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Bonk: The Curious Coupling of Science and Sex

A Good Cause for a Smile

Mary Roach writes in Bonk ‘s introduction that her study of sexual physiology should not come as a shock to readers familiar with her other books, Stiff (the world of cadavers and undertakers) and Spook (the milieu of the supernatural). Perhaps the most understanding person in Roach’s life is her husband who apparently didn’t mind using vacation time to go to London in order to subject himself to a coital imaging machine for a book that his wife would later title subtitle: The Curious Coupling of Science and Sex. As Roach says at the end of the book, homo sapiens are one of the few species that even care if they’re seen having sex. The husband of the dingo or chimpanzee is just going to go about his day.

Roach’s new book strikes a great balance between research and field study. In deference to the titans of sexual history, Alfred Kinsey and William Masters and Virgnina Johnson, Roach devotes her first chapter to their findings concerning what she calls the “spin cycle". The chapter typifies what Roach does best, introduce us to figures, show us their contribution to scientific research, and humanize them. Did you know that Kinsey apparently interviewed 18,000 Americans for his research and collected over 51,000 specimens? Or that Masters and Johnson brought the labia minor into the light so to speak, correlating a change in vaginal color to participation in the stimulation process? How about Brooklyn Heights gynecologist Dr. Robert Dickinson who brought up the concept of the clitoris-friendly woman on top? No? Well read on Macduff.

The other fourteen chapters of her book showcase one particular resource or expert in the context of a greater question. The fourth chapter finds Roach in Denmark to beg the question of whether orgasm boosts fertility and she interviews taciturn farmers who have found that by stimulating the clitoris in a sow vagina (yes they are inside) the sow will show a six percent increase in fertility. On the penis front, chapters six and eight take her to Taiwan where she witnesses Dr. Gen-Tong Tsu perform penis surgery to correct impotence. (The procedure involves "degloving" where the penis is pulled out of the skin.) She also watches Dr. Tsu perform prosthetic implantations (Tsu has already performed 18 to date) with the only proviso of “no woman on top".

Much of her research brings her in contact with machines. In Minnesota she is introduced to the Eros Clitoral Therapy Device to deal with female dysfunction. She also attends a “party” sponsored by the Center for Sex and Culture where women date an appliance called a Thrillhammer machine to see if the repetitive mechanical thrusting of this Hal 2000 just might do the same job as Hal at the end of your local bar. These are just a few of the tidbits. I haven’t even mentioned the pandas.

Think about it. If your research involves spending quality time with a Thrillhammer, you are going to have some wink-wink nudge-nudge asides to your readers. Roach’s book is peppered with great parentheticals and footnotes which give you the feeling that she is still joking with you even though the book was written long ago. Thinking about the penis camera, she wonders just the thing we are, and says it: "isn’t it like 'dating a corndog'?"

Just flipping through the book you will see smirk-worthy photographs such as women riding a saddle, another woman pushing an Earth Ball up the hill, a woman in a welding mask standing next to a rocket, magnified chestnuts, and a happy dude pushing a high powered floor vacuum. If you’re going to read about sexual physiology, what happens and why and how people try to improve that very thing, you might as well have a smile on your face. Roach’s book certainly puts you in the mood.

Bonk: The Curious Coupling of Science and Sex by Mary Roach
W.W. Norton
Published: April 7, 2008
Hardcover, $25
ISBN: 978-0-393-06464-3
288 pages