The Hard Part: Making Sexologists Sexy

BONK: THE CURIOUS COUPLING OF SCIENCE AND SEX
By Mary Roach
W. W. Norton, 321 pages, $24.95

I wanted to like Mary Roach’s Bonk—what’s not to like about a survey of everything we know about sex, scientifically speaking, packaged in neatly minimalist hardcover with cute boffing ladybugs on the front? This book is just made for those front tables at Barnes & Noble, where it will surely do a brisk business. But while full of fascinating and occasionally useful information, Bonk feels, after a while, disorganized and stuntish, like a series of magazine articles haphazardly strung together. There are larger points to be made about the history and nature of sex research and the difficulties faced by the scientists who undertake it, but Ms. Roach doesn’t waste much time on those. She lost me somewhere between “testicular grafting” and the husband who mistook his wife’s urethra for her vagina.

A chatty, engaging writer, Ms. Roach explored cadavers and the afterlife, respectively, in Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers (2003) and Spook: Science Tackles the Afterlife (2005). Those were vaguely freaky, can’t-look-away subjects most readers know little about. Sex, on the other hand, is eternally past its cultural saturation point, and perhaps that’s why Ms. Roach relies on oddities to keep us entertained. Many of us have already got wind of disturbing research indicating that distance from clitoris to vagina predicts a woman’s ability to orgasm during intercourse—but did you know that “a male rat will mount and dismount many times before he ejaculates?”

Adding distraction to disorganization is a continuous barrage of mostly irrelevant footnotes—tangents that strain to be humorous, but, in the end make it almost impossible to follow Ms. Roach’s descriptions of the technicalities associated with lab visits and studies. The author knows that science—even when pertaining to the clitoris—requires some animation to engage the casual reader.

Real-world relevance helps, too. For example: The average duration of sex the world over is two to five minutes. Two to five! And this: Some unfairly gifted women can “discreetly trigger an orgasm with a few moments of mental effort”—alone.

 

Ms. Roach introduces us throughout her meandering text to the bold scientists who have, both before and after Alfred Kinsey, attempted to study sex. Some of the book’s more memorable chapters involve these people: Dr. Robert Latou Dickinson of Brooklyn Heights, for example, who in 1890 began recording the details of his patients’ sex lives. (“Clitoris not very large but erectile—she has used a clothespin and sausage.”) William Masters and Virginia Johnson, on the other hand, built in the mid-20th century “a thrusting mechanical penis-camera that filmed—from the inside—[women’s] physical responses to it.”

These snippets of cultural history are in general entertaining, and the book could use more, and, pardon the pun, deeper. Ms. Roach labors to make her researchers seem like scientists, not perverts, but skips from one to the next so quickly that they end up blending together. Nonetheless, the nobility of their endeavor serves as loose connective tissue in an otherwise disjointed book.

One point that comes through loud and clear is that humans—particularly the male of the species—have been stymied by the physiology of sex, and particularly female orgasm, for a long time. Ms. Roach quotes John B. Watson, father of behaviorism, who acknowledged that human sexuality is “admittedly the thing that causes the most shipwrecks in the happiness of men and women.” He also, uh, performed his experiments on his 19-year-old lover, one of his students at Johns Hopkins. See? Sex researchers are fascinating!

I’d certainly rather read about Kinsey peeping on prostitutes through holes in closets than endure accounts of Ms. Roach’s attempts to contact the estate of Virginia Johnson, she of the penis-cam. Reportage of interview requests denied and Google searches attempted can lend the book a disposable quality, more like a collection of the author’s musings than an actual snapshot of the state of sex research in this country.

Still, I was thrilled to learn that shorter women with small breasts are more likely to be orgasmic than their tall, busty counterparts. I’ve told 15 people this already. As cocktail-party fodder, Bonk is unrivaled.

 

Meredith Bryan is a reporter at The Observer. She can be reached at mbryan@observer.com.

The Hard Part: Making Sexologists Sexy