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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.