I can't help myself anymore – I have to talk about my obsession with the Showtime series Masters of Sex. It is the epitome of a scientific romance, exploring the messy overlap of science and social science, as well as personal and professional passions. Plus, it's about sexology.
This series is based loosely on a book about the careers of William Masters and Virginia Johnson, two sexology researchers at Washington University who were the first people to measure scientifically what happens to the human body physiologically during orgasm. In real life, during the early 1960s, Masters and Johnson had to invent new research protocols for dealing with subjects who were often in very intimate positions. And they also had to invent new tools for doing things like measuring blood flow to the vagina during arousal. The results of their work were published in a groundbreaking study called Human Sexual Response, which launched the two of them to international fame.
The Showtime series is about how the researchers met under rather awkward circumstances at the teaching hospital where Johnson was Masters' secretary. Masters, a renowned obstetrician, is obsessed with starting a new study on sexual response – he wants to use EKG and EEG monitors on people who are masturbating and having sex, but of course the university isn't exactly thrilled. Especially when they find out that most of his subjects are prostitutes.
Johnson is a single mother who just wants to get a college degree and work her way through school at the hospital. But she's also unusually candid about sex, especially as a research topic, and she quickly becomes intrigued by Masters' work. Predictably, the uptight, inexperienced Masters mistakes Johnson's eagerness to study sex for an eagerness to have sex. Which — it's not that she doesn't enjoy sex, but it's clear she wants scientific recognition for her work, not titillation.
And so begins one of the weirdest Jane Austen style romances you've ever seen. Because make no mistake – Masters is a kind of geeky pervert Mr. Darcy, and Johnson is the savvy heroine whose intellect is as enticing as her erotic charms. Indeed, the arc of the first few episodes this season has been your typical Austen romance, but with lots of fucking. Masters has a dark secret, tied to his marriage and his past, and his cold, repressive demeanor hides a burning passion both for science and (of course) for Johnson. For her part, Johnson is leery of Masters, rebuffing his suggestion that they participate in the study "for science." But eventually, we know that she will see Masters' true self. And he will admit that she is a brilliant scientist, not just the secretary.
There is nothing better than a smutty, Regency-style story about interesting people, but there's so much more going on in Masters of Sex. I believe it is one of the only mainstream television series I've ever seen where sluttiness is portrayed in a positive light. Early on, we see Johnson having sex with a cute, young doctor named Ethan, telling him that "friends can sleep together." Because it's the early 60s, Ethan gets judgey when he realizes she's not planning to marry him — he even flies into a rage and hits her at a party. But the show is on Johnson's side. Ethan is clearly represented as being in the wrong, and he goes into a kind of downward spiral as a result.
It also turns out that Johnson sluttiness is a kind of scientific superpower, allowing her to put subjects at ease when she and Masters are gathering data. Because she's comfortable with sex, she exudes a kind of gentle enthusiasm that stands in stark contrast with Masters' awkward, jargony explanations of the study. And there's a great moment where she tells the prostitutes participating in the study that they are the experts, which is why she and Masters have come to them for help. She is, in other words, a brilliant science communicator in a field full of misconceptions and mystical beliefs.
Focusing on Johnson's career allows the show to explore a turning point in history when women began to enter scientific fields in greater numbers than ever before. It was also a time when sexual expression was undergoing a renaissance, however, and what's fascinating is that Johnson benefited from both social transformations.
Best of all, Masters of Sex doesn't shy away from showing us the ambiguous, often shady circumstances of the study. There's no hero worship here. Masters' behavior verges on sexual harassment, and even just general harassment, at many points. Many of the participants are in the study for the money, or just to get laid, and so it's not exactly a random sampling of subjects. Finally, even as Masters and Johnson are gathering data to formulate their famous "stages of orgasm" theory, we are never sure if Masters is in it just for the science or perhaps to satisfy a sexual fetish.
What unambiguous is that this is a show about how science can illuminate the parts of our lives that are cloaked in repression and religious censure. Ultimately, many scientists have personal motivations that underlie the research choices they've made. There is always a messy, human element to every scientific breakthrough. But that doesn't mean the scientific project is flawed, nor does it mean we have nothing to learn by applying scientific principles to forbidden topics.
So, I'm obsessed with this show. It's about skepticism, the frontiers of science, and romance. There was even an episode about how a science fiction comic book offered profound commentary on human nature. I can't really imagine this show as an ongoing series, but this first season has delivered the kind of story that's exceedingly rare. Even in the scientific community, sexology is still considered a black sheep discipline. To see it celebrated in pop culture is an unusual privilege – and a fun one, too.
Annalee Newitz is the editor-in-chief of io9, and this is her column. She's also the author of Scatter, Adapt and Remember: How Humans Will Survive a Mass Extinction. Follow her on Twitter.