Sex & Relationships

Why Are Americans So Hung Up About Sex? New TV Series Explores Our Nookie Anxiety

Showtime series "Masters of Sex" follows researchers—and lovers—William Masters and Virginia Johnson as they study America's sex life.

Photo Credit: Showtime

Getting it on in America has never been simple.

We got saddled with the strict Puritan heritage, branded into the mind of every high school student in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s grim portrait of the consequences of extramarital sex, The Scarlet Letter. The Puritans threatened anyone getting busy outside of marriage with hellfire, but even they weren’t as bad as the Roman Catholics of the time, who thought sex of any kind was sinful.

By the time the Victorian era rolled around, Puritan restrictions began to buckle as our friend Mr. Vulcanized Rubber Condom hit the scene, and a Viennese doctor named Freud looked at his neurotic patients and wondered if nookie might be the root of the trouble. The Roaring Twenties brought shockingly short skirts and sultry dances, but when the Great Depression struck, some blamed the calamity on all the sexytime of the previous decade. Things quickly buttoned back up: Hollywood got the prudish Hays Code, and sex retreated in shame.

But all was not lost. A new breed of social researcher would fight to pry sexuality back out of the closet. Promoting the radical idea that human sex deserved serious study, Alfred Kinsey and his team interviewed thousands of Americans about their bedroom activities in the 1930s and '40s, producing Sexual Behavior in the Human Male in 1948 and Sexual Behavior in the Human Female in 1953. The research was greeted with high dudgeon when it revealed, among other things, that over a third of all males had had a sexual encounter with a dude and that over a quarter of wives cheated.

Fertility specialist William H. Masters, a church-going Episcopalian and a registered Republican, picked up where Kinsey left off.  Kinsey was more of a data guy, whereas Masters was a clinician who wanted to treat patients who came to his office suffering from sexual ills. Masters helped banish many of the taboos and fears that were behind all kinds of sexual failure and was rewarded with an enviable obituary in the New York Times: he was described as the person who “revolutionized the way sex is studied, taught and enjoyed in America.”

A new series on Showtime, "Masters of Sex" (premiered Sunday, September 29), based on the book Masters of Sex: The Life and Times of William Masters and Virginia Johnson, the Couple Who Taught America How to Love,follows the great researcher and his partner in sex investigation, former nightclub singer Virginia Johnson, as they struggle to answer a deceptively simple question: "What happens to the body during sex?"

Along the way, tough questions about sex—how it relates to love, marriage, gender, childrearing, and work—provide not only intellectual fodder but tension in the increasingly close relationship between Masters, portrayed by Michael Sheen, and Johnson, played by Lizzy Caplan, who had an affair and eventually wed.

The men in the story come off rather badly, ranging from arrogant jerks to fantastically clueless. While studying copulation at a brothel, Masters beclowns himself when he asks a prostitute who would ever want to fake an orgasm. She looks at him disbelievingly and replies, “Anyone with a twat.”

Make a note of that.

The women are there to explain what time it is: Johnson teaches the doctor why all that stuff they teach ladies in good housekeeping courses is more or less a load of crap. “I think women often confuse love with sexual attraction,” reflects Johnson, “but sex can be perfectly good on its own.” If the introduction of a camera-equipped glass dildo named Ulysses is any indication, there will be lots to learn and contemplate in future episodes.

The question I kept asking myself as these 1950s folks bumbled around sexual issues is, are we so much better off today? Research into sexuality fills the pages of magazines and websites, and people certainly seem to be more open about sex. But some signs say we still have far to go.

The easy availability of porn and the ubiquitousness of sexual images in media and advertising may have stuck us with ideas about sex that are as unrealistic as those that plagued our Puritan ancestors. Our brains absorb the message that skinny people with shaved genitals are the ideal to be imitated. While we are more versed in the mechanics of sex, we may miss many of its pleasures — its intimacies and sensual delights.

Compared to much of the world, Americans don't have a lot of sex. Research shows that we have less sexy time than Greeks, Brazilians, Russians, Malayasians, Mexicans, South Africans, Germans, or Austrians. Not to mention our Chinese, Polish, Swiss, British, French and Canadian counterparts.

A recent Kinsey report shows that only 29 percent of women always have orgasms with their partner, compared to 75 percent of men. Eighty million women have unwanted or unintended pregnancies every year, and 25 percent of 65-year-old men suffer from erectile dysfunction.

We're still plenty confused. Disentangling the hard wiring of nature from the dense web of cultural influences remains so difficult that most of us are still caught up in knots of anxiety and uncertainty. In a culture that makes a cult of work, pleasure and passions are still held suspect. Though we have the birth control pill, possibly the biggest revolution in sexuality in human history, we still face the evils of homophobia (in an unfortunate misstep, Masters and Johnson claimed in one book that homosexuality could be cured), slut-shaming and restrictive attitudes about marriage.

Maybe this is to be expected. Human culture developed certain taboos about sexuality over millennia, and they can’t be undone in a generation or two (or, if right-wing Christians have anything to do with it, much longer than that).

Many taboos emerge from practical concerns and shifts in societal organization. The sexual restrictions we inherited were built upon the realities of both biology and culture. Until very recently, an unwanted pregnancy was likely to be a catastrophic event, especially women. Our system of economic organization, capitalism, placed emphasis on patriarchal values and the legitimacy of children compared to the system it replaced, feudalism, and helped reinforce the idea that sex and marriage were indissoluably linked. (Anne Boleyn, the second wife of Henry VIII, famously got the short end of that transition.)

Capitalism and the ideal of romantic love rose together, both valuing narcissistic experience over mutuality and reciprocity. The Sexual Revolution transformed many codes of behavior, but the peculiar pressures of our economic system remain, and backlash from the right means that we've spent much of the last several years trying to convince Republicans not to remove sex education from our schools. The ignorance about sexualty demonstrated in recent elections, where pregnancy as a result of rape was questioned and simple biology tossed aside, reminds us that when it comes to sexual attitudes, we can't take progress for granted.

In an interview about "Masters of Sex," Michael Sheen reflected that we still have much to learn about intimacy and fulfilling sex: “Just because we know more about it all now,” he said, “because we can pick up a magazine and find out how to have a better orgasm, or go on the Internet and watch porn all day long, it doesn’t mean that we’ve got any better at dealing with the other person, at connecting in a meaningful way with someone through sex.”

True that.

Lynn Parramore is contributing editor at AlterNet. She is cofounder of Recessionwire, founding editor of New Deal 2.0, and author of "Reading the Sphinx: Ancient Egypt in Nineteenth-Century Literary Culture." She received her Ph.D. in English and cultural theory from NYU, and she serves on the editorial board of Lapham's Quarterly. Follow her on Twitter @LynnParramore.