I once had a roommate who didn’t believe in orgasms. She believed in sex; in fact, she was kind of a slut. She had at least 20 partners and participated in four different threesomes (that I know of) in the eight months we shared an apartment; she just didn’t believe in sexual pleasure. She said it was “unnatural” to derive physical satisfaction from sex, and that only nymphomaniacs actually have orgasms. Incidentally, she was a thoroughly unpleasant shrew and the worst roommate I ever had. I suspect these things may be related.
This former roommate of mine and her odd sexual hang-ups are downright tame and boring in comparison to the many subjects covered in Mary Roach’s latest book, Bonk: The Curious Coupling of Science and Sex. Examining the history of sexual physiology from the time of Leonardo da Vinci’s cross-sectional cutaways (drawn 20 years before he began dissecting cadavers) through present-day, Bonk is a fascinating journey through repression and excess, and the effects of both societal morality and economics on the scientific study of human sexuality.
As with her previous books Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers and Spook: Science Tackles the Afterlife, Roach is exhaustive in her research for Bonk. Covering the gamut from clitoral studies conducted by a French princess named Marie Bonaparte (descended from Napoleon Bonaparte) through the July 2007 EMEA approval of the Intrinsa testosterone patch for women with low libido, Roach leaves no area of sexual science uncovered. She paid $20 to attend an event at the San Francisco Center for Sex and Culture titled “SEX MACHINES: Book Talk, Slide Show & Machine Play Party!” in order to try to find out more about the Williams and Johnson artificial-coition machine, which was essentially a penis camera used to study female sexual arousal and orgasm. She conned her husband into going to London to participate in a 4-D ultrasound of human genitalia in the act of sexual congress, because participating was the only way she could observe the application of the new scanning technology, which captures real-time images of internal sexual anatomy in motion.
Interwoven throughout the engrossing tales of pioneering individuals and their discoveries are examinations of the effects of political climate and economic constraints on scientific research. In 1925, Marie Bonaparte met Sigmund Freud, and then proceeded to discredit her own research on the role of the clitoris in female sexual gratification. The Rockefeller Foundation pulled Alfred Kinsey’s funding in 1954 after a congressional investigation. The 1966 Masters and Johnson paper Human Sexual Response was rejected by medical journals for being pornographic. Despite the relative relaxation of societal restrictions regarding the scientific study of human sexuality, most modern sexual research is conducted in corporate R&D labs, and scientific discoveries are made by default. There’s money to be made in the pharmaceutical and sex-toy industries, so studies are funded and discoveries are thereby made regarding sexual arousal and response, not out of scientific interest but to increase the profitability of the end product. Where there is no perceived profit-making application, however, there are no funds for study. Researchers still fight for the freedom to work, only instead of conservatism, their biggest hurdle now is economics.
Reading Bonk is like running a mental marathon through historical anecdotes and scientific fact, but Roach’s breezy pace and approachable style make the journey enjoyable. Not content to settle for a dry, lazy summary of the science of sex, she easily navigates the inherent absurdity of such topics as dildo manufacturing and recipes for simulated human semen, and delicately balances wit with an abiding admiration for the endeavors of those who dared to push the boundaries of sexual discovery. Her easygoing humor is often at its best in the footnotes, as in this one from the first page of Chapter 13: “Nominations for a Nobel Prize, I found out when I contacted the Nobel Foundation to try to verify Shafik’s, remain secret for fifty years. You make the claim, and nobody can prove otherwise until after you’re dead. Add one to your résumé today!”
Roach’s engaging writing turns the strange, involved, and often awkward history of sexual study into a wonderfully interesting and respectful book. Dense without being dull and funny without resorting to juvenile humor, Bonk is, quite simply, a pleasure to read.
Sarah Larson never ate a scorpion on television and is not dating George Clooney. She lives in Minnesota, where she is usually up to no good and occasionally records her miscreant shenanigans at Unscheduled.
Bonk: The Curious Coupling of Science and Sex by Mary Roach / Sarah Larson
Books | May 22, 2008 | Comments ()