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Going bonkers

Bonk: The Curious Coupling Of Sex and Science by Mary Roach

Steve Caplan 31 January 2014

Sexual heeling: detail from the cover

For those of us dedicating our energy to demonstrating that scientists are people – not evil geniuses out to conquer the world, or needy geeks who can barely tie their shoelaces – this book does not really help our cause

Over the past few months, since reading – or more accurately – listening to the audiobook version of Bonk: The Curious Coupling of Sex and Science (Canongate), I have been thrust back and forth (sorry, no pun intended) trying to decide whether or not to write this book review. Don’t get me wrong – Mary Roach’s book is outstanding, and I highly recommend it to anyone past puberty (and who’s not too squeamish). As I’ll explain, my deliberations had more to do with my concerns that this book might continue to provide fuel for the somewhat unflattering image of scientists and researchers that exists in the media – and that some of us are trying to dispel.

Bonk is not a comprehensive look at the physiology of sex and sexual responses – and it shouldn’t be, as it certainly is not a textbook. In its fifteen chapters, it does, however, discuss quite a wide array of issues. For example, one topic that Mary Roach addresses in great detail is the nature of female orgasm, and the still-evolving dispute in the scientific community and media as to the role of the clitoris in ‘vaginal orgasms.’

There is an entire chapter focused on the great-grandniece of Napoleon Bonaparte, one Marie Bonaparte, who was perhaps among the first published female sex researchers (albeit under a male pseudonym). Despite not having documented medical qualifications, Marie Bonaparte (based ‘in part’ – again, no pun intended – on her own sexual experiences) came up with a unique model for female frigidity: she claimed that the cause was inherently anatomical. Marie Bonaparte was convinced that a woman whose clitoris was localized an inch or farther from her vagina would be incapable of so-called ‘vaginal orgasms’ – orgasms that she maintained were essentially from stimulation of the nearby clitoris. This ultimately led Marie Bonaparte to undergo a series of surgical procedure with the goal of relocating her clitoris closer to her vagina – with little success.

In the course of her research, Marie Bonaparte actually used a tape measure to calculate this apparently crucial distance on the bodies of 243 women. She followed up by doing extensive case histories with these women, carefully documenting the parameters of their sexual satisfaction. Among Bonaparte’s conclusions were that shorter women were more likely to have proximal vulval features, and in her wry humor, Mary Roach writes:

Put it all together and it spells bad news for the stereotypical American male. The stereotypical ideal female – Barbie tall with Barbie big breasts – is the one least likely to respond to a manly hammering.

In her witty description, Mary Roach nearly caused me to collide with other cars, until I realized that listening to her audiobook was simply too distracting while driving. Another example is her description of trying to measure her own vulval anatomical features with a tape measure and mirror. She gives sound advice to other women: “Also, put the tape measure away when you’re done. My husband saw it on the bedside table and said, ‘What were you measuring?’”

For Mary Roach, no topic is too embarrassing to broach. She wryly describes the Latino women workers at a factory that manufactures plastic penises, carrying trays around as though they were Tupperware. Her sharp eye and sense of humor didn’t miss the fact that the parking lot at this very factory was full of cars with crosses hanging from their rear-view mirrors.

There are revealing chapters about the works of several 19th century gynecologists, the fascinating and dubiously ethical methods of study used by sex researchers Masters and Johnson, Kinsey and others, and an array of footnotes that are remarkable and hilarious. There are also parts that I’d wished I’d never heard/read, such as the list of articles retrieved by emergency room doctors from various orifices of men and women. Some of those images still haunt me.

Perhaps the key take-home message in Bonk was the absolute unwavering dedication of Mary Roach to her research and this book – culminated (again, no pun intended) in Chapter Five. Here she matter-of-factly describes how she persuaded her husband to fly to London with her so that they could have sex at the Diagnostic Testing Unit of London’s Heart Hospital while their genitalia were being imaged by 4-dimensional ultrasound (the 4th dimension being time). Particularly funny is the description of the humorless and clueless doctor/ultrasound activator’s instructions on what to do and when to complete the act as they are having intercourse just two feet away from him.

So while I reiterate my overwhelming ‘thumbs-up’ for this remarkable and amusing book, I return to my deliberations about reviewing it for After all, for those of us dedicating our energy to demonstrating that scientists are people – not evil geniuses out to conquer the world, or needy geeks who can barely tie their shoelaces – this book does not really help our cause. Many of the sex researchers described in the book are notoriously single-minded in their pursuit. In the introduction (called “Foreplay”), Roach tells the tale of a young social worker who worked in the same building as the legendary sex researcher William Masters. The social worker had apparently received a very troubling message from a father who just lost custody of his children to his ex-wife. The father told the social worker that he wasn’t worried about it, because he’d “just go slit their throats.” As it was Thanksgiving, the social worker had no one to confide in, except William Masters. When he finished telling him the entire story, Masters was silent for a minute and then asked: “Have you asked this man whether he has difficulty achieving or maintaining an erection?”

With her bold research and desire at all costs to obtain results for her book, I think Mary Roach has by far surpassed Masters in her unstoppable determination to succeed. And she has definitely met with success. But as a hypochondriac, I’m not sure how soon I’ll be picking up her other books, including Stiff, which is the story of the use of cadavers for medical research. I also shudder to think what experiments she might have done to promote it.