“Persons Studied in Pairs”
The Lab That Uncovered Great Sex
hen I began this book, I harbored a naive fantasy that I would find a team of scientists working to discover the secret to amazing, mind-rippling sex. They would report to work late at night in a windowless, hi-tech laboratory and have unplaceable accents and penetrating stares. Week after week, couples would be hooked up to instruments, measured, interviewed, filmed. Data would be analyzed, footage reviewed, and one day one of the researchers would set down her pen and nod knowingly.
I suspected that the secrets uncovered in this lab would have less to do with vasocongestion or vaginoclitoral distance or hormones than with how the two people on the bed in the laboratory felt—about one another, and about sex. And that those feelings would color and inspire the things they did. And that without those feelings you could play the overture and hit the crescendos just fine, but the music would not take you to the same rapturous place.
One day, with only two months to go before I turned in the manuscript, I found that lab. In 1979, William Masters and Virginia Johnson published Homosexuality in Perspective, a book to which I had never before seen or heard a reference. For five years, Masters and Johnson observed and compared the laboratory sexual encounters of straight, gay and lesbian, and “ambisexual” couples. (The team coined the term to refer to nonmonogamous sexual opportunists who show no preference between men and women throughout their very busy sex lives.)
To keep the subjects’ identities secret, the researchers did indeed schedule the sessions late at night or on weekends, when no one was in the building. The rest of it surpassed even my own imagination. While some of the subjects were having sex with their spouses or longterm partners, others were doing it with a stranger—not a stranger of their choosing, but one assigned to them by Masters and Johnson. These latter men and women would show up at the lab, chat with the researchers, and, following a short orientation session, get down to business with a man or woman they had never before laid eyes upon. While Masters and Johnson observed.
I learned about the project in a New York Times health column. Jane Brody had described the book and its conclusions the week it came out. The subheads the paper had supplied were vague and coy:* “Persons Studied in Pairs,” ^Except for this one: “Rape Fantasies for Both.” Masters and Johnson published a list of the top five sexual fantasies of the gay and straight men and women. Forced Sexual Encounters was either No. 1 or No. 2 for all four groups. Both straight men and lesbians imagined themselves interchangeably in the role of rapist and “rapee.” In the case of gang rape fantasies—I so love this—gay men occasionally “played an additional role of planner or organizer.”
said one. It was like writing up the Million Man March under the headline “Persons Walking in a Group.” In a sentence at the end of a paragraph 5describing study protocols, Brody notes simply: “Some were assigned partners.” The casual reader, alighting here, might have mistaken the column for a piece about square dancing. I immediately tracked down a copy of the book.
As always, and like most sex researchers, Masters and Johnson were stingy with the irrelevant details. I can tell you that the thermostat was set at 78, presumably because the couples were naked and, of course, had no covers over them. I can tell you that some of the participants asked for background music, though I cannot tell you which albums, just as I could not tell you the titles of the “stimulative literature” used to arouse subjects in Human Sexual Response twenty years before.
The team did mention that many of the men and women who had been assigned a partner worried that this person wouldn’t find them attractive. Oddly, the reverse anxiety never surfaced—no one seemed concerned about whether they themselves would feel any attraction to the stranger whose genitals they were about to experience in almost every way imaginable: manually, orally, coitionally. Catching something wasn’t a concern, because everyone was screened for venereal disease, and AIDS hadn’t yet surfaced. The researchers themselves had but one qualm. They worried at first that some of the subjects might come on to them
and/or make small talk, I cannot tell which, for they phrased it as “the problem of study subjects attempting social interchange” with the researchers.
Unlike Human Sexual Response, this project did not primarily concern itself with the physiology of arousal and orgasm. Everything Masters and Johnson had observed in their heterosexual subjects in the fifties (a subset of whom became the later project’s hetero group), they found, applied to homosexuals. Having now observed “hundreds of cycles of sexual response” in gays as well, they quickly concluded that arousal and orgasm are arousal and orgasm, whether a couple has one, two, or zero penises between them.
A large chunk of the book is spent comparing “functional efficiency” and “failure incidence” of the different groups: gay versus straight versus ambi, long-term versus assigned. Table after table with titles like “Functional Efficiency of Ambisexuals in Manipulative Stimulation and Coition.” This was Masters and Johnson as their critics saw them: the mechanizers of sex, obsessively focused on “effective stimulation,” reducing passion to a series of impersonal physical manipulations.
But ultimately the team set aside their stopwatches and data charts and turned a qualitative eye upon their volunteers. What emerged were two portraits. There was efficient sex—skillful, efficient, goal-directed, uninhibited, and with a very low “failure incidence.” Here there were no significant differences among the study groups. Basically, anyone who signed on as a Masters and Johnson volunteer—gay, straight, committed or not—tended to have, as they say, 100 percent orgasmic return. Because really, why would people who knew themselves to be iffy responders volunteer for this project?
But efficient sex was not amazing sex. The best sex going on in Masters and Johnson’s lab was the sex being had by the committed gay and lesbian couples. Not because they were practicing special secret homosexual sex techniques, but because they “took their tinted They lost themselves—in each other, and in sex. They “tended to move slowly. . . and to linger at. . . [each] stage of stimulative response, making each step in tension increment something to be appreciated. …” They teased each other “in an obvious effort to prolong the stimulatee’s high levels of sexual excitation.”
Another difference was that the lesbians were almost as aroused by what they were doing to their partner as was the partner herself Not just because, say, fondling a breast turned them on, but because their partners’ reactions did. Masters and Johnson’s heterosexuals failed to grasp that if you lost yourself in the tease—in the pleasure and power of turning someone on—that that could be as arousing as being teased and turned on oneself. “Not only were committed lesbians more effective in satisfying their partners, they usually involved themselves without restraint… far more than husbands approaching their wives.” The straight man, in most cases, “became so involved in his own sexual tensions that he seemed relatively unaware of the degree of his partner’s sexual involvement. There were only a few instances when the husband seemed fully aware of his wife’s levels of sexual excitation and helped her to expand her pleasure. . . rather than attempting to force her rapidly to higher levels of sexual involvement.”
The same criticisms applied to straight women: “This sense of goal orientation, of trying to get something done. . . was exhibited almost as frequently by the heterosexual women as by their male partners.” They ignored their husband’s nipples and just about everything else other than his penis. Meanwhile, the homosexual men lavished attention on their partners’ entire bodies. And the gay men, like the gay women, were adept at the tease. Unlike the wives: “Rarely did a wife identify her husband’s preorgasmic stage. . . and suspend him at this high level of sexual excitation. …”
Masters points out that the heterosexuals were at a disadvantage, as they do not benefit from what he called “gender empathy.” Doing unto your partner as you would do unto yourself only works well when you’re gay. “Since rapid forceful stroking was the pattern of choice during male masturbation,” Masters wrote, “it was also a consistent pattern during the male’s manipulation of his female partner’s clitoris.” The lesbians’ lighter touch was “generally the more acceptable. …” For no doubt similar reasons, the straight women, their husbands told the researchers, “did not grasp the shaft of the penis tightly enough.”
But the empathy gap is not insurmountable. One has only to speak one’s mind. The other hugely important difference Masters and Johnson found between the heterosexual and homosexual couples was that the gay couples talked far more easily, often, and openly about what they did and didn’t enjoy. Gay men and women simply seemed more comfortable in the world of sex. Masters gives the example of the heterosexual men’s finger insertions: “Though many heterosexual women evidenced little pleasure. . . and were obviously distracted by [it],… only twice did they ask their husbands to desist.”
It seems to me that heterosexuals have come a long way since 1979. The media’s ubiquitous coverage of sex and sex research—as well as the genesis and population explosion of TV, radio, and newspaper sex advisors—have chipped away at the taboos that kept couples from talking openly with each other about the sex they were having. Bit by bit, sex research has unraveled the hows, whys, why-nots, and how-betters of arousal and orgasm. The more the researchers and the sexperts and the reporters talked about sex, the easier it became for everyone else to. As communication eases and knowledge grows, inhibitions dissolve and confidence takes root.
Sadly, the main thing people recall about Homosexuality in Perspective, if they recall anything at all, is that Masters and Johnson spent the second half of the book touting a therapy for helping homosexuals convert to heterosexuality. The team went out of their way to assure readers that they screened clients carefully, accepting only those who had turned to homosexuality after a traumatic experience with heterosexuality (rape or abuse, for instance). They insisted that no gay man or woman who came to them for therapy was ever pressured or encouraged to pursue heterosexuality. However, as one critic pointed out, many should probably have been encouraged not to pursue it.
But let’s give Masters and Johnson their due. And while we’re at it, Alfred Kinsey and Robert Latou Dickinson and Old Dad and everyone else in these pages. The laboratory study of sex has never been an easy, safe, or well- paid undertaking. Study by study, the gains may seem small and occasionally silly, but the aggregation of all that has been learned, the lurching tango of academe and popular culture, has led us to a happier place. Hats and pants off to you all.