Masters Took Sex from Bedroom into Laboratory `at Least We Can Talk about Sex Now,' Retiring Pioneer Declares, but Some Question Validity of Couple's Research

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DR. ALBERT KINSEY made sex an object of scientific inquiry. Dr. William H. Masters took sex into the laboratory and watched.

In 1948, Kinsey wrote "Sexual Behavior in the Human Male." In 1966, Masters and his assistant, Virginia E. Johnson, published "Human Sexual Response" from the research and therapy at their Masters & Johnson Institute, just east of Barnes Hospital in St. Louis.

Those books helped immensely to widen public discussion of human sexuality. Masters wishes that proper understanding and common sense would have kept pace, but he believes the efforts were for the good.

"At least we can talk about sex now," said Masters. "I think we did our work reasonably well."

Kinsey died in 1956. Last week, Masters, 78, announced his retirement. After 50 years of medicine, 40 years of sex research and therapy, 16 books or revisions, and more patients than he ever tried to count, Masters said he'd seen enough. He was tired.

On Thursday, he closed his institute, which had operated for the last two years in the Campbell Plaza at 5900 Arsenal Street. He had been reducing the institute's activities for about a year.

(The Masters & Johnson Intensive Day Hospital, down the hall but operated by a company that bought the name six years ago, will continue providing therapy here and in Kansas City and New Orleans.)

"There's a whole field out here now that didn't exist until their book came out," Lonnie Barbach, an author and therapist in suburban San Francisco, said of Masters and Johnson. "They looked at sex as a part of life, and they did it in a very professional manner."

By that, she referred to the ponderous medical prose of "Human Sexual Response." The book and its 1970 sequel, "Human Sexual Inadequacy," were best sellers in spite of the difficult scientific writing. They didn't produce a work in standard English until 1975, when they published "The Pleasure Bond."

Barbach said her profession is glad Masters and Johnson did it that way.

"They were conservative in their demeanor and presentation," Barbach said last week. "They could go into the lab, watch people's sexuality and report on it in a professional manner. . . . i

"Masters and Johnson gave credibility to something that, presented any other way, just would have caused snickers."

Even one of their biggest critics, psychologist Bernie Zilbergeld of Oakland, Calif., called Masters and Johnson "pioneers who created the field of sex therapy. They helped make it all possible. Overall, it's been a good thing.

"But as far as their scientific research, I think it's largely in disrepute," Zilbergeld said Friday. "It was accepted uncritically, but the quality wasn't very good."

In 1980, the magazine Psychology Today published an article by Zilbergeld and the late Michael Evans that was critical of Masters and Johnson's claims of clinical success and supporting research. Other serious criticism of their work was to come.

But they still have many defenders. Judith Seifer of Lewisburg, W.Va., president of the American Association of Sex Educators, Counselors and Therapists, called their work "still the best we've got." And Stephanie Sanders, interim director of the Kinsey Institute at Indiana University, said "Masters and Johnson are household words. That doesn't happen very often in science."

Does Masters consider himself a pioneer? "No," he said Friday, "I feel like an old man who was in the right place at the right time."

***** The Making Of 2 Therapists

Masters got into the business of sex therapy the serious way. After graduating from Hamilton College in Clinton, N. …