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masters of sex, serial, and telling real people’s stories (morality and sex work part one)

“You pretended to have an orgasm? Is that a common practice among prostitutes?”

“It’s a common practice amongst anyone with a twat.[…]”

“But why, why would a woman lie about something like that?”

“Gawd almighty, this is… Okay, I’m gonna be honest with you but only cause I like you and you seem real dedicated about your project with your penguin suit and all, with the charts and the timer, but seriously, if you really want to learn about sex then you’re gonna have to get yourself a female partner.”

Masters of Sex, Pilot, 2013

I was just re-reading provisional diagnosis: prostitution because I was thinking about how I didn’t get around to the main point I originally intended to discuss when I began that post. I wanted to say something more about the ethics of telling real people’s stories. Since then, I’ve checked out a couple relevant items of pop culture my friends told me about and revisited two books I read over the summer:

1. the Showtime series, Masters of Sex (based on a book about revolutionary human sexuality researchers Masters and Johnson),

2. the new podcast series, Serial, which re-investigates the murder of a teenage girl in 1999,

3. Karen Abbott’s book, Sin in the Second City, a historical account of the Everleigh Club, the famous early 20th century-era Chicago brothel, and

4. Alexa Albert’s Brothel: Mustang Ranch and its Women.

I’ve only seen four episodes of Masters of Sex, and so far I’ve been drawn in by the subject matter, of course, but I’ve also been impressed by the show’s attention to the research itself. The exchange I quoted above, which occurs between Dr. Bill Masters and a woman he found in one of St. Louis’s brothels, illustrates just one important role sex workers played in his initial research. Although the TV version changes things a bit, according to Maier’s book, it was the suggestion of one college-educated woman “‘amplifying her income for an impending marriage’ by dabbling in the sex trade” that “changed everything” for Masters (82), opening his eyes to the importance of finding a female research partner. [Sidenote: I thought Lizzy Caplan was awesome in Mean Girls and True Blood, but she’s really a great match for this role, as Gini Johnson.] I love how the first few episodes highlight the simultaneous importance and difficulty of studying or talking about sex in a culture that is mostly square and/or opposed to women having sex outside the confines of marriage.

After listening to the first two episodes of Serial, I have been inspired by the production quality–Sarah Koenig’s storytelling is compelling and experiments with the podcast genre in cool ways–and I’ve also been drawn into the meta-level-story-about-the-story, which involves real life people. A recent article by Michelle Dean in The Guardian features the following commentary about the consequences of documenting the lives of living people:

“But in the post-listening haze, as I poked around myself and discovered the social media undergrowth amassing under it, I began to have questions about what I was participating in. Serial is, after all, not a work of fiction. It is about real people.”

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