Commentary: Visiting Masters and Johnson in 1968 in search of baby-making
This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon. - The passing of sex researcher Virginia Johnson the last week of July at the age of 88 in St. Louis (and the Showtime series) brought back a remarkable experience my wife and I had at the famous Masters and Johnson clinic.
No, it wasn’t sex therapy we needed but a baby; and we couldn’t have one. So in 1968, after a year of trying to conceive, we went to their Reproductive Biology Research Lab, which should be just as famous but is not. It was something of a sexual/scientific experience nonetheless.
I would soon be graduated with a PhD from Washington University, and that arduous path seemed to need the humanizing culmination of a baby and parenthood. My wife was head nurse at a local medical center and less squeamish than I about seeking help about what was not sex dysfunction, but some form of infertility.
How could you explain that to your friends, when simple mention of “Masters and Johnson” meant sex trouble, which didn’t evoke sympathy but rather comic prurience. Literature grad students swam in double entendre, so sex therapy easily became “mastering your johnson.”
Still we went, clandestinely, and met Dr. Masters in his office, and it was all matter of fact, clinical, professional, except behind him was a painting on the wall of what looked like a duck taking off from a pond among reeds. Up close, it was a single sperm sailing toward a pool of seminal fluid inside a vagina, curtained by labia and hair.
OK, we got it, sex stuff and baby making couldn’t be completely separated, and being explicit about it did not mean being prudish. We paid a fee for a one-year program of baby making.
Virginia Johnson was our official fertility counselor, warm, calm, also professional, though we did not see much of either of them since they had become the leaders of the scientific flank of the '60s sexual revolution with their infamous 1966 book Human Sexual Response. (It verified, among other earth-shattering revelations, that females have multiple orgasms and that old folks can enjoy sex — all praise for that.)
The Sixties not only fomented revolutions in sex, and in culture, politics, and art, but also could be dubbed the golden era of reproductive biology. After many partial steps and much public outcry, researchers created the birth control pill, which gained FDA approval in 1960 and wide acceptance by 1965. That stops the baby-making.
Then the technique for making babies, in vitro fertilization, comes along a few years later, with the first “test tube” baby born in 1978, but even more resistance by church and state draws out its acceptance until the late 1990s. These two socially explosive innovations changed in many minds who we are as creatures, so fundamental was the area of human life they influenced.
For a couple just to show up for treatment at any fertility installation, let alone at Masters and Johnson’s in 1968, took a bit of courage.
We went to our sessions separately, which first involved my tests — OK my testes. I had to produce a sperm sample on the first meeting. My tester was a young beautiful female assistant, who gave me a glass bottle and escorted me to a room where I was to ejaculate. There wasn’t even a copy of Better Homes and Gardens, and certainly no Playboy in sight, which I thought would have been required lab equipment for this “procedure.” However, at 26, sperm on demand is not as much trouble as you might think.
Though I was spent, my amiable assistant wasn’t done with me. She said we would look at my semen under a microscope, together. OK.
When focused she saw a revealing sight — my sperm went all over the place, zigzagging helter-skelter style. I looked and couldn’t really see it that well, but opined that they were pretty active, no?
I mean, any man fishes for a compliment from a lady when both are staring at his actual seminal juices, no?
Well, no, the point was they were few in number and disorganized; they didn’t form a pattern of purposeful motion, cruising along in a single-headed vector to some currently absent target of an egg.
Some researchers claimed that female problems constituted about 45 percent of infertility and male problems about 35 percent. Others now claim that it’s a 50/50 split. What the statistical record showed then didn’t matter — I was the culprit, the slacker, my bullets were too few and aimless — i.e., I had a low sperm count and the sperm lacked “motility” and directional motion across a “grid.”
That wasn’t all. There was no apparent dysfunction in my wife’s department, but there was a quasi-scientific musing about biological incompatibility between us. We were a lovey-dovey couple, married just on the cusp of the sexual revolution, and now all set for sober parenthood; however, our chemicals might be repulsing each other. That sounded worse.
We needed a biological revolution to get our estranged gametes fused and blended into a zygote, so to speak. It was not in the cards; such a therapy was not available then, nor perhaps now, though treatments of separate male and female infertility have flourished.
However a long-shot regimen that might desensitize our antagonistic bodily fluids was suggested — abstinence. Three months of it. No touching, no kissing, and no sex, three months. I guess we really wanted that baby because we did it.
It was like Eloise and Abelard, without the God part keeping us chaste.
It may have produced a compatibility that few couples experience — untouchable communion as reward for working intimately and a-sexually together, and the one work-project we undertook in earnest was baby making. How abstinence might influence biological compatibility seems hard to discover, if it ever was true. And such “therapy” would not likely be prescribed these days since high frequency of ejaculations actually increases sperm health and male fertility.
That dry spell of unrequited yearning passed. We could once again indulge in the extravagant joys of marital bliss — any time, all the time. But no, they imposed new restraints. We now had mandatory sex, but the worse kind — coitus interruptus, in the early morning, during the peak of carefully measured ovulations and synchronized to the lab’s opening for the day, at 8 a.m.
My wife, already at work at 7 a.m., had to hurry home for the required ardors, with phantasmagoria of Masters and Johnson hovering over the bed to make sure we did “it” right. “It?” Just before exploding, I would pull out and she or I would catch my falling stars in a small vial with a nipple cap for a lid.
Then, we’d hop in the car and race as fast as we could to the lab, up the front stairs and into a room where my cup o’ joy would be carefully placed over the opening of her cervix. She’d wear it all day, to make sure that my few sperms would head toward her proper egg at the right time. (This technique is still commonly used.) Ripeness was all -- less chance for those few scallywags to tire and wander off to who knows what crevasse or crease. This went on for months.
That wasn’t all. The Lab had more than one couple as patients. Five or six women would get out of their cars holding their chalice of generosity like some lamp lit for the salvation of humankind. We guys scrunched down in the front seats of our cars.
I fantasized that one woman would spill the seed on the ground, not like Onan but like a kid running with a scoop of vanilla ice cream on a summer’s day. Would a courteous sister-lady offer a refill from hers? But who would want another’s potentially tainted seeds, as each one might be? I soon stopped driving my wife to the lab. This baby-making dance was getting to both of us.
Our year-long contract time in St. Louis with Masters and Johnson was cut short by a job offer from California, which I eagerly took. Somehow they magnanimously transferred the remaining three months of their commitment to us to a colleague of theirs in Los Angles, an urologist with the name, are you ready for this, Dr. Getzoff.
We no longer laughed at the absurd word play in all of this. We were ready for a new approach: adoption. But Getzoff had a different strategy — find the source of my spermatozoonic maladies.
He began by asking me to document my work history, paying particular attention to any chemicals. That rang an alarm bell. I had tried to keep up my working-class credentials even in graduate school by finding tough nasty work as a measure of my manliness— yep, that was the attitude, before graduate school and before “the trippy '60s.” Tough guys did tough jobs — they still sell trucks that way.
I had worked as a plumber’s apprentice during high school summers. We used cast iron pipes for sewer jobs, joined and sealed with molten lead. There were glues, plastics and all sorts of insulation materials that should have been banned. I then worked in a hellhole of a factory during college summers that made rust from metal scrap. I hand-tossed the steel pieces into a tall boiling cauldron of syrupy fluid darkened by oxidizing metal. Once dried, baked, and pulverized, the rust powder got all over everything and me.
I then worked the graveyard shift in a chemical factory in St. Louis, while I should have been studying, and cleaned out vats of “Paris Blue,” or cupric sulfate, and washed (down a drain to who knows where?) filters caked with wafers of debris from making all kinds of stuff, like ingredients for rocket fuel.
If I was compensating for a low sperm count by doing this kind of work, I had no conscious clue. Rather Dr. Getzoff claimed one chemical in particular from the St. Louis factory, ferrous sulfamate, was a spermicidal agent, and was the likely cause of my low count. He offered the cool explanation that eventually my sperm count might rise.
We adopted. The week, that very week we brought our darling boy home to us, my wife became pregnant, with our darling daughter. How did this happen? What biologic transformation did adoption precipitate? We might as well have been visited by a stork.
This mystery is hard to unravel, since it is highly emotional, somewhat embarrassing, and easily invoked without analysis, though it is frequently reported. Medical practitioners though are adamant that adoption does not cure infertility.
But what could trigger conception around the time of adoption? It might be as simple as the end of stress over childlessness. The couple has shifted from intense prolonged scrutiny of a deficiency to acceptance of it and seeks a different path of remedy. Or new fertility hormones could appear, prompted by a baby in the house. Or my chemical contamination could have worn off. Or both the male and female body just slide back into sex for recreation and bonding — and whammo, it’s a girl!
But why not attribute this mystery to the stork? Science is usually better at discovering what’s wrong or damaged than how to fix it, though eventually it may craft a remedy. The ancients had all sorts of remedies: goddesses, herbs and, for the Chinese, acupuncture, still in use for baby-making today. Hippocrates (460 BC) took a semi-scientific approach and advocated opening the cervix with a tube and inserting all sorts of spices and herbs. His success rate is not available in a juried journal. So, at this stage of a familiar mystery, why not credit a stork?
Culturally storks are mythologized as guardians of the soul and of aged parents. They also are bringers of babies due to their nine-month long migrations. But their main mythic function is to hide the real source of babies and baby-making, so perhaps we should drop this in deference to the work of Masters and Johnson. Still these big white birds do explain a baby’s “stork bite,” which science attributes to a stretching of certain blood vessels (“nevus simplex”) — surely not a satisfactory explanation at all.
The magic of sex and procreation still unfold in both science and culture. We are obsessed with both, from internet porn and “sexting” to government restrictions on abortions and even birth control. Some millennials these days have hook-up dates just for the purpose of it. Sex is the lubricant for commerce and enflames the entertainment market. We have too many babies for the planet’s good though the empowerment of women has brought down the rate of population growth. Sex is still a source of comedy and shame.
But for us, Masters and Johnson put human sexuality into its rightful place — a very physical process that could go wrong in itself and in its ultimate purpose. They made sex talk and sex study generally respectable, while not denaturing it into an emotionless, humorless study. As the carnal method we use to make babies, when it isn’t working it is very painful; and they tried to help. They made procreation and its discontents into a socially acceptable science, imperfect but insightful as it was, and left a legacy of fulfilled parenthood for many couples.
That we were not one of their successes (were we?) does not detract from our praise.
Robert Louis Chianese is a retired English professor, who taught and writes about the connections among literature, science and the environment. He also developed and taught a course on eroticism and literature. He won a Mitchell Prize on sustainability in 1979 and lectured on literature and the environment on Fulbrights to Bulgaria and China. He was recently elected president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science-Pacific Division (2011-2012), the only humanist in that position in its one-hundred year history. He is a columnist for American Scientist magazine. He is married, has two children and four grandchildren.