Woman of the Month

Virginia E. Johnson

February 11, 1925 - July 24, 2013

Early Life

Virginia Johnson was born in Springfield, Missouri on February 11, 1925, the daughter of Edna Florence Evans and Hershel "Harry" Eshelman, a farmer of German ancestry. Johnson was a precocious student and a talented pianist and singer.  

At age 16, she attended Drury College (later Drury University) in Springfield, Missouri, but later dropped out. She pursued a singing career where for a period of time, she performed country music on a Springfield radio station under the alias Virginia Gibson.  

She moved to St. Louis, where she held jobs as a secretary, newspaper reporting, marketing and later became a business writer for the St. Louis Daily Record. Though she later enrolled at Washington University in St. Louis, with the intention of earning a degree, she never did.  

By age 30 in 1955, Johnson had married and divorced three times. First to a Missouri politician which lasted for 2 days in her 20s; then to an older attorney which that marriage ended in divorce; and third marriage to her bandleader, George Johnson with whom she had a boy and a girl, then divorced him in 1956.  

In 1956 when she decided to try the collegiate studies one more time at Washington University in St. Louis, she met William Masters. Masters was a gynecologist working in St. Louis at Washington University’s medical school on a study of sex. She began her work there in the lab as a secretary. She had applied for and was given a position as a research assistant in Masters’ Laboratory. Masters instructed her in anatomy, physiology, and laboratory research, and she began helping him with his sex research. This was great because it supplied her with steady income.  

These were two pioneers of their time. Masters felt that both sexes had to be represented in this field of study, because a man will not know everything about a woman and her anatomy and vice versa. So he took a chance with his reputation in this project’s pursuit. And Johnson, for a woman, in that time, it was taboo to talk about sex or even to interpret that women experienced pleasure from sex. Women’s sexuality were not a topic of discussion because they were taught that it did not exist and if you evoked anything to prove otherwise, well, you’re just a tramp!  

Virginia’s duties included recruiting the study participants for this sex research work and she was successful in persuading hundreds of men and women to enlist. This was a very crucial duty in the research process. With her pragmatic attitude and sociable nature, she was able to gather information on the participants’ personal sex histories, and she observed and collected data as participants became sexually aroused, by themselves or with partners. She also became Masters’ sexual partner, at his urging.

Contribution to Psychology

Virginia Johnson was recognized as one of the leading sexologists of our time. She spent more than five decades conducting research, teaching, and practicing treatment for sexual dysfunction. Along with her long-time partner, William Masters, Johnson spearheaded the field of sexual psychology.  

At the Masters &&Johnson Institute, Johnson observed and recorded heterosexual couples, gay and lesbian couples, and individuals, for sexual response. Together they developed polygraph-like instruments that were designed to measure sexual arousal in humans. They administered these tools on over 700 men and women who engaged in sexual activity with other participants or masturbated in Masters' laboratory. No one at this time had ever delved so deep in this type of sexual research. Apart from Alfred Kinsey, who touched on the psychological aspects of sexual issues, only a few had tread those shallow waters.  

But Virginia E. Johnson and her colleagues at Masters and Johnson were the first to study sexual intercourse and masturbation as it relates to sexual behavior and psychology. The team developed the four stage model of human sexual response and dispelled many sexual myths relating to age, gender, and sexual orientation.  

This came to be known as the Human Sexual Response Cycle which are: 

  • The excitement phase of initial arousal 
  • The plateau phase, which occurs prior to orgasm but marks full arousal 
  • Orgasm 
  • The resolution phase, which closes the cycle  

One of the most profound impacts Johnson’s work had on the field of psychology was in the area of treating sexual dysfunction. Until the observations at the Masters & Johnson Institute, sexual impairments were treated with very little success through prolonged courses of individual psychoanalysis. However, the team created a treatment method that involved both members of a couple. The therapy was designed to be a talking therapy and involved no sexual activity observation. Couples who had previously faced frustration and disappointment saw success rates over 80% with this novel technique.  

To date, The Model of the Human Sexual Response Cycle is still used to understand sexuality. The team also found that men experience a refractory period after they ejaculate and that they cannot ejaculate again during this period.  

In 1964, Masters and Johnson established their own independent nonprofit research institution in St. Louis called the Reproductive Biology Research Foundation. The center was renamed the Masters and Johnson Institute in 1978. 

These researchers felt that if the sexual act could be studied, then it could be improved, and problems such as impotence and frigidity could be cured like so many other afflictions of the human body.


In 1971, Johnson married William Masters after he divorced his first wife. They were then divorced in 1993, though they continued to collaborate professionally. Virginia mentioned in an interview with The New York Times article written by Enid Nemy, that:  

“the nicest thing from my standpoint since the divorce is that I am treated more as a person, as an entity. When we were together we were always thought of as Masters and Johnson.”  

Thank God for Masters and Johnson, because they dispelled many myths about sex. One of which is that the size of the male organ determined sexual prowess and another is that baldness was a marker of virility. They also shed light on some facts such as a woman’s orgasm could last longer than a man’s. And my favorite myth dispelled to date: that the elderly lived lives without sex and sexual satisfaction! They absolutely do not!! LOL!!  

Masters, who married again after his divorce in 1993 from Johnson, died in 2001.  

Virginia E. Johnson, the female half of the Masters and Johnson scientific research duo, redefined sex as a quantifiable, perfectible pleasure of human life to be pursued without guilt or fear. She died July 24 2013 at the age of 88 from complications of heart disease, said her son, Scott Johnson.


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