Sex demystified — and debased

Virginia Johnson helped make sex seem less strange and scary, progress that Anthony Weiner seems intent on undoing

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It is a strange confluence of events that we learn of the death of Virginia Johnson, who helped bring sex out of the shadows, just as Anthony Weiner threatens to send it back there.

Ms. Johnson, in partnership with Dr. William Masters in the 1960s, studied the mechanics of sex and the steps of arousal and concluded that sex was something at which you could actually improve.

Like Mr. Weiner, the candidate for New York City mayor who can't seem to control his need for anonymous Internet dalliances, they were an immediate media sensation, on the cover of every magazine from Playboy to Redbook, and either guests on late-night talk shows or the target of the jokes.

A divorced mother of two in her 30s, Ms. Johnson, returned to college at Washington University in St. Louis and answered an ad placed by Dr. Masters, the esteemed gynecologist, for an assistant. He needed help taking the histories of subjects in taboo and highly secret research into the basics of human sexual response.

But as it turned out, her mature and reassuring nature — compared to his rather chilly scientific approach — helped persuade subjects, especially women, to allow themselves to be hooked up to all manner of instruments while having sex.

It was not her typing skills but her perspective as a sexually active woman (she would become Dr. Masters' lover, wife and then ex-wife) that helped inform his research. He often said that he didn't know how much he didn't know about a woman's sexuality until he began to work with Ms. Johnson.

Their books, written in dry, scientific prose to avoid titillation, created huge controversy, as you might expect, especially their detailed description of the female orgasm. But it was the right kind of controversy. This frank discussion allowed women to acknowledge their sexual needs and gave them permission to talk to their partners about them.

Mr. Weiner, on the other hand, has done about as much as any one person can to put the "ick" factor back into sex.

He has now confessed to sending pictures of his private parts to a number of women and of having some version of Internet sex talk with them. There might be more than a dozen, and this activity continued, by his own confession, even while he was on his recovery tour this spring in anticipation of a mayoral campaign.

We have certainly had our share of political sex scandals in this country, and I will never look at a Navy blue dress the same way again. But the 24/7 news cycle and the appetite of the New York tabloids for this sort of thing makes it hard to escape the latest developments.

One of his conquests, 23-year-old Sydney Leathers, appeared on the television tabloid show "Entertainment Tonight" to say that Mr. Weiner's health care rants on the floor of the House of Representatives used to turn her on.


It is hard to make Masters and Johnson's phallus with a camera attached seem romantic, but this pair comes close. Ignoring for the moment her role in these virtual sex sessions, Ms. Leathers urged him to get help.

That is the other point on which these two headlines collide.

The scientists put forth the entirely new idea that sexual dysfunction could be addressed through therapy, that male impotence or premature ejaculation and a woman's failure to achieve orgasm could be corrected with therapy.

Meanwhile, Mr. Weiner is fighting off accusations that his behavior is the result of an addiction of some sort, while otherwise serious journalists are asking experts whether his case is one for the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders.

I wonder what therapies Dr. Masters and Ms. Johnson might have proposed for Mr. Weiner?

Or for the rest of us, for that matter.

Susan Reimer's columns appear on Mondays and Thursdays. She can be reached at and @SusanReimer on

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