The Clare Spark Blog

October 22, 2013

“Masters of Sex” and 70s feminism

masters-of-sex_[Update: December 10, 2013. This has turned out to be the most feminist show I have ever seen on television. Far deeper as it developed than anticipated when I first wrote this blog. Lizzy Caplan singing “You Don’t Know Me” in episode 11 said it all, for all women.]

This blog is not about porn, but about the la-dee-da attitude shown by some feminists not only with respect to the rigors of child-rearing, but without prior understanding of the emotional components and complications of human sexuality. I remember reading John Bowlby’s pioneering work on attachment theory and separation anxiety (see I don’t remember which of his many books I read, but I remember thinking that the feminists of my acquaintance would probably hate his theories, as he emphasized the crucial role of mothering in early childhood, with lifelong dire effects if not properly managed (some of his theorizing was probably autobiographical, but what about Winnicott and Mahler?).

I. I will take a partly dim look at the new Showtime series Masters of Sex, created by a woman, Michelle Ashford. I have watched the first four episodes and see this effort as another docudrama that represents a hidden history of science and sex. The hint in the NPR summary is wildly mistaken that (the ubiquitous) Freud was displaced by a more accurate measurement of, to use the character Dr. William Master’s words, “What happens to the body during sex?” During my dissertation research, I was surprised to discover that the two of the three ogres of the 19th century, Marx and Freud (not Darwin), were not equally loathed and feared. The bourgeois Freud was far more controversial as progressives went about reconstructing the humanities curriculum. (Here is my index on Freud blogs:

Briefly, Freud saw repressed sexuality as the source of hysteria and other psychosomatic ailments, and leaned heavily on the Oedipus complex, but few had the money and time to indulge in the “talking cure.” And who wanted to recognize ambivalence within families, or lifelong troubled attachments to the parent of the opposite sex? Freud’s colleague Carl Jung was a different story: he saw Freud’s Id as a source of creativity (as opposed of everyday unhappiness), and many a Jungian analyst used Jung’s dubious theory of archetypes to treat their clients. In the battle of the titans: Jung versus Freud, the younger man penetrated school curricula and the practice of social psychology. (For my copious blogs on Jung and his followers see

II. Michelle Ashford is the creator of the series. A brief internet search does not link her with the second wave of feminism, but the major demands of 1970s feminism—to celebrate liberated sexuality, to eliminate back-alley abortions, to establish day care centers in workplaces, to de-stigmatize homosexuality, to bring fathers further into the day-to-day burdens of child-rearing, to recognize prostitutes as “sex workers” and not pariahs, to rewrite history to emphasize the roles and condition of women (often in Women’s Studies departments), to break through the “glass ceiling,” to identify “science” with masculinity and the illicit penetration of Mother Earth—have at least partly been accomplished. (For an example of “feminist science” see the work of Donna Haraway and Carolyn Merchant. For a rehabilitation of domestic feminism see Kathryn Kish Sklar’s book on Catherine Beecher.)

Though network television does not show breasts and buttocks, female actors playing professionals often show their cleavage in the dead of winter. But on pay for cable networks like HBO and Showtime, sex acts are routinely demonstrated, though not with male frontal nudity or the details available in porn shops. The achievement of Masters of Sex, though it seems to be a defense of the liberated woman, is the separation of romance and sexuality. I.e., women are entitled to be as promiscuous and detached in their sex lives as men are imagined to be. As the series proceeds, I hope that more nuance is brought into the subject.

Ashford’s heroine, “Virginia Johnson” as played by Lizzy Caplan, is represented as “ahead of her time.” She is the mother of two, both in the series and in Johnson’s real life. That is, like many women today, she believes that she  can “have it all.”

I wish that it were that simple. Perhaps robots will be devoid of the feelings that we have yet to master. But such fantasies do get eyeballs to the television set, and the actors (Michael Sheen is outstanding) are fine.

[Added 10-23-13: Upon thinking it over and considering what crappy jobs many men hold, a woman is lucky to be a wife and mother if she has a good man to support her. When babies are tiny, it is undoubtedly strenuous, but there is no greater intellectual, physical, and emotional challenge than holding a marriage together and raising functioning children who go on to successful relationships in every sphere of life. I include self-direction and independent thought as desirable in offspring. I don’t think that this judgment disqualifies me as an advocate for women’s rights.] [Added 10-29-13: Episode five was well done, since it showed the mother of Masters in complete denial as to her son’s mental problems. She socialized him to be a stoic, and “Virginia Johnson” touches him with words, understanding that nobody could be so strong as to be detached from the loss of a child (and other distorted relationships), and Michael Sheen does a persuasive job in acting out a man cracking up with hitherto repressed grief. Everyone should watch this episode, for the series is about much more than acceptable porn for the middle class.]

For a related blog see

The real Masters and Johnson

The real Masters and Johnson


  1. […] my first take on this series, see an odd coincidence, the last episode of Showtime’s hit series Masters of Sex (10 August, 2014), […]

    Pingback by Ferguson MO, Masters of Sex, and the dilemma of the white liberal | YDS: The Clare Spark Blog — August 16, 2014 @ 11:35 pm | Reply

  2. OK, so antisemitism is no longer of particular
    concern to you. A pity, if not a sorrow. Perhaps,
    in true-blue American style, an aversion to that
    excrescence of the Old World needn’t remain
    near the center of west of the Atlantic folk.

    WBAI’s bankruptcy may make the whole thing
    fairly academic.

    Comment by Claude Horvath — October 28, 2013 @ 11:46 pm | Reply

    • Who said I was bored with anti-Semitism? I just find it hard to pin down. Measuring the irrational and rational parts of social critique is not possible as far as I know.

      Comment by clarelspark — October 28, 2013 @ 11:57 pm | Reply

  3. I have watched the series though only part of the first episode. As always, there is the stylization of all but I like the acting and am intrigued enough to continue. Clare you refer to the sexual revolution, to the grand masters of psychoanalysis, especially Winnicott and Bowlby whose work on attachment and bonding provided enormous influence on how I work as an analyst to this day. However, the ability to bond and nurture, to create the sense of safety that the human child needs, is not dependent on gender. I think if I had a male nurturer in my developing years, the sexual revolution would have been a lot more fun. Nothing replaces safe and sturdy attachment and bonding. As a female raised to be a virgin through the fifties and early sixties, the separation of sex from attachment as an offering might have made for a less desperate search for love. It is the confusion of sex with love that so unhinges most females. Nothing can replace the absence of a mom/dad persona who is there for your early launch, no matter what the mores of the times. Though we as females have gained so much in these three plus decades, without that safe and early fundamental bond, sex, love, science or freedom from the glass ceiling will never satisfy.

    Comment by jilledelmanlcsw — October 23, 2013 @ 3:12 am | Reply

    • To Jill: Do you believe that for a woman, it is possible to separate sex from love or some emotion that is confused with love? I suspect (and this is very subjective) that sex is more complicated for men than women imagine. But that is my debt to papa Freud showing: There are at least four persons in bed, even though to the naked eye, there appears to be only two. I admit to being mired in subjectivity on this and related points.

      Comment by clarelspark — October 23, 2013 @ 5:24 am | Reply

      • I think that as women gain more skill in assessing what their needs are vis a vis men they can begin to distinguish certainly between lust and love. The qualities of the individual are often obscured by heavy doses of lust/chemistry which is set off in both genders. So yes, I think that there are many distinguishing features that characterize the differences between lust, affection, in love, idealization and on and on. The nuances are endless but can be critical when the final choice of mate (of course never final as we know) is made. What I have observed about men is that often they take the surface drive and assume that’s all there is, until something unexpected occurs. Then they begin to wonder, “what was I thinking?”

        Comment by jilledelmanlcsw — October 23, 2013 @ 4:17 pm

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