Celebrating Masters & Johnson's Human Sexual Response: A Washington University Legacy in Limbo
53 Washington University Journal of Law & Policy 71 (2017)
19 Pages Posted: 20 Jan 2020
Date Written: March 1, 2017
This essay, part of a collection written to celebrate the sesquicentennial of Washington University School of Law, seeks to revive an almost forgotten anniversary—the fiftieth year since the publication of Human Sexual Response by William Masters and Virginia Johnson, who did much of the early research for the book at Washington University. To the extent that the important story of their work survives, the credit belongs largely to a popular television series, Masters of Sex, not institutional recognition by the University that we argue should claim and celebrate them.
The story of Human Sexual Response—as it happened at Washington University and as it has been portrayed on television—raises questions of gender, sexuality, taboo, human research ethics, scientific method, academic freedom, and complicated personal and professional relationships. We consider these questions as well as what the story of Human Sexual Response teaches us about opportunities, perils, and possibilities for continuing progress in sexuality studies. We note, on the one hand, how the Masters of Sex series seems to trivialize a significant chapter in Washington University’s history and the history of sex research. On the other hand, we acknowledge how the television series saved the Masters and Johnson legacy from near-fatal neglect. Accordingly, with an eye on the future, we examine the relationship between the narrative portrayed on the screen and the literal truth that inspired it, evaluating both what we have lost and what we have gained from having television tell (and partly fictionalize) this story.
Keywords: sexualities, medical research, therapy, popular culture, history, gender, race
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