May 22, 2008


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Bonk: The Curious Coupling of Science and Sex, by Mary Roach (2008, W. W. Norton, 319 pages)
By Lisa Parsons

What could Mary Roach possibly write about next?

Having covered death (in Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers and, sort of, Spook: Science Tackles the Afterlife) and now sex, she might be stuck with taxes, which doesn’t seem nearly as meaty. Then again, if anyone can make it interesting, she can.

It’s not just the subject matter Roach chooses that makes her books so good; it’s her way of handling them. Her first, Stiff, remains one of my all-time favorites for its blend of seriousness and light in tackling taboo subjects. Now, with the same mix of inquisitiveness, perceptivity and humor, she again sheds light in corners most of us have trained ourselves not to look in. Or corners we have little access to.

Bonk answers the “what have we learned?” questions about sex, but it also explains how we have learned it — Roach shows us the equipment (3-D ultrasound imaging; camera-penises), the volunteers (Roach herself; paid college students; rats in polyester underwear, and many more), the researchers (the famous ones like Alfred Kinsey and many less famous ones) and the methods that have given us, are giving us, answers to questions like “Can orgasm help you get pregnant?” and “How can spinal-cord-injured patients regain a good sex life?”

Open Bonk to any page and you can be off and running. Here goes: I’ll do three at random. (Scout’s honor.)

One: Page 95. “Who agreed to let Spallanzani lock a stray dog in their apartment for twenty-three days? Did he really expect us to buy the bit about the male dog spontaneously ejaculating?” This is about an Italian researcher in the 1770s who was looking into the possible orgasm-fertility link.

Two: Page 258. “Like Viagra, bremelanotide’s sexual properties were discovered by accident … the drug was being tested as a sunless tanning agent … ‘blotchy freckling’ and ‘scrotal moles’ are complaints posted by the trial subjects on — but some of the women in the study reported feeling randier than usual. … Bremelanotide is expected to be in Phase III clinical trials … by late 2008.” Not engrossed? Turn the page and there’s a drawing of a rat in polyester pants. A real research illustration. And a true story to go with it. A story about what polyester does to rat sperm.

Three, Page 53: “Masters and Johnson, it turns out, are not the only sex-machine game in town. An entire subculture exists…. With the 2006 publishing of Sex Machines: Photographs and Interviews, they even have their own coffee-table book.” Roach visits a sex machine convention and finds that “the machines represent a stereotypically male notion of what women enjoy.”

There is also, by the way, a closing chapter about just who is having the best sex, also how and maybe why. I will not spoil it for you.

The best thing about Bonk is that it revels in the very heart of science: sheer curiosity. Why is the sky blue? Why do bees buzz? Do monkeys have orgasms? It’s that spirit of pure open wonder, the spirit that drove early chemists to figure out oxygen, that drove astronomers to figure out starlight — the same spirit that drives American’s brightest young minds to diligently, thoroughly investigate the properties of Twinkies ( with the sort of unceasing devotion usually attributed to U.S. Postal carriers — this is the spirit of the scientists in Bonk, and by extension the spirit of Mary Roach.

Who maybe should take on Twinkies next. A+Lisa Parsons