What's With the Gorilla, Masters of Sex?

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After a decade of working on their own–as a team, but without a lot of input from other scientists–Masters and Johnson’s research is starting to have growing pains. The problem? They may be the experts on human sexual response, but that doesn’t make them experts in anything else. And if you want to expand a study in new directions, you need to find people who are willing to help you.

At this point, they really need to find some collaborators.

They need a chemist to crack the pheromone problem. They need to find people willing to volunteer as sexual surrogates if they’re going to open their therapy work to single men and women. And they should have, I don’t know, called someone like Jane Goodall for advice, instead of charging ahead with that gorilla project.


We’ve seen again and again that curiosity and ambition have been Bill and Gini’s biggest motivators–and also the things that get them into the most trouble. The writers would still have had some pretty rich material in that vein if they had stuck to challenges from Masters’ and Johnson’s real history. In real life, the pheromone work brought both funding and young scientists with their own pesky ideas to the Reproductive Biology Research Foundation. The use of sexual surrogates in their clinic was incredibly controversial, once word got out. And both elements played important roles in developing the pair’s second book on human sexual problems.

Instead, we see Bill declare that the pheromone study is dead in the water because they’re not chemists, and Gini insist that surrogates should only be recruited from former study participants (which puts Jane back in the saddle as their most eager recruit ever). And with those rich collaborative opportunities gone, along with all the new people they could bring into the show, the writers decided to make up an ape.


Oh, I know the ape’s a metaphor, meant to mirror Bill Masters’ jealousy and confusion as Gini gravitates toward Dan Logan. But that sexually dysfunctional gorilla made the point perfectly well in its brief appearance at the end of the last episode. I didn’t expect to see him again.

Alas, this week Bill and Gini are earnestly taking his sexual history and meeting with his old keeper to figure out why the ape isn’t interested in the female they’ve put in his cage. It’s a bit of a farce. At first, Gini is excited at the idea of getting a chance to gather data about the evolution of attraction, pointing out that humans and gorillas have DNA that’s 95% identical. (That’s a really impressive command of the literature, since Sibley and Ahlquist’s great ape DNA-DNA hybridization study won’t come out until 1984.) But Bill is reluctant until Dan Logan appears to ask everyone to a movie, at which point he insists that the gorilla work should go forward. Though if I were faced with the choice between gorilla observation after hours and a Don Knotts movie, I’d probably pick the gorilla, too.


The gorilla, it turns out, has a bit of a fetish for human breasts, and gazing at Gini’s gets him back in action. The zoo–not knowing the details–is thrilled at the result, but Johnson is mortified. This isn’t a chance to understand how desire evolved: it’s just the abnormal behavior of a captive animal.

The show teases that Bill may let the whole thing slip during a Newsweek interview in the ongoing is-he-decent-at-heart-or-just-a-manipulative-bastard tug-of-war we’ve been watching since the show started. He doesn’t, but the whole scene reads more like he knows something he can hold over Virginia’s head, rather than a shared wink at ridiculous lab mishap between collaborators.


The only collaboration that actually seems to be working in this episode is Betty and Helen’s quest for a sperm donor. Go for it, you two!

Contact the author at diane@io9.com.