With Masters, Mrs. Johnson helped dispel notions that today might seem quaint if not ludicrous. Among them were misconceptions that the size of the male organ determined sexual prowess and that baldness was a marker of virility.
The pair showed that, surprisingly to some, a woman’s orgasm could last longer than a man’s. They debunked the idea that the elderly were consigned to lives devoid of sexual satisfaction.
Besides outraged moralists, their detractors included critics who resented the fact that “Human Sexual Response” seemed to overlook the mystical nature of love. The book was read by some, Time magazine wrote, to “suggest that good sex, like golf, is a matter of technique.”
Mrs. Johnson flatly denied that such was the intention. “I hope the whole mechanical myth will go down the drain,” she told Time. “I’m tired of it.”
In “Human Sexual Inadequacy,” she and Masters documented their treatment of hundreds of couples that struggled with dysfunction, including premature ejaculation and difficulty achieving climax. They reported a remarkably low 20 percent failure rate, a figure that critics in the scientific community found difficult or impossible to replicate.
But the Masters and Johnson brand had been forged. Their treatment of sexual dysfunction became, for a time, a dominant brand of sex therapy in America. The therapy included two weeks of intensive therapy and as many as five years of follow-up; about 70 percent of the program came from her ideas.
Mrs. Johnson, Masters said, had learned “more than any other woman in the world about human sexual function.”
Mary Virginia Eshelman was born Feb. 11, 1925, in Springfield, Mo. “I grew up with the sense,” she once told The Washington Post, “that accomplishment and talent were marvelous, but that marriage was the primary goal.”
She showed early promise as a singer, and she studied music, sociology and psychology. Her early jobs including stints as a radio country music singer, a newspaper reporter covering business, and a market research assistant for a CBS affiliate in Illinois.
With musician George Johnson, whom she married and later divorced, she had two children. Survivors include her son, Scott Johnson, and her daughter, Lisa Young, both of St. Louis; and two grandchildren.
Mrs. Johnson and Masters were married in 1971 and divorced in 1993. He died in 2001 at 85.
Their later books included “The Pleasure Bond” (1974), written with Robert J. Levin, and “Homosexuality in Perspective (1979). With Robert C. Kolodny, they wrote “Masters and Johnson on Sex and Human Loving” (1986). In 1988, also with Kolodny, they wrote “Crisis: Heterosexual Behavior in the Age of AIDS,” which U.S. Surgeon General C. Everett Koop criticized as “irresponsible” for what he called its use of “scare tactics” in addressing the spread of AIDS.
Mrs. Johnson said the work of destigmatizing sex would be long.
“We’ll need two generations,” she once told an interviewer, “who grow up believing that sex is honorable and good for its own sake, and not something to be kept hidden away in a jewel box to be taken down for festival occasions on Friday and Saturday nights.”