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Sex seduces science in Mary Roach's Bonk
Sex and science have a natural affinity. After all, doesn't just about everything we learn about sex come from experimentation? What happens if I do this? Will putting this and this together produce the desired results? Equal parts biology, chemistry and physics, sex makes life one big laboratory. At some point or another, we've all been its mad scientists.
Now, here comes Mary Roach to tell us what the real scientists have discovered about the subject. Roach, the author of a book that divulges what can happen when you donate your body to science (Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers) and another about the search for the soul (Spook: Science Tackles the Afterlife), is an expert at digging up the dirt on science's most human topics. Always one to find humor in a subject, Roach seems unable to avoid it in Bonk. She's the smart-aleck half of a comedy team, with the scientists who populate her book playing the straight men. When the study of, say, cervical reflex gets too serious, Roach is there with a quip to remind us of its carnal absurdity.
Then there's her dust-jacket photo. Compare the demure, Morticia-like author portrait that graces Stiff with the color torso shot of Roach displayed on the jacket of Bonk. She leans provocatively against a doorway, her assets prominently displayed. Never fear—Roach is still the same studious writer. She just knows how to pique our interest. Consider her chapter titles: "Dating the Penis-Camera," "The Lady's Boner" and "The Sausage, the Porcupine, and the Agreeable Mrs. G." Who can resist finding out what Mrs. G is agreeing to, especially when it seems a porcupine is involved?
Roach herself agrees to quite a bit when pursuing her topic. She convinces her husband to travel with her to London to volunteer for the gathering of ultrasound images during the sex act. She asks to borrow an Eros Clitoral Therapy Device to see what it does ("How about if we don't want it back?" replies the manufacturer). To say that Roach is game for her own experimentation, well, wouldn't you be, too?
The book is organized as a loose threesome: vaginal chapters up front, penis and male issues planted firmly in the middle, and clitoral matters providing the climax before a return to the vagina and some afterglow chapters that discuss hormones, pheromones and "copulins" (sex-igniting scents), not to mention rats in polyester underwear. Mostly what you get from Bonk is an array of trivia and historical curiosities, including such tidbits as the fact that the first vibrators were sold not to women, but to physicians, that orgasm is an effective hiccup remedy, or that dead men can get erections. If any of this seems titillating, the section in which Dr. Geng-Long Hsu peels the skin from a penis (think getting into a banana using a scalpel) while saying it's just like dressing a snake for stewing will take care of that.
Behind the facts and humor is a larger issue: the stigmas carried by sexual research. In her introductory "Foreplay" chapter, Roach quotes the 1950s research team Masters and Johnson on sex research: "Science and scientist continue to be governed by fear—fear of public opinion . . . fear of religious intolerance, fear of political pressure, and, above all, fear of bigotry and prejudice." What hampers sex research, which didn't really take off until the 1970s, is not only society's prudishness, but its tendency to be suspicious of sex researchers as somehow pursing their own gratification. Now that fertility issues have become big business and Viagra has secured the psychology of countless diddle-troubled males, sex research doesn't seem so perverted.
Bonk necessarily sticks mainly to conventional, missionary-style sex, necessarily because it's difficult enough for scientists to find funding for straight sex studies, let alone for other forms of lovemaking (there is a section on how the paralyzed and those with cerebral palsy achieve orgasm). Not until the last chapter does Roach broach homosexuality, and then it's old news. The chapter "Persons Studied in Pairs" summarizes some of the findings in Masters and Johnson's mostly forgotten Homosexuality In Perspective, and its conclusions have lessons for straight couples. In short, gay and lesbian couples have better sex because they are less focused on themselves, more knowledgeable about their partner's needs, and more likely to extend and be relaxed during the act. At the base of this conclusion is the fact that communication can level the playing field for straights. In Perspective is remembered mostly because it spends time discussing the conversion of homosexuals to heterosexuals, and that's our loss, according to Roach. What matters to her, it seems, is that we don't all take ourselves—or science—so seriously.
Bonk: The Curious Coupling of Science and Sex by Mary Roach; W.W. Norton & Co. Hardcover, 319 pages, $24.95.
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