In 1956, a nationally renowned fertility specialist met a former nightclub singer. Ten years later, they published a scientific study which revolutionized our understanding of human sexuality.
At the Washington University, Dr. William Masters is being honored. However, he's clearly disdainful of the fanciful proceedings. William is introduced and says a brief handful of words, and then says that he has to leave because he's working. He thanks the room in an emotionless manner and leaves to applause.
A woman is bent over on a bed, a man with his shirt on is thrusting into her from behind. The only sound is the squeaking of the bed; the woman appears bored. William is spying on the love-making through a peephole while taking notes with a pocketwatch and a flashlight. Masters drops the flashlight, startling the woman having sex. She glares at the peephole and mouths "shut the fuck up!" The man she is having sex with notices nothing and keeps thrusting away. As if on cue, the woman begins faking pleasurable moans and complimenting the man, Ernie. This stimulates Ernie to climax; William makes note of the time and duration of Ernie's orgasm.
Later at a bar, William and the woman are talking as the woman eats a sandwich. "How long did he stay in the plateau state?" William asks. "For fucking ever." she retorts. William instructs the woman on manners and she mocks him for standing behind a peephole watching people have sex every night. William tells her that her climax seemed to last nine seconds; she tells him that she was faking. The prostitute tells him that all women fake orgasms and says that he needs a female partner.
Later, William is in his lab with other doctors. They are setting up a new workspace. His colleague Ethan Haas questions the appearance of an EEG, telling William that his study is doomed--it will never get approved by the board. William tells Haas that his project will be conducted in complete secrecy.
William walks the halls of the teaching hospital when he spots a pretty young woman in a blue sweater. He is then interrupted by his middle-aged secretary who is concerned that she is being replaced. William tells her that he needs a new secretary who is not squeamish. When she objects, he asks her why a woman would fake an orgasm; the secretary is shocked. William explains that sexual histories will need to be taken in explicit detail. The secretary leaves in a huff.
William is leaving at the end of the day and he eyes the pretty girl in blue once again. He drives home and finds a record playing, his newspaper waiting for him, and dinner in the oven. His wife greets him by a roaring fire, calling him "Daddy." William asks her if she took her temperature--she says yes and is excited. After dinner, William takes off his suit and joins her on the bed. His wife again calls him Daddy, prays for a child, and refers to herself as Mommy. The pair make love, attempting to conceive.
Elsewhere, Ethan drops Virginia Johnson off at her home. Ethan hits on her and tries to get her to invite him inside. Virginia tells him that she would like to be friends--she has two children. Ethan says that he wanted to kiss her. "Well, friends can kiss." Virginia replies.
Back in the William's bedroom, William finishes and immediately gets out of bed, instructing his wife the proper position for insemination. She asks if they could look each other in the eye one time.
The next day, William arrives at work and greets EHthan. Ethan tells him that Virginia gave him a blowjob on the couch the night before.
Elsewhere in the hospital, Virginia is being trained as a receptionist.
In William's office, Ethan is asking what his experience meant. Ethan says that Virginia is elegant, smart, and also performs fellatio--he wants to marry Virginia. Suddenly, there is a code blue due to a botched C-section. Ethan and William scrub for surgery and Ethan calls Virginia in to observe "her man in action."
William and Ethan scrub up after the operation. Virginia makes an excuse to go to William's office and introduces herself. She then applies to be William's personal secretary. Virginia tells William that she is a former nightclub singer who studied music but never graduated. She now studies behavioral science. Virginia explains that she has been married twice and has two children. When she explains that women often confuse sex with love but they often don't go together, William is taken aback but also impressed. Virginia asks if William saved the woman's life in surgery, earlier. He says yes. Before Virginia leaves, William asks her why a woman would fake an orgasm. She responds "so the woman can get back to whatever it is she would rather be doing."
Virginia runs to the university and tries to get enrolled in the department of behavioral sciences, since she was lying to William earlier. She's informed that there's no such department. Virginia enrolls in the Sociology stream.
In the office of his superior, Barton Scully, William argues with his manager about the merits of his research. William says that women are confused and tortured by sex and he wants to be able to instruct them. He is the only one who is trying to do this and he wants to make his name and win a Nobel Prize. Scully says it will never be taken seriously and everyone will consider William a pervert.
At home, William finds his wife watching Elvis Presley on The Ed Sullivan Show
, shocked at his lewd dancing. William explains that Scully refuses to present his study. When his wife asks which study, he refuses to explain what he's doing. His wife breaks into tears because she had her period and calls herself a failure because she can't give him a child. She leaves and William begins to drink.
Days later, Virginia is working as William's receptionist. He informs her that his wife will be coming in the following week for infertility treatment. Ethan comes to pick her up at the end of her shift. William is left alone.
In Virginia's apartment, Virginia and Ethan have sex. Virginia asks him to go down on her and perform cunnilingus; he has no idea how but he obliges. She tells him it's great and he continues until she climaxes.
William is talking to his patient that he saved in surgery. She is alive but she lost the baby. As a black woman, she questions why she isn't in the Negro ward; William explains he had her moved for her sake, so she would get the best care. She cries over the loss of the child and explains that she was told that she will never have another baby. William tells her that he will work day and night until she can leave with a baby in her arms.
Back in Virginia's bed, Ethan explains that William's sperm count is next to nil. Ethan discovered this by peeking in William's file. Virginia, still naked, tells Ethan that he can't stay over--they can only be friends. Ethan is disappointed.
Back at work, Ethan is talking to William about the great sex he has with Virginia. He is concerned because he doesn't know what's wrong. William would rather focus on work. Ethan says he's in love with Virginia--who he calls Ginny.
Virginia welcomes William's wife to the clinic. Virginia prepares her for the cervical cap procedure. Virginia welcomes Betty, the prostitute from the opening, to the clinic. William greets his wife in her hospital gown and tells her that he isn't allowed to be the one to administer the procedure. Ethan enters and William leaves to work with Betty.
While his wife is getting the cervical cap, William meets Betty in his secret lab and begins fitting her with sensors; she is fitted to an EKG and EEG. Betty informs William that when she has sex on her own time, it's with women. William goes to collect pornography magazines to help her bring herself to climax. Virginia catches him collecting the magazines and tells William that he is being insensitive by ignoring his wife in order to administer this other study. William explains that the job is important and asks Virginia if she wants to continue with him or not, knowing that his study is not approved. He is jeopardizing his career but he is doing it anyway. "How can I help?" Virginia asks.
Later, Virginia is discussing the sex study with other women, cultivating a group of volunteers. She says this study will bring about the biggest change in women's lives since gaining the right to vote.
In the hospital, Virginia proudly tells William that they have a new volunteer. Later, William greets his nude volunteer and begins attaching the same sensors he did to Betty. Later, Virginia and William discuss the data. William asks her how an orgasm feels to a woman; she explains that the feeling is fantastic.
On another day, we see William performing another surgery as though he is teaching--then we see Virginia observing, taking notes. William is teaching her.
Virginia catches a Dr. Langham listening through the wall to their examination room. The other doctors are curious what William is up to.
William brings Scully into the examination, telling him that he has been performing this study on his own time. William and Virginia show Scully a massive, translucent, glass vibrator with a light and camera inside. They've named the device Ulysses.
The volunteer lies on the bed and begins using Ulysses. William tells Scully to peer through the camera lens as the volunteer masturbates.
Later, outside, Scully says what they have done is a remarkable feat. William and Virginia press Scully to bring the study before the board. They have proven stages of sexual response. Scully disrespects Virginia as just a secretary. William tells him that if they don't support him, he will leave and find a hospital that will.
That evening, Ethan comes to pick up Virginia for their date. William tells him that she isn't allowed to leave. Ethan leaves, upset. William seems upset that Virginia is still seeing Ethan. He tells her that her impropriety is jeopardizing their project, since their entire study itself is a scandal. William gives a rousing speech about how all art, music, all life itself is about sex and science holds the key--but scientists are too ashamed and guilty to study it. As the pair leave the office, the phone rings--William answers.
Later at a formal ball, William says they are celebrating; Scully called and agreed to back the project. Virginia tells William that Dr. Langham has been having affairs with nurses. She tells William to try to separate Langham from his wife at some point that evening.
Virginia is talking to William's wife about the infertility treatments. Libby tells her that it's William who wants the child. She chides herself for being barren. Virginia clearly wants to tell her the truth about William's sperm count.
Virginia finds William talking to Langham. William and Virginia are asking him if he would have sex with their volunteers for the study. Langham is shocked but tempted; he has cheated on his wife before. Ethan interrupts the meeting, drunk, and demands to talk to Virginia. Ethan chastises William for leaving his wife alone.
Outside, a drunken Ethan is yelling at Virginia about how often they have sex but they don't have a relationship. Ethan is angry that she works so much and demands to know what he isn't doing right. Virginia calls him her friend. "Friends don't fuck, Virginia! Lovers do!" he tells her. But he loves her and she doesn't love him. Virginia apologizes for hurting him. Suddenly, Ethan hits her across the face. Virginia hits him back, bloodying his nose. Ethan tells her that she's a whore and he leaves.
Back home, Virginia looks at her black eye in the mirror.
Back in the office, Virginia unwraps a delivery of pornography magazines. Then, Mrs. May, the patient from the C-section surgery, comes into the clinic. She cries tears of joy and tells Virginia that she is going to have a baby. She embraces Virginia.
In the lab, William watches as Virginia gets another volunteer ready for the couples' study. Dr. Langham enters and they meet. Both are naked, save for the sensors on their bodies. Virginia explains the four stages that their bodies will go through. Virginia leaves them to the room and joins William beyond the glass.
William questions her about the bruise on her face, and Virginia lies about how she got it. Inside the lab, the volunteers awkwardly begin kissing and touching one another. The camera shows the sensory machines humming away, collecting data. The volunteers have sex as happy music plays and data collects.
William explains his concern about sexual transference from Masters & Virginia to their patients. He says that Langham and Virginia were flirting. William suggests a system to ensure transference doesn't occur. William suggests that they two of them should undertake the research themselves--with each other. Virginia is stunned while William explains why that would be best for the study--without looking her in the eyes. She asks to take the weekend to consider it.
William is left alone in his office.