Books & Films, Psychology

Sexology Changemakers: Virginia Johnson

February 21, 2024 by Zoe Moscovici

In the history of sex research, the first names to come up are often Sigmund Freud, Alfred Kinsey, or William Masters.  However, history tends to overlook important women and people of color who are just as indispensable to the field.  For example, Virginia Johnson was an equal partner to William Masters in some of the most foundational studies and publications in sex research.  In this article, we would like to highlight the story and work of Virginia Johnson.

Early Life:

Born in Missouri in 1925, Johnson defied conservative gender and sexuality norms early in her life.  At a time when it was rare, Johnson got married and divorced twice, and was a working single mother all before 30.  Her entry into the field of sexology was equally as unconventional.  Johnson was an accomplished musician and an aspiring country singer before she was hired as William Masters’ secretary in Obstetrics and Gynecology at Washington University in St. Louis, where Masters’ was covertly conducting research on sexuality.


Masters realized he needed a female perspective to cover gaps in his knowledge, and a female presence to make his research participants more comfortable.  After learning more about his controversial research, Johnson responded agreeably, perhaps influenced by her early experiences with sex and relationships.  Masters took Johnson under his wing and trained her in medical terminology, therapy techniques, and research methods.  Johnsons’ keen insights made her a crucial part of Masters’ research, and she soon became an equal partner in the Masters and Johnson team, famously known as the Masters of Sex.


Virginia Johnson’s work was especially significant in challenging societal assumptions of female sexuality.  At the time, women were often thought to be sexually passive, and that any sexual dysfunction stemmed entirely from psychological issues. Masters and Johnson differentiated themselves in the field of sex research by using a purely clinical approach, as opposed to Alfred Kinsey’s interview style.  They created innovative methodologies in order to measure physiological sexual responses, which was able to debunk prior myths, and show that females could have active sexual desires and responses.  Their extensive research resulted in several successful publications, including “Human Sexual Response” (1966) and “Human Sexual Inadequacy” (1970). These works provided groundbreaking insights into the nature of sexual responses and difficulties.

In addition to research, Johnson took a particular interest in addressing sexual dysfunction.  With Johnson taking the lead, Masters and Johnson created the “dual therapy” model and “sensate focus” exercises, which are still widely used in sex therapy today.  They also introduced the method of sexual surrogacy to treat sexual dysfunction.  Johnson’s personal communication skills made participants much more forthcoming and comfortable, making her an essential factor in the success of these trials.  Although controversial, the outcomes of these treatments were groundbreaking, and Johnson was vital in communications with the public and the media that pushed back against their research.


Virginia Johnson’s fundamental contributions to sex research have deepened our understanding of human sexuality and paved the way for future studies.  Her holistic approach to sex research helped to destigmatize conversations about sex and created more societal acceptance of the need for sex research.  She was highly responsible for the inclusion of women and female perspectives in sex research, and helped innumerable couples heal from sexual dysfunction.  Johnson’s journey from secretary to leading sex researcher is a testament to her determination, intelligence, and pioneering spirit.  As we continue to explore the complexities of sexuality, her legacy continues to influence sex research and therapy.


Image Credit: Leonard McComb and Bettmann/Corbin; collage made with Canva

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Written by
Dr. Justin Lehmiller
Founder & Owner of Sex and Psychology

Dr. Justin Lehmiller is a social psychologist and Research Fellow at The Kinsey Institute. He runs the Sex and Psychology blog and podcast and is author of the popular book Tell Me What You Want. Dr. Lehmiller is an award-winning educator, and a prolific researcher who has published more than 50 academic works.

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