The Sexes: Out of the Lab

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Sex Researchers William H. Masters and Virginia E. Johnson think that they have been misunderstood: their famed 1966 book Human Sexual Response was widely interpreted to suggest that good sex, like golf, is a matter of technique. A second book, Human Sexual Inadequacy (1970), dealt partly with the emotions but because of its scientific jargon, failed to erase their image as the high priests of sex-as-mechanics.

Now Masters and Johnson have produced a nontechnical book that they expect to clear their name: The Pleasure Bond (Little, Brown; $8.95), written by Robert J. Levin, an editor of Redbook, from taped interviews with the researchers and taped seminars that they conducted in 1971 and 1972. For Virginia Johnson, Masters' wife since 1971, the book is a decade late: she wanted to write about the human problems of sex in the 1960s, but her doctor-husband insisted that they establish professional credentials by writing up their lab experiments first. Now, at last, she says, "I hope the whole mechanical myth will go down the drain—I'm tired of it."

Extramarital Sex. As surveyors of the sexual scene, Masters and Johnson seem to be neoconservatives, impatient with moralists and simple-minded sexual acrobats alike. Group sex and mate swapping are fine for some, they say, but very few can handle them. Extramarital sex is not deplorable, if both partners approve, but it should be used only as a last resort to save a marriage. Exactly under what conditions this would be appropriate is left fuzzy by the authors. The clear argument of the book is that sex should mean commitment, "developing a long-range relationship rather than concentrating it all on short-term pampering of the individual self." Yet the authors seem pulled between the views that sex is basically a search for simple pleasure ("sex-sex") and that it is loving commitment ("love-sex"). Like word-juggling medieval theologians, they end up arguing that real pleasure brings commitment and real commitment brings pleasure.

Much of what the authors recommend is sound, though hardly new: partners should talk and touch more, stop working so hard at sex if they want to enjoy it, and let sexual awareness flow through their daily lives instead of confining it to half an hour in bed. Though likable and warm, Masters and Johnson are not much given to humor. But when one woman vaguely says that she wants to have children so she can watch something develop and grow, Johnson adroitly advises: "Get a plant."

Unfortunately, the book's prose style is a cross between "Dear Abby" and early Chinese fortune cookie ("There are none so frightened as those who will not concede their fear"; "Life is rarely without pain as well as pleasure, unhappiness as well as happiness"). But squeezed in amid the aphorisms are three nuggets of information: masturbation can relieve menstrual cramps; women seem more sexually responsive about two months after childbirth because of the increased blood supply to the pelvis; and in the first hour of sleep after orgasm, the woman usually moves toward the man, while he tends to stay where he is.

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