I guess the title “Johnsons of Sex” didn’t make it past the censors, although precious little gave them heartburn.

I’m about to go on record as agreeing, at least in part, with Boyd K. Packer’s statement that not all truth is useful.

Masters of Sex:  Truth vs. Usefulness

I’ve been watching the Showtime original series Masters of Sex, about real life pioneering sex doctors Virginia Johnson and Bill Masters.  Their work was incredibly important for cataloging the body’s physiological response during sex, including debunking the idea of male sexual superiority by proving scientifically that women had the capacity for multiple orgasms.

I read the book the series is loosely based on, a biography perhaps a little stilted toward Virginia’s viewpoint, that explains the real story of their pioneering research, including partnership with the Playboy mansion, launching of national sex therapy clinics, their ultimately failed marriage, and experimentation with altering homosexual impulses through sex therapy techniques.  Late in life, Dr. Masters was partly discredited for his claim that he could cure homosexuality through a specific regimen of heterosexual encounters with professional sex therapists.  Although evidence showed that this reformation was not permanent, Dr. Masters doggedly stood by his claim, despite the harmful impact to his and Dr. Johnson’s reputation, and it eventually contributed to their marginalization as prevailing scientific attitudes won the day, leaving these sexual pioneers in the dust.

Some license is expected in creating a series based loosely on real people and events; children are added or eliminated, events reordered, names changed, but the series is so far decidedly erring significantly on the side of revisionist history, replacing attitudes that were novel at the time of Masters and Johnson with current attitudes and scientific knowledge that were beyond their grasp.  To date, episodes have superimposed modern attitudes regarding:

  • Feminism
  • Homosexuality and suicide
  • Intersex babies and gender reassignment surgery

Why Change the Facts? 

You’ve seen the series; now read the book!

This begs the question, what’s the purpose of the show?  A biographical sketch of two fascinating people whose groundbreaking work revolutionized our understanding of sex?  Or is this basically an after school special for adults, illustrating to us the right way to think and act while demonstrating the pitfalls of wrong choices and thinking?  While there are elements of the biographical, at this point of the series, it’s clear that the show is more an after school special for adults, illustrating for us what our attitudes and thoughts should be toward women’s rights, homosexuality, and sexual identity, certainly not the actual attitudes of these sexual pioneers back in the 1950s.

In order to achieve these aims, the show has whitewashed certain failings of Masters & Johnson that are evident in the book:

  • Both of them being steeped in the social mores of their day regarding women’s rights are the roles of men and women; the show sketches a couple who see clearly and consistently beyond the sexist claptrap of their day.  In reality, they were more a product of their time than we find comfortable today.
  • The moral trickiness of quid pro quo sexual favors are explored in the series, but much of the taint is removed with a hint of “true love” mixed with feminism in a way that simply wasn’t possible for their day or accurate for their relationship as revealed by the biographical rendition.  The biographical version of events is far less sympathetic, and probably far more accurate.
  • Bill Masters’ attitude toward homosexuality was that he cared about homosexuals as patients but agreed with the mores of the day that it would be better for them if they were able to live as sexually satisfied heterosexuals, and that was the intended outcome of his therapy process.  Virginia Johnson’s views on homosexuality were more progressive according to the book, believing homosexuality to be innate.
  • The views expressed by Bill Masters in the series about a baby born with both male and female genitalia but with male DNA are far beyond the scope of his experience in the book and are also very aligned with current knowledge rather than the norms that prevailed in their day.  Focus on the life satisfaction of the patient is portrayed as forefront in both eras, but interpreting what is best has shifted over time.  The series shows us a Bill Masters who is far ahead of his day in understanding gender identity far beyond actual Bill Masters’ understanding of this subject.  His impassioned plea to an intransigent father’s stern “Cut it off!” falls on deaf ears, and we, in our 2014 wisdom, cluck our tongues in agreement with poor unheeded Bill Masters.  Yes, that father is making a horrible mistake, which we the audience can see clearly because we’ve watched two decades of Law & Order: Special Victims Unit.

Church and Whitewashing

Truth is stranger than fiction, but fiction is better at illustrating truth.

Retconning is when we take a familiar character and re-write that person’s story to refresh it, throwing out what no longer works in today’s culture and updating it to be more appealing.  Likewise, church is in the retconning business.  We go to church, not to learn what less enlightened people from previous eras believed about things [1] but to educate and guide people based on the best light and knowledge we have now [2].  We then cherry pick previous statements for those that hold up over time, conveniently discarding the ones that don’t.

And we do this because church is not a biography or accurate history.  It’s an after school special.  The purpose is for the audience to learn and to become better people.  We don’t accomplish that by immersing ourselves in the mistakes of the past, but by gleaning what we can from the rare moments of clarity apart from the biases of eras and cultures.[3]  This series is an interesting illustration of why what is truthful is not always useful.  And what is useful is likewise not always truthful.

But that also means we have a blind spot for our own cultural biases.  The lens of the present is always shifting, even though it feels like we’ve finally got it right.


[1] And yet we continue to study the Old Testament in Gospel Doctrine as if it’s a guide for our time.  Whatever.

[2] Bearing in mind that different speakers, leaders, and teachers all have different levels of understanding across different topics.

[3] Which rather obviously casts everything that hasn’t yet stood the test of time in an a dubious light.