Thursday, February 6, 2014
Review: Bonk: The Curious Coupling of Science and Sex by Mary Roach
The study of sexual physiology - what happens, and why, and how to make it happen better - has been a paying career or a diverting sideline for scientists as far-ranging as Leonardo da Vinci and James Watson. The research has taken place behind the closed doors of laboratories, brothels, MRI centers, pig farms, sex-toy R&D labs, and Alfred Kinsey's attic.
Mary Roach, "the funniest science writer in the country" (Burkhard Bilger of 'The New Yorker'), devoted the past two years to stepping behind those doors. Can a person think herself to orgasm? Can a dead man get an erection? Is vaginal orgasm a myth? Why doesn't Viagra help women or, for that matter, pandas?
In 'Bonk', Roach shows us how and why sexual arousal and orgasm, two of the most complex, delightful, and amazing scientific phenomena on earth, can be so hard to achieve and what science is doing to slowly make the bedroom a more satisfying place. 16 illustrations.
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Review: I love Mary Roach's thorough, yet down to earth and accessible approach to science. I’ve read several of her books including – Packing for Mars: The Curious Science of Life in the Void and Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers – and I enjoyed them both.
Bonk takes on the science and history of the study of sex. Sex is one of those topics that is avoided in polite company or snickered at and unfortunately Roach also falls into that trap on more than a few occasions, instead of elevating the subject matter. She uses humor to educate and that’s one of the things I enjoy about her writing but this seemed more like she couldn’t actually handle the subject without giggling, never mind write a whole book about it.
There are several fascinating studies highlighted and it was interesting to see how society and politics has such an influence regarding something that should be treated as science – like any other study involving the human body. I was surprised by how much more open we were in the 20's, when a healthy sex life was considered important to a healthy marriage, compared to now. It was also disturbing how little doctors know – or even want to know – about women and their sexuality. There was a time when doctors performed an internal pelvic exam while looking at the ceiling with the women's privates covered in a sheet. Things have changed of course, but even so, most scientists don’t dare use any term related to sexuality while submitting a request for funding these days because of our political climate.
Yet overall, Bonk gives into the snickers and is filled with Roach’s footnotes that are more jokey than informative. When discussing the infamous Kinsey and Masters and Johnson we find out she’s unable to access any of their original studies and is left talking to biographers and spreading speculative innuendo instead of facts. Basically, she talked more about whether they were turned on by the testing and what the rumors were regarding their private kinky sex life rather than sticking to their studies. It is worth mentioning of course, but shouldn’t be the focus IMO.
Most of the scientists and test subjects wouldn't discuss the studies they took part in because of the stigma attached and the fear of losing funding. In fact, Mary and her husband had to be the test subjects in one experiment just to understand what it was about. The results? We find out that it's awkward to be naked and have sex in an MRI machine in front of a stranger, and that her husband is an incredibly good sport but not much else.
She keeps lamenting how difficult it is for scientists to research this subject because of the perception that they are perverts & deviants but then does nothing more than provide fuel for the fire.
Another example: she visits a sex toy factory and it ends up another opportunity for her to make a joke - this time about seeing a guy walk around with a big box of dildos or how the workers lie and say they work in plastics. It was funny but - I don’t know…I guess I just expected more from this author.
Final Thoughts: I did enjoy Bonk and found it to be quite informative but I couldn’t help but be disappointed in Roach’s juvenile approach and disjointed chapters. It opens strong but then loses focus. I didn’t feel like she delved into this subject with the same voracity as she has in her previous books. I think that maybe a better approach would be to discover why - in 2014 - are we still unable to have an adult discussion about our bodies and how they work without blushing or dissolving into a fit of giggles and double entendre sex jokes.