“Knowing” Sex: Science, Fear and Meaning in Erotica

by | May 18, 2014 | General | 7 comments

by Donna George Storey

I haven’t seen the Showtime! series Masters of Sex yet and probably should as part of my ongoing research on sex and culture, but I did recently plough through the book that inspired the series, Masters of Sex: William Masters and Virginia Johnson, the Couple Who Taught America to Love by Thomas Maier (Basic Books, 2009). I don’t intend to give a full book review, but let’s put it this way: there’s still plenty of room for an intelligent, nuanced study of the lives and work of Masters and Johnson in the future. Yet in spite of its sensational-journalistic sensibility, Maier’s book did make me ponder yet again the deeply-rooted obstacles erotica writers still face decades after Masters and Johnson compiled their ground-breaking data.

William Masters began his career as a gynecologist specializing in fertility problems. Although he and his colleagues used all of their intellectual and surgical powers to help infertile couples conceive, they were forbidden to study the natural process by which human life was created. Clinical experimentation on human sexuality was not only scandalous, it was illegal in some states. The book quotes one doctor as, more benignly but with due disgust, asserting that a clinical study of sex as Masters and Johnson undertook in their laboratory would take the “mystery” out of it. Another gynecologist said that when his patients complained of unsatisfying sex lives, he had no help to offer but a warm hug, insisting that the hug did wonders. (To which I reply either “a hug” is a euphemism for much more, or this particular doctor was way gone in his god fantasy.)

Possibly we’re so used to regarding sex as a sacred mystery or a lawless instinct in need of severe legal and cultural restriction that this willed medical ignorance does not at first seem as horrifying as it truly is. What if the medical profession decided cancer was clearly a mark of god’s retribution and thus we should not destroy the “mystery” of the affliction by attempting to understand and treat it? A warm hug would surely provide the cancer patient with adequate intervention?

Very fortunately, William Masters had the courage to begin to study this taboo but fundamental aspect of human existence. Virginia Johnson’s initial key contribution was recruiting women to be subjects for the higher good of replacing myth with fact. Many eagerly participated for just that reason (I believe them—and thank you, sisters!) Johnson and Masters were, for a time, media stars. Their books were best sellers and did indeed overturn a lot of myths about sexuality, female and male both.

Still I’m sad to say that while sex guides and manuals are readily available in the present day, scientific studies of sexuality are still seriously underfunded. You can get grants for any kind of weird diet study in the name of the “obesity epidemic,” but to my knowledge, there’ve been no major breakthroughs in our understanding of human sexual response since the publication of Masters and Johnson’s work. (Please correct me if I’m wrong—even the discovery of the G spot is still controversial and not supported by the few later studies.)

So here’s my question—why don’t people WANT to know about sex? Why aren’t we insisting that our doctors and scientists delve deeper into this important aspect of our lives? Now I’m the first to admit that science has its own severe limitations, but isn’t it sad that we’re still held hostage to an ancient fear of sexuality? How ironic indeed that the Biblical word for sex is to “know” another person, when religion is so often used to perpetuate sexual ignorance.

In mulling this over, I came up with a few ideas—all based on fear. Fear of finding out we don’t measure up sexually. Fear of female sexual response if women were more educated about their potential. A continuing fear of the chaos that would ensue if science confirmed that the sexual urge and its satisfaction are just plain good for you.

In her comment on my April column here at ERWA, Remittance Girl introduced a concise and elegant explanation for all of this fear and willed ignorance and how it affects the response to erotica, which I will now define as writing that seeks to delve deeper into the truth of sexual experience, a study that can be taken on by any sincere amateur who will nonetheless learn much about her own sexuality in the process. RG paraphrases Slavoj Zizek thusly: “You can either have explicit sex, or you can have depth of meaning in narrative, but you can’t have both. That is forbidden.”

Is this refusal to give sex deeper meaning (beyond procreation) why scientific studies of sex are still severely circumscribed as well? Can you imagine the NIH enlisting subjects to participate in laboratory sex for the sake of a greater good?

In fact, I do believe there is a link between the work of Johnson and Masters and the efforts of erotica writers to explore the complexities of the erotic experience, to give it a broader and deeper meaning, to take it seriously in the pursuit of greater knowledge, as any scientific study implicitly does. What we do as erotica writers has meaning, it is important, and it carries on the legacy of all doctors, philosophers and writers in centuries past who chose sexual knowledge and self-knowledge over fear and ignorance. So there, I was a little depressed about all this when I started writing, but I see now there is truly hope and it’s in our vivid imaginations and the fingers tapping our keyboards.

Write on!

Donna George Storey is the author
of Amorous Woman (recently released as an ebook) and a new collection of short
stories, Mammoth
Presents the Best of Donna George Storey
. Learn more about her
work at www.DonnaGeorgeStorey.com
or http://www.facebook.com/DGSauthor

Donna George Storey

I want to change the world one dirty story at a time. When I posted this mission statement on my website, I hoped my cheeky ambition would make my readers smile. I smile every time I read it myself. And yet I’m totally serious. I truly believe that writers who are brave enough to speak their truth about the erotic experience in all its complexity—the yearning, the pleasure, the conflicts, and the sweet satisfaction—do change the world for the better. So if you’re here at ERWA because you’re already writing erotica, a big thank you and keep on doing what you’re doing. If you’re more a reader than a writer, I encourage you to start dreaming and writing and expressing the truth and magic of this fundamental part of the human experience in your own unique voice. Can there be a more pleasurable way to change the world? I'm the author of Amorous Woman, a semi-autobiographical erotic novel set in Japan, The Mammoth Book of Erotica Presents the Best of Donna George Storey  and nearly 200 short stories and essays in journals and anthologies. Check out my Facebook author page at: https://www.facebook.com/DGSauthor/  


  1. Remittance Girl

    You've given science a deserved kick in the ass. It's got me thinking about what Foucault had to say about the medicalization of sex and the way power and control over the knowledge of it was transferred from the church to scientific institutions after the enlightenment. So it's really not all that surprising that 'what can be studied' is also part of that control.

    I think now, with the demise of the great social projects of modernism, and the end of massive social institutions as 'benevolent new gods' we've moved into an age where it is commerce that determines what is important to study. So, for instance, a lot of research was done on erectile dysfunction, and drugs were developed to 'cure' it. And it has been financially very rewarding.

    It wasn't study for the sake of knowing more. It was study to address a 'problem' that could be monetized. So, extrapolating on Foucault (who died while the power of civic institutions were still at their peak, and funded) I would say there is a new locus of power, and that is commerce.

    Unraveling the narrative truths of our sexual experiences, of how we produce meaning from them, of how they inform our inner sense of self, is incredibly complex. Ironically, the church was probably more willing to acknowledge the immense influence of that narrative (even if in a repressive and sublimated way) than the loci of power that came after.

    I have a sense that the will to pleasure always contains the undertext of the question 'who am I?' which is never phrased in such an outright manner. It is often extruded through the question 'what does he/she want?' of a partner, because, of course, we want to be what they want, in that moment of pleasure. And thus we are strangely defined through a mutual experience of desire, each for the other.

    I don't believe that those kind of questions have answers. They are acts of process, of becoming. And they are essentially creative acts.

    • Donna

      RG, you make so many excellent points here! I totally agree that commerce rules science. There are precious few unsullied sources of funding for scientific research, but who would advocate for more in a culture where making money is the highest good, our icons the richest men? Health problems are created based on circular scientific logic (we have to medicate anyone who doesn't fit a clinically determined "normal") and the legal drug money pours in. Of course, neither science nor money can save us.

      And I agreed with an audible "yes!" to your point about erotic desire as a question about identity, which on one level is sadly skewed by literalism (rape fantasies mean women want to be submissive chattels, etc.). These questions don't have "right" or "fixed" answers, but there is certainly pleasure for me in the search.

  2. Susan St. Aubin

    "Master's of Sex" is very good! I'm sure it must be out on DVD now, or downloadable somewhere. It's well worth watching,

    • Donna

      That's the plan!

  3. Fiona McGier

    Sex is an appetite just like hunger, but we encourage going out to eat in public places, and forbid sex talk in polite company. Weird. Religions have managed to take a basic human drive to procreate, and along the way to enjoy owning a body, and made it "dirty" and "forbidden". And why? Patriarchy. Women knew the baby was theirs, men had to take the woman's word for it. But if they could invent slut-shaming, and get women to buy into that whole thing, then the women would be filled with shame over their own desires. Teach young women their job was to police their own desires, AND those of the young men. Teach young men their job was to have sex with as many women as possible. Then sit back and watch the train wreck commence. Rape-culture is a direct result, as is female mutilation, and the many homicides committed by "partners" of women who weren't stroking the big guy's ego enough.

    Husband and I raised our sons to be different. They had to be, because I'm their mom. And I proudly proclaim that I write smutty romance novels because that's what I think about when I get a leisure moment. I'm a sexual being…we all are. But I've been able to resist ever feeling guilty about it.

    • Donna

      Very heartening, Fiona! I believe things will change–slower than the ideal on the larger scale–but we can make a huge difference in our personal lives. Challenging the prevailing prejudices in our families, sending thoughtful young men and women out into the world who further question the oppression, this is the foundation of change.

  4. Lisabet Sarai

    I'm doubtful as to whether any scientific study can really address the "truth of sexual experience" for an individual. We can investigate physical response, preferences and so on, but the intrinsic mystery of desire remains as hidden as ever.

    That's what erotica is for.

    That being said, sexual response can and should be a legitimate topic for scientific research. I don't know if you read about this study:


    Although at some level I hate these "men are biologically different from women" studies (because I think that the within-gender variability is much higher than this sort of research suggests, and because they are often used to justify all sorts of oppressive and/or offensive policies), I have to admit that the study captures my personal patterns of arousal.

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