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4 Women Sex Scientists & Leaders In The 20th Century

Woman Sculpture

If you are familiar with the names of people considered thought leaders of sex in the 20th century, you might think of Alfred Kinsey, William Masters, and Sigmund Freud (the latter being especially debatable given his... questionable stances on female sexuality). Like in other facets of history, women and their own achievements tend to be overlooked. But we're here to try and change that.

In honor of Women’s History month, here are stories about some of the women who shaped our understanding of sex in the 20th century. Learning about their stories and studies can help us understand how some of our cultural beliefs about sex have been shaped the way they are today.

Princess Marie Bonaparte

Princess Marie Bonaparte


Yes, if the name sounds familiar, Marie Bonaparte is the great-grandniece of Napoleon Bonaparte. But despite her title as a princess, she was actually estranged from the part of the family related to Napoleon, but on the other side of her family she was related to the real estate developer of Monte Carlo and inherited a great sum of wealth and power by association.

Marie Bonaparte’s involvement in sex research stemmed from personal need. She believed she was frigid and suffered from sexual dysfunction because she was unable to orgasm from missionary sex. Whether that belief was correct is a whole 'nother topic, but remember that this was the late 19th/early 20th century, and Freud's beliefs dominated the culture at the time.

Women who changed our understanding of sex in the 20th century, Marie Bonaparte

Sculpture of Marie Bonaparte... yes, it was purposely made to look phallic because of her desire to orgasm from only penetration.

Anyway, this was such a pain point for her that she actually conducted a study with over 243 women to measure the distance between the clitoris and the vaginal opening. She identified women with a short distance (the “paraclitoridiennes”) as those who reached orgasm easily, while she and others with longer distances (the “mesoclitoriennes”) as those who had more difficulty achieving orgasm. Then, she ended up undergoing two surgeries to actuallymove her clitoris closer to her vaginal opening, but neither time worked for her to achieve a so-called “vaginal orgasm”.

It didn’t help matters that she consulted with and then studied with Freud and went on to spearhead the psychoanalytical society in France (Interesting tidbit: she even helped Freud escape Nazi Germany through her connections and wealth).

Freud arrives in Paris on his way to London

Marie Bonaparte and Sigmund Freud

Given Freud’s belief that clitoral orgasms were not “real orgasms,” Bonaparte very likely also embraced this belief, even though that has been since flat out debunked (by the next woman we're about to talk about, in fact) and that there might not be such a difference between vaginal and clitoral orgasms after all…

Fun fact: Vaginal orgasms may just be orgasms via stimulation of the clitoris from a different direction. Typing this now probably just made Freud roll in his grave.

Virginia Johnson

Virginia Johnson

Sex researcher,1925-2013

Virginia Johnson was William Master’s longtime academic partner, assistant, lover, and wife. And yes, her story was broadcasted on Showtime's Masters of Sex.

Together, they were the first in modern history to have a physiological lens on sexual pleasure and introduce the concept of the human sexual response cycle, a radical notion since Freud and most who came before them took a more psychoanalytical approach, and most others dismissed the physiological as prurient.

The Human Sexual Response Cycle, study results from Masters and Johnson

They also did something that was considered inconceivable during the mid-20th century — they had volunteers come into their research lab and hooked them up with a variety of instruments that recorded information such as heart rate, brain activity, and metabolism during sexual activity. Through this research, they observed a variety of things about sexual behavior. In one such study, they found that there were no physiological differences between a vaginal and clitoral orgasm, which was an important distinction at the time because orgasms through external clitoral stimulation were considered inferior, thanks to people like Freud.

Masters and Johnson pioneered the study of human sexual response and the treatment of sexual disorders

George Tames / The New York Times

Without Johnson’s intelligence and drive, these studies would have unlikely ever happened, since they required not only scientific rigor but also building a lot of trust with participants who would be coming into their lab for observation.

In the media, Johnson was considered a psychologist despite never graduating college (she was in school but the workload Masters put on her was too heavy to do both... that's also another story). After Johnson and Masters parted ways, she continued her career as a sex therapist and provided advice to women who experienced different forms of sexual dysfunction.

Women who changed our understanding of sex in the 20th century, Dell Willams - founder of Eve's Garden, 1922-2015

Dell Williams

Founder of Eve's Garden, 1922-2015

Dell Williams was the founder of the first women-run sex toy shop in the United States, Eve’s Garden, in New York City. She was a former ad exec who had a bad experience buying a massager from a Macy’s in the 1970s (a “pimply 20-year old boy” asked what she was going to do with it), after taking one of Betty Dodson’s classes on masturbation and learning about the benefits of masturbation. Williams wanted a way for women like herself to shop discreetly and comfortably for sex products, of which there were no options at the time.

Eve's Garden

Unless you were in the know, you'd never expect that a feminist sex shop is here.

Eve’s Garden is still open today. It's tucked away in a building in Midtown Manhattan so that anyone can still comfortably go and shop, ask questions and get advice without discomfort or shame.

Women who changed our understanding of sex in the 20th century, Joani Blank - founder of Good Vibrations, 1937-2016

Joani Blank

Founder of Good Vibrations,1937-2016

Joani Blank founded Good Vibrations, one of the earliest feminist sex toy shops in the United States, around the same time as Eve’s Garden opened in New York City. Blank had been a sex therapist working with women who experienced sexual dysfunctions and noticed that most of the places for them to buy sex products were not welcoming to people like her clients who were looking for ways to enrich their sex lives.

Good Vibrations store today

A Good Vibrations store today

She opened her first shop in the Mission neighborhood in San Francisco during the 1970s. It wasn’t just a place to shop, she designed it to be a place where anybody could come in to get advice on sex, and where the topic of sex could be discussed as casually and nonchalantly as "talking about the weather" (i.e. without discomfort or shame).

In the sex and sexuality space, Blank went on to start and support a variety of projects for nearly 50 years — from writing sex education books for children and adults, to inventing new sex toys, to sociological and artistic projects about sex, pleasure and masturbation. Her passion to provide education and resources for all has lived on in current innovations and development related to sex and sexuality.

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