Monday, October 14, 2013

Masters of Sex Review: "Standard Deviation" - The Meaning of a Word

Beau Bridges and Michael Sheen watch rabbits screw like, well, rabbits in "Masters of Sex"

“Deviant” is a remarkable word.  Mathematically speaking, it carries no connotations, positive or negative.  It simply refers to a sample that does not fit the expected model.  It’s not necessarily wrong or bad, just unexpected or, more accurately, unreliable for drawing larger conclusions.  That the word changed to take on a more general meaning of “deviating from the norm” is a testament to the mutability of our language and our desperate need to create an “other,” to separate from ourselves those whose behavior we find odd or unusual.  Masters of Sex is filled with deviants and “Standard Deviation” focuses closely on them and the problems they cause (or solve) for Bill Masters.

There is a troubling piece of Masters’s and Johnson’s research that is only occasionally touched upon, largely because of the tremendous work they did in other areas: for a decade the duo ran a program specializing in conversion therapy for homosexuals.  Now, this wasn’t exactly a stunning idea at the time.  After all, until 1974, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-II) classified homosexuality as a sociopathic personality disturbance.  But the fact that they engaged in a practice that is now relegated largely to religious fanatics is remarkable, to the say the least.  I have no idea how the show will treat that storyline in the future (and they may not, as it doesn’t happen until 1968), but it’s nice to see them addressing the idea of homosexuality early on, even if only at the most surface level.

What makes this episode so fascinating (aside from the illuminating flashbacks detailing how William Masters and Provost Scully came to Washington University) is how it reveals that everybody is a deviant when it comes to sex, which makes Masters’s quest to model human sexuality all the more quixotic.  He laments the dearth of “normal” patients for his study, requiring him to resort to “deviants” like prostitutes and homosexuals.  But what he fails to understand is that their deviance actually makes them normal.  The most illuminating bit for Masters is the confession from the gay prostitute that he doesn’t service convicts, reprobates, or degenerates, but normal men living normal lives except that they’re not allowed to openly live the lives they would choose.  That Masters uses this information to blackmail Provost Scully (apparently a recipient of said services) is perhaps a little obvious, but hopefully it provides Bill with at last some ability to see beyond his own very narrow understanding of “normal” sexuality.

Because even outside of the prostitutes, we’re presented with a number of “deviants” in this week’s episode, from the mother of quadruplets (1 in 700,000 natural births) to Libby’s supposed “eight percent success rate,” to the reformed prostitute.  Each of these women presents a deviation from the societal norm that asks women to marry and start cranking out children (though preferably one at a time).  There’s nothing particularly deviant about their current behavior, it’s just that the outcomes are not what they expected.

What is most interesting to me about Masters’s and Johnson’s research is that the most fundamental and enduring aspect of their work is focused entirely on the physiology of sex: arousal, engagement, and climax (technically labeled excitement, plateau, orgasm, and resolution).  What causes arousal and climax can differ from person to person, but the physical response is always the same.  In other words, there is no “normal” when it comes to the inputs of sex, only the outputs.  In a way, we’re all sexual deviants and we’re all perfectly normal.

A couple of spare thoughts –
Once again, sex is presented here in a completely non-prurient manner.  We see several prostitutes “participating in the study” (my new favorite euphemism for masturbation), but the scene is played largely for humor, depriving the scene of any sexiness it might have. 

It’s nice to see Masters in his regular practice as an OB/GYN and obstetric surgeon.  It’s easy to forget, while watching his research, that the reason he’s going about this all is because people are so hesitant to talk frankly about sex (like the lovely Mae Whitman and her desire for birth control).

“The truth is I don’t know anything about sex.  And you don’t either.”

So thoughts?  Comments?  Just want to tell me my blog sucks?  Let me know in the comments or on Twitter @TyTalksTV.

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