St Louis, Missouri, 1956 – at a dinner hosted by Washington University, Dr William Masters is being honoured for his remarkable work in the field of Obstetric surgery. He is described as a “visionary”, who sets the highest national standard. Masters takes the podium just long enough to excuse himself; he is, unfortunately, working that night, he says to amused applause. Soon after, at a local motel, he watches fervently through a peephole as prostitute Betty DiMello has sex with one of her clients. He observes her male partner and makes clinical notes on his clipboard as both parties reach climax.
This is how Showtime’s new drama, Masters of Sex, opens its first episode, with one of the country’s most esteemed authorities on female reproduction dumbly asking a prostitute why on earth she would fake an orgasm. An absurd contradiction to a modern audience, perhaps, but it’s America in the 1950s – Puritanism and misogyny have ruled out any serious discussion of sex, and the male-dominated scientific community is entirely ignorant of a woman’s sexual experience.
Dr Masters (played by Michael Sheen) cuts a fairly conspicuous figure against this conservative setting. He wants to conduct formal clinical trials to better understand the body’s reaction to sexual intercourse, and is frustrated when his requests for funding are quickly overlooked – “You’ll be labelled a pervert,” his head of department tells him. Driven to pursue his research regardless, he enlists the aid of Virginia Johnson (Lizzy Caplan), a nightclub singer recently hired as a secretary in his department. She, like Masters, is very much ahead of her time, a woman twice divorced with two children, engaged in a casual sexual relationship with another of the department’s young doctors.
Using volunteers, female and male, they begin to observe and document every aspect of arousal, foreplay, intercourse and refraction, an area of research entirely uncharted at the time. More importantly, they speak honestly about sex; in her first conversation with Masters, for example, Virginia argues that most women confuse sexual attraction with love, and are unable to separate the physical pleasure of one from the emotional commitment of the other.
She’s articulating ideas that, a decade later, will become a cornerstone of feminist theory, but are here used to demonstrate the extreme sexual inequality that prevails around her. It is, in fact, her lover Ethan who confuses sex and love; he is at first overjoyed at their sexual arrangement, but later, when she insists that they are just friends with no chance of a serious relationship, he berates her, strikes her across the face and calls her a whore. (Thankfully, she gives as good as she gets.)
Masters’ own secretary resigns once he reveals to her his intended research, and that she would be required to interview various women about their sexual experiences. “I’m not sure what kind of woman could hold her head up in church every Sunday, knowing she’d spent the entire week talking smut!” she snaps in disgust. Even his own wife is a victim of her gender – after two years of unsuccessfully attempting to conceive a child, he subjects her to an uncomfortable fertility procedure, knowing all the while that his own diminished sperm count is to blame.
Through the lens of sex we see more holistically the plight of women – the grotesque double standards of what is socially acceptable, in both conversation and conduct, and the strict expectations placed upon their role. Issues of race are occasionally explored – when Masters, operating on a woman who has violently miscarried, asks how she arrived in such a state, one of his colleagues states that “she came from the negro ward.” But Masters of Sex concerns itself more generally with the persecution of the female gender; it tackles a society where a woman’s sexuality provokes either complete disinterest or absolute terror.
The performances are great, particularly Lizzy Caplin, who is instantly likeable as the intelligent, independent and compassionate Virginia. Michael Sheen also endears himself as Dr Masters, restless and progressive even as he struggles with the somewhat repressed sexual relationship he shares with his wife.
What struck me most while watching Masters of Sex is that, even sixty years later, society’s attitudes to sex haven’t changed all that much. The absurd contradictions are still emblazoned on every billboard and television screen. ‘Sex sells’, as the idiom goes, but actual sex is still something to be feared and kept from the children at all costs. It’s perfectly acceptable to depict gun violence and serial mutilation in any M or MA rated film, but the mere glimpse of Janet Jackson’s exposed breast on national television is enough to drive the population into a hysterical sexual panic.
One scene towards the end of the episode highlights this well, where Masters describes to Virginia his frustration at the board’s apparent lack of support:
“Given that every museum in the world is filled with art created from this basic impulse – the greatest literature, the most beautiful music – the study of sex is the study of the beginning of all life! And science holds the key! Yet we sit huddled in the dark like prudish cavemen, filled with shame and guilt, when the truth is… Nobody understands sex.”
This was only the first episode, but I’m already desperate for the next. In the meantime, it’s streaming through the SBS On-Demand website if you want to acquaint yourself with the series. Masters of Sex airs on SBS One next Thursday at 10.30pm. Check it out. Y’know, for science.