Monday, May 12, 2008
Bonk: The Curious Coupling of Science and SexBy Mary Roach
W.W. Norton, $24.95 cloth
Mary Roach is the journalist of the taboo, and that is what I like about her. One can count on her to explore the topics people always want to know more about but are afraid to ask. Previously, she wrote a book about human cadavers and another about the afterlife. They are both riveting works of inquiry. However, the books go into great detail about subjects that most people question only in the darkness of their quieter hours. In fact, that is the value of books like her latest, Bonk: they clearly address, with grace and humor, the taboos in human life.
Bonk concerns itself with sex research. All the star players are given their due credit: Kinsey, Masters and Johnson and Freud; she also brings in some lesser known players in the sex research game like Aristotle and Marie Bonaparte, Napoleon’s grand niece.
Roach writes with fluidity, understanding, and most important for this topic, a sense of humor.
Consider some of the facts she brings us: One, “Victorian physicians practiced gynecology and urology on women without looking.” Imagine visiting the doctor for something so intimate that the poor physician cannot look at you or your body part while conducting the examination.
Two, during medieval times, people believed “that breast milk was formed from…diverted menstrual blood.” The logical fallacies inherent in this assumption are clear.
Third, “Nasal congestion is an erection inside your nose.” Yes, evidently, the same erectile tissue in the genitalia is also present in the nose.
Fourth, “Homo sapiens is one of the few species on earth that care if they’re seen having sex.” Evidently, the rest of the animal kingdom just does the deed and who cares if the monkeys want to watch?
These are just the less racy facts. Let’s just say that the book is packed with trivia and insights about a subject that has only been vigorously researched for a little more than a century. Roach traces the entire history, from Robert Latou Dickinson to modern scientific papers from the last few years with the seemingly prurient titles of “Wet and Dry Sex—The Impact of Cultural Influence in Modifying Vaginal Function” (2005) and “Does Semen Have Antidepressant Properties” (2002).
Of course, what makes reading a book like this so uncomfortable are the implications. Roach, herself, makes it clear that the subject of sex and sex research makes people leap to conclusions, both about the researchers and those interested in the results. “With sex research, unlike, say, engineering or genome research, almost everything a scientist does can appear—to the uninformed or close-minded outsider—to be motivated by a perverse fascination with the subject.” A sex researcher risks being labeled a deviant, a pervert. To gather information, ask questions, investigate the mysteries of sex are all activities best not mentioned in polite society.
However, this is a book to recommend not only because it contains humor and insight into human behavior, but because Roach unmasks us in our most intimate moments. She details for us exactly what happens, anatomically and intellectually, when we have sex. But this is not a book for young people, those just learning about sex. This is a book that extends knowledge of human sexuality. Therefore, it is truly a book for adults.
The book also takes into account our modern world with its myriad cultures. In a chapter titled, “What Would Allah Say?” Roach discusses one of the few sex researchers operating in an Islamic country. His name is Ahmed Shafik, and his work is quite extraordinary. Even more incredible is that he has subjects upon which to conduct research, given the strictures of the Muslim faith.
“Shafik has published papers on a total of eighty-two anatomical reflexes that he has discovered and named,” Roach writes. His weirdest project? Dressing seventy-five rats in polyester pants for one year to see if the material influenced their sex lives. It did. The rats in polyester had sex less often than the rats who wore cotton pants. Shafik’s theory? The polyester created electrostatic fields in and around the mice’s genitals, damaging their sex drives. This is why all the fashion-conscious mice are wearing cotton Bermuda shorts for summer 2008.
Mary Roach combines good research with education, insight and fun in her book. Her writing does not constitute a literary masterpiece. I do not think that was her goal. She is writing to inform, to amuse, to enlighten. In this way, she is successful.
Like her previous work, Roach has written extensively about a secret in such a way as to illuminate the humanity of the act—in this case human sexuality—managing to entertain and enlighten us without resorting to lewdness or clinical jargon. We read her work even as we might blush and look away, and that is refreshing.