Masters of Sex: Revisionist History

by: hawkgrrrl

August 12, 2014

I guess the title “Johnsons of Sex” didn’t make it past the censors, although precious little gave them heartburn.

I’m about to go on record as agreeing, at least in part, with Boyd K. Packer’s statement that not all truth is useful.

Masters of Sex:  Truth vs. Usefulness

I’ve been watching the Showtime original series Masters of Sex, about real life pioneering sex doctors Virginia Johnson and Bill Masters.  Their work was incredibly important for cataloging the body’s physiological response during sex, including debunking the idea of male sexual superiority by proving scientifically that women had the capacity for multiple orgasms.

I read the book the series is loosely based on, a biography perhaps a little stilted toward Virginia’s viewpoint, that explains the real story of their pioneering research, including partnership with the Playboy mansion, launching of national sex therapy clinics, their ultimately failed marriage, and experimentation with altering homosexual impulses through sex therapy techniques.  Late in life, Dr. Masters was partly discredited for his claim that he could cure homosexuality through a specific regimen of heterosexual encounters with professional sex therapists.  Although evidence showed that this reformation was not permanent, Dr. Masters doggedly stood by his claim, despite the harmful impact to his and Dr. Johnson’s reputation, and it eventually contributed to their marginalization as prevailing scientific attitudes won the day, leaving these sexual pioneers in the dust.

Some license is expected in creating a series based loosely on real people and events; children are added or eliminated, events reordered, names changed, but the series is so far decidedly erring significantly on the side of revisionist history, replacing attitudes that were novel at the time of Masters and Johnson with current attitudes and scientific knowledge that were beyond their grasp.  To date, episodes have superimposed modern attitudes regarding:

  • Feminism
  • Homosexuality and suicide
  • Intersex babies and gender reassignment surgery

Why Change the Facts? 

You’ve seen the series; now read the book!

This begs the question, what’s the purpose of the show?  A biographical sketch of two fascinating people whose groundbreaking work revolutionized our understanding of sex?  Or is this basically an after school special for adults, illustrating to us the right way to think and act while demonstrating the pitfalls of wrong choices and thinking?  While there are elements of the biographical, at this point of the series, it’s clear that the show is more an after school special for adults, illustrating for us what our attitudes and thoughts should be toward women’s rights, homosexuality, and sexual identity, certainly not the actual attitudes of these sexual pioneers back in the 1950s.

In order to achieve these aims, the show has whitewashed certain failings of Masters & Johnson that are evident in the book:

  • Both of them being steeped in the social mores of their day regarding women’s rights are the roles of men and women; the show sketches a couple who see clearly and consistently beyond the sexist claptrap of their day.  In reality, they were more a product of their time than we find comfortable today.
  • The moral trickiness of quid pro quo sexual favors are explored in the series, but much of the taint is removed with a hint of “true love” mixed with feminism in a way that simply wasn’t possible for their day or accurate for their relationship as revealed by the biographical rendition.  The biographical version of events is far less sympathetic, and probably far more accurate.
  • Bill Masters’ attitude toward homosexuality was that he cared about homosexuals as patients but agreed with the mores of the day that it would be better for them if they were able to live as sexually satisfied heterosexuals, and that was the intended outcome of his therapy process.  Virginia Johnson’s views on homosexuality were more progressive according to the book, believing homosexuality to be innate.
  • The views expressed by Bill Masters in the series about a baby born with both male and female genitalia but with male DNA are far beyond the scope of his experience in the book and are also very aligned with current knowledge rather than the norms that prevailed in their day.  Focus on the life satisfaction of the patient is portrayed as forefront in both eras, but interpreting what is best has shifted over time.  The series shows us a Bill Masters who is far ahead of his day in understanding gender identity far beyond actual Bill Masters’ understanding of this subject.  His impassioned plea to an intransigent father’s stern “Cut it off!” falls on deaf ears, and we, in our 2014 wisdom, cluck our tongues in agreement with poor unheeded Bill Masters.  Yes, that father is making a horrible mistake, which we the audience can see clearly because we’ve watched two decades of Law & Order: Special Victims Unit.

Church and Whitewashing

Truth is stranger than fiction, but fiction is better at illustrating truth.

Retconning is when we take a familiar character and re-write that person’s story to refresh it, throwing out what no longer works in today’s culture and updating it to be more appealing.  Likewise, church is in the retconning business.  We go to church, not to learn what less enlightened people from previous eras believed about things [1] but to educate and guide people based on the best light and knowledge we have now [2].  We then cherry pick previous statements for those that hold up over time, conveniently discarding the ones that don’t.

And we do this because church is not a biography or accurate history.  It’s an after school special.  The purpose is for the audience to learn and to become better people.  We don’t accomplish that by immersing ourselves in the mistakes of the past, but by gleaning what we can from the rare moments of clarity apart from the biases of eras and cultures.[3]  This series is an interesting illustration of why what is truthful is not always useful.  And what is useful is likewise not always truthful.

But that also means we have a blind spot for our own cultural biases.  The lens of the present is always shifting, even though it feels like we’ve finally got it right.


[1] And yet we continue to study the Old Testament in Gospel Doctrine as if it’s a guide for our time.  Whatever.

[2] Bearing in mind that different speakers, leaders, and teachers all have different levels of understanding across different topics.

[3] Which rather obviously casts everything that hasn’t yet stood the test of time in an a dubious light.

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15 Responses to Masters of Sex: Revisionist History

  1. Delina on August 12, 2014 at 9:10 AM

    The idea that we cannot learn and become better people by studying or “immersing” ourselves in the mistakes of the past is concerning and dangerous. If we refuse to learn from the past we are doomed to repeat the same mistakes. This applies to church history just as well as world history.

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  2. Jeff Spector on August 12, 2014 at 9:24 AM

    It’s a TV show. It’s as real as the Cosby Show, Eight is Enough and the Brady Bunch.

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  3. Jessica F. on August 12, 2014 at 10:08 AM

    I think that would be fine if people in church knew it was a “after school special” but if Master’s of Sex was labeled as a ‘documentary’ I think more people would have more issues with it .

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  4. Angela C on August 12, 2014 at 11:05 AM

    Jessica, I agree with that. I do think we are doing a disservice when we call it church history, but it’s highly fictionalized. Interpretation of history is one thing. Fabrication for myth-making purposes is another. And yet, I thought it interesting that this (very secular) show is doing its own myth-making but with a different set of values, contemporary values, in order to model the behavior it wants the watcher to agree is right.

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  5. Nate on August 12, 2014 at 11:06 AM

    It is the prerogative of the present to rewrite the past. The beautiful thing about history is that it is so alive, so flexible, so open to interpretation, to abuse, to romanticization. The Hollywood version becomes more powerful, more influential, and ultimately more real.

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  6. Howard on August 12, 2014 at 11:23 AM

    While it’s true that not all truth is useful I think Elder Packer means he supports elevating faith promotion above truth.

    Your point seems to be; We go to church, not to learn what less enlightened people from previous eras believed about things [1] but to educate and guide people based on the best light and knowledge we have now

    While the dog that doesn’t bark is the church claims ongoing revelation from God so how is it that Packer and the Johnsons agree with regard to “curing” SSA but both were wrong? Why should we listen at all to any of the apostles if they are simply a product of their time? Where do we end up by faithfully following leaders biases and are they really leading us anyplace at all?

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  7. Mary Ann on August 12, 2014 at 2:08 PM

    Studying the scriptures in church and learning church history is not just about learning the revealed doctrines ancient people understood within their cultural framework. One of the purposes of the scriptures is to show people “what great things the Lord hath done for their fathers; and that they may know the covenants of the Lord, that they are not cast off forever.” By examining God’s interaction with his children in the past (both those within and outside the “covenant”), we see patterns of spiritual intervention that we can expect in our time (dispensation) and individual lives.

    So previous prophets/apostles/leaders don’t seem to have understood the full scope of all the doctrine/revelation they had received all at once — so what? We don’t claim to hold our prophets and leaders as infallible, yet so much is made of the mistakes they made (by the unbelieving) and so much effort is made to cover up the mistakes they made (by the believing). Moroni said concerning the Book of Mormon, “And now, if there are faults they are the mistakes of men; wherefore, condemn not the things of God.” Why can’t we use this same attitude towards previous prophets and leaders?

    We understand church doctrine and revelation so much better than the pioneers did 150 years ago. Why shouldn’t we then expect our children and grandchildren to have an even better understanding of church doctrine and revelation in 50 or 100 years? Don’t we believe in learning “line upon line”?

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  8. Howard on August 12, 2014 at 2:24 PM

    So previous prophets/apostles/leaders don’t seem to have understood the full scope of all the doctrine/revelation they had received all at once — so what?

    Well, here’s one “so what?”.

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  9. Mary Ann on August 12, 2014 at 2:56 PM

    Howard, point taken. Previous misinterpreted doctrines have led to incorrect policies/procedures that have been massive stumbling blocks. Those people who have been hurt by those policies have legitimate grievances.

    My point, though, is that people shouldn’t assume the entire restored gospel is garbage because human leaders turn out to be fallible.

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  10. Howard on August 12, 2014 at 3:14 PM

    Thanks Mary I agree that the gospel should not be rejected on that basis. But I think there is good argument for rejecting the current church on that basis alone. Can you or anyone cite a recent example of them being as right as the have been documented wrong?

    Or at the very least there is a strong argument for not turning off you mind to blindly follow but rather staying very alert so you or your loved ones don’t inadvertently swallow the Kool-Aid and accidentally become someone who is hurt by those policies. It really doesn’t take much, I have a 10 year old daughter and I will not allow the church to suppress her sexuality or hold her responsible for YM’s “unclean” thoughts nor will I allow them to indoctrinate her with the concept of gender essentialism when in practice it results in her one downness to males.

    Their track record does not support blind following, instead it suggests they are blind guides.

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  11. Hedgehog on August 13, 2014 at 12:53 AM

    I think past ideas can often seem strange through the current lens. I don’t think that’s a reason to misrepresent things though. Better discussion of beliefs in the context of the times would probably serve us much better. Also a better education of how the concept of history has changed with time as well.

    So, the tv show you describe, do they make it clear to the audience that they are indulging in revisionist history, or does the audience believe that what they are seeing is history, because whether primarily entertainment or informative, I think many will believe that’s how things played out, unless otherwise informed. It’s not as if they’re adapting a work of fiction for a modern audience after all.

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  12. Joel on August 13, 2014 at 6:37 AM

    Intentionally rewriting and whitewashing history, even if done with the best of intentions, can have unintended and harmful consequences. In my view, the default should be to strive for accuracy and complete transparency as much as possible. Any deviation from that quest should be governed by clear, transparent guidelines that are understood by the history maker and the history consumer.

    I don’t have much of a problem when Elder Holland expands on a Book of Mormon story, making up dialogue and plot elements to teach certain principles, because it’s clear from the context that he is telling a story and isn’t claiming that it is historically accurate. But I do have a problem with the Thomas Marsh milk strippings story being told in conference, because it is told and understood as an accurate representation of a historical event, but its historicity is shaky at best.

    Elder Packer’s statement about truth not being useful is trobuling because it was not given as a disclaimer to church history consumers, it was directed at teachers. The consumer is given a whitewashed history without being told that it is a whitewashed history.

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  13. Angela C on August 13, 2014 at 12:46 PM

    “do they make it clear to the audience that they are indulging in revisionist history, or does the audience believe that what they are seeing is history” Oh, they definitely don’t make it clear that they are revising history. This will overwrite history for those who watch the show. I just happened to read the biography it was loosely based on, so I know the difference.

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  14. KT on August 13, 2014 at 9:47 PM

    “And we do this because church is not a biography or accurate history. It’s an after school special. The purpose is for the audience to learn and to become better people.”

    I’m not so sure this is an accurate claim with regard to the LDS church. Now, if you were referencing other churches here, sure, probably true. The point has been made many times over that the LDS church claims to be ‘the one true church’, and that it is a restored in correctness version of what once was ‘the one true church’. I think your arguments could easily be applied to some other religions out there – it really is just about becoming better people and using what is useful. Not with the LDS church though. The whole point is to muddle through all of the ‘restored’ ordinances and traditions, etc. And if it in fact we are going to only go with what is useful now, isn’t that what a prophet and prophetic revelation would be for? Not church PR, the correlation department, and other such committees who get together and write the manuals….

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  15. Jenonator on August 15, 2014 at 12:26 PM

    Re: old church policies or perspectives that have changed-

    HF has plans for society AND plans for each individual. HF uses everything and every experience for the elevation of everyone on a whole and individually. We ate all born at the exact time in history we are meant to —

    We should all strive to lift everyone up and make societal improvements as we must co-create life with God.

    I believe we supersede our own knowledge when we label changes in the past as mistakes. HF gives revelation to us all at the time we are meant to have it. If we do not all have the same revelation at the same time it doesn’t mean one person is wrong and the other is right. We are in a construct of time, HF isn’t.

    Frustrations and disagreements are meant for us. They are part of our gift of life from GOD. We gain from them as we are meant to on an individual basis. Prayer in key to understanding the specific benefit to us. When we are at our highest spiritual moments in life, we even see the benefit of the problems to others involved at times.

    In an individual basis, I was personally blocked to understanding a revelation from God and taking action for it at many times in my life. The “wrong” moves I am clear about now have blessed me anyway and GOD used my limited revelations and “wrong” responses to them for good anyway.

    I completely know that the church and broader society are cared for the same way by HF.

    Those shouting their disagreement with the church are valuable in God’s world and so are those who tow the line. God co-creates with us as we go.

    We do the same for our own children.

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