Writer and broadcaster

Masters of Sex: prostitutes, peepholes and propositions

IT’S REFRESHING to see a television programme that, instead of making sex an incidental, cynical part of the plot, simply to facilitate shots of naked people, makes it the whole premise of the show.

Yes, Masters of Sex, the new series about Dr William Masters (played by Michael Sheen) and Virginia Johnson (Lizzy Caplan), is all about sex. It is based on the biography of the same name by Thomas Maier, about the American pair whose ground-breaking research into human sexual responses from the 1950s through to the 1990s resulted in seminal texts, the most famous of which is Human Sexual Response.

Their work started at the Obstetrics and Gynaecological Department at Washington University teaching hospital in St Louis, which is where this is set.

Episode one, last night, opened at a party in 1956 but very quickly segued into a couple doing it doggy-style with Masters looking at them through a peephole in the cupboard with a stopwatch in hand. For research.

In fact the first two sex scenes – the next was Masters trying to impregnate his wife – were in what Masters probably called “the man penetrating the woman from behind” position. So much so that I started to panic and think I hadn’t paid attention in history lessons and this was the way you had sex in the 1950s (it’s okay, it wasn’t).

But Masters is not just a sex observer, he is also associate professor of Obs and Gyn at the hospital. He treats infertility and performs operations to save women’s lives.

He and his wife have been trying for a baby for two years. She thinks it’s her fault she can’t get pregnant but in fact he has a low sperm count which he hasn’t told her about which I find odd and sadistic, especially as he then enters her into a round of, at times painful, infertility treatment. His wife thinks he’s wonderful and calls him Daddy. It’s a little creepy.

Anyway, he decides that he wants to do something ground-breaking and fabulous and decides to observe women masturbating, and couples having sex. Johnson starts work as a secretary/research assistant, is quickly spotted by one of the other doctors, Ethan (Nicholas D’Agosto), and they start sort of dating (he thinks they’re dating but she’s just using him as a friend with benefits).

Masters is intrigued by Johnson and interviews her for the job of his assistant. She doesn’t equate sex with love – shock! – and is at ease talking about sex, ergo she finds it easy to recruit other women, and not just prostitutes.

Because, what started with him in that closet observing a prostitute on all fours having sex with a client, ends with a full-on research programme with attractive people having sex in the lab with their heads and bodies covered in electrodes. While Masters and Johnson watch.

No candles, no low lighting. It’s a fairly brutal atmosphere and amazing that anyone can perform. Apparently in real life, the volunteers also wore paper bags over their heads to preserve anonymity.

We gather pretty quickly that, although Johnson is warm, personable and in touch with her emotions, Masters is an odd man whose emotions are filed somewhere in a folder marked “childhood: do not open”. He’s a control freak, repressed, possibly depressed and never uses three words when a cold hard stare and one word will do.

He so far wears a white coat over a suit, always a bow tie (as many gynaecologists do, “to avoid tickling the vulva”, as one once told me) and sometimes a dinner jacket. Those are his outfit changes. Johnson is all tight, tactile knitwear and skirts, lots of browns, burgundies and olive greens. Libby, Master’s wife, thus far spends her entire life wearing floral dresses held out with tulle petticoats.

All the women in the programme so far have great breasts. So far we’ve seen two naked men. One has clearly been working out the way men just didn’t in the 1950s. The interiors are fabulous, better than the fashions. If you love mid-Century modern you’re in for a treat.

Episode one ends with Masters propositioning Johnson. For research. Never mind about just watching other people having sex, for really proper research they should really, also, be having sex with one another, he says. Clearly there weren’t many industrial tribunals in the 1950s.

It ends with Johnson asking – whilst clutching files to her knitwear clad bosom in pensive fashion – if she can take the weekend to think about it. Masters, barely looking up from his paperwork, concedes that yes, yes she can.

First published in The Week on 9 October 2013.