, was the subject of a congressional investigation. (As a result, the foundation pulled Kinsey's funding. He died less than two years later.)

"Given the political climate, it was exceedingly brave of Masters -- then a gynecologist at Washington University in St. Louis -- to undertake such a project. This was to be a large (nearly 700 participants), nonclandestine observational study of human sexual arousal and orgasm. To try to get funding and permission for such a venture in 1954 must have been, well, like trying to do it [today]. Understandably, Masters went to great lengths to appear as scientific, objective, and morally upstanding as he could. His hiring of a female associate, Virginia Johnson, helped ward off accusations of impropriety. ...

"Masters and Johnson launched their book-length write-up of the project, Human Sexual Response, in 1966. (Medical journals had rejected the team's papers, deeming them pornographic.) 'The hate mail was unbelievable,' Masters recalled during a talk at the 1983 meeting of the Society for the Scientific Study of Sex. 'For the next year and a half we had extra secretaries ... just answering mail.'

"Eventually, the rancor cooled, and the book went on to become an enduring bestseller and a classic in the field. It is hard to say which contributed most to its acceptance: the cloak of formal science that Masters so assiduously pinned to his work, or the simple fact that times had changed. Nineteen sixty-six was worlds away from 1954."



Mary Roach


Bonk: The Curious Coupling of Science and Sex


W. W. Norton & Company


Copyright 2008 by Mary Roach


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