An Awkward and Uncomfortable Masters of Sex Gets Everything Wrong

When Masters of Sex works, the show is riveting, weird and funny. But lately it's suffering from "Bill is the heroic sex doctor who never existed" syndrome. And last night's incredibly distorted story of how intersex surgeries happened just took that way, way too far.

It was a bottle episode, mostly set in the claustrophobic hotel room where Bill and Virginia are having their ongoing these-are-experiments-not-an-affair thing. The two of them engage in an elaborate, semi-sarcastic role-playing game where they talk about what's happening in their "marriage." Virginia confesses she never invests emotionally in sex because some guy broke her heart when she was young; Bill confesses he has masculinity issues because his dad beat him.

What emerges from their conversation isn't some new understanding about Virginia — because really, who cares about her subjectivity? — but instead a new wellspring of sympathy for Bill. Poor Bill, whose dad wanted him to be macho. Virginia comforts him by saying that men don't have to be boxers to be men. They can be cold, unfeeling geeks like Bill and still be men. Especially if they're still white hot in the bedroom (or against the wall in the bathroom).

Anyway, this story about Bill's wounded masculinity gets wrapped into an absolutely atrocious retelling of how intersex surgeries happened in the 1950s and 60s. One of Bill's patients gives birth to a little boy with ambiguous genitals — he has a condition that caused him to develop a small penis and labia in the womb. And Bill has to fight with the father about what to do about the little boy's non-standard penis.

An Awkward and Uncomfortable Masters of Sex Gets Everything Wrong

Let's leave aside the shittiness of turning intersex surgery into some kind of allegory for Bill's masculinity crisis. Instead the main problem was how much this scene distorted the reality of what happened historically. As countless scholars and surgery victims have testified at this point, when babies were born with ambiguous genitals in the mid-twentieth century, doctors began urging patients to "fix it." Until that point, the fairly common occurrence of ambiguous genitals had no "treatment" — many babies weren't born in hospitals anyway, and families and midwives muddled through trying to figure out the gender of the kid.

But with the rise of plastic surgery and sexology, doctors began telling scared parents that their children's ambiguous genitals needed to be shaped to look normal. This resulted in a lot of little girls' "too large" clitorises being snipped off — and a lot of little boys had their penises removed by doctors who thought it would be better for these genetic boys to be raised as girls rather than boys with micropenises (see the heartbreaking book As Nature Made Him: The Boy Who Was Raised as a Girl to find out what happened next). So basically what happened historically was that doctors decided that ambiguous genitals needed correcting, and recommended it to parents, many of whom went along with it.

To return to Masters of Sex, what we see in the episode is the opposite of what happened in actual medical cases. We see the father of the baby demanding that Bill "cut it off" and turn his son into a girl. Which — unless this father was aware of the work of (at that time obscure) sexologists like John Money, he wouldn't have known that such a thing was even possible, or recommended as a "cure." So the father is blamed for disfiguring his son and subjecting him to a horrific operation directly after being born. And we see Bill fighting vainly to save the baby from a life of forced feminization.

It's a very pretty picture in terms of the episode's message about Bill's growing realization that there are many ways to be a man. But in a show that has strived so far for accuracy in its representations of sexology and late 1950s medicine, this is a major blooper. It lets doctors off the hook, and turns the traumatic experience of intersexed kids into a metaphor for Bill's daddy issues.

The whole thing left me with a really bad taste in my mouth. I'm happy to see the show exploring both intersex issues and Bill's masculinity — but not if the true medical history of the former has to be distorted and rewritten to support the latter.