Everything you always wanted to know about sex but were afraid to ask

Bonk: the Curious Coupling of Science and Sex, by Mary Roach

Reading about sex is almost as much fun as actually having sex (sometimes more fun, depending on your partner). It’s fascinating, it’s arousing, it’s shocking, it’s occasionally appalling, it’s even comforting (“Other people like that too? What a relief!”). Rarely is the subject treated with humor, however, or at least not with humor above the high school locker room “and then it got in her eyes!” level. Mary Roach’s Bonk takes a much needed light-hearted yet intelligent and non-juvenile approach to the topic, and is so far one of my favorite reads of this year.

Make no mistake, Bonk isn’t a scholarly text. Roach gleefully pokes fun at a psychologist with the unfortunate name of Dorcas Butt, and her frequent footnotes discuss such topics as auto-fellatio and a martial arts video called Iron Crotch. She also advises “if you know what’s good for you, you will not do a Google search of ‘scrotum’ and ‘elephantiasis.'” However, it is exhaustively researched and endlessly absorbing. Reading about the science behind sex is sort of like finding out how a magic trick is performed–it’s neat to see where the rabbit is hidden, but there’s something to be said for a little mystery as well. Nevertheless, we as the most advanced species on Earth (at least until dolphins grow those opposable thumbs The Onion warned us about) are obligated to learn as much as we can about how our bodies work, why they work that way, and what we can do to either ensure they keep working that way or they don’t turn around and work against us. That counts for the naughty bits too.

The bottom line is, human sex organs are designed essentially to make babies. Sex is a lot of fun and feels great, but virtually every aspect of it, even the shape of the penis and the female orgasm, was originally intended to aid in reproduction. The only evolution we’ve made towards the notion of not populating the world with as many tiny versions of ourselves as possible is mental (and not enough of us have evolved to that point just yet). Nevertheless, we are also one of the very few species who have sex strictly for pleasure, and what we like in that regard tells quite a bit about us psychologically, which is very likely why it’s one of the most underfunded and generally disregarded areas of scientific research.

Much of modern sex research is divided into three categories: why we do the things we do, how to make what we do better and how to fix it if things don’t work as well as they should, or stop working altogether. Not surprisingly, most of the research in the third category is male-focused, whether it’s because men aren’t as willing to give up that part of their lives as easily as women or because women’s sexual issues are immediately discounted as psychological rather than physical is a matter of opinion. Happily, much of the second category seems to be dedicated to the ladies, with the design of vibrators and other sex toys all but a science in itself. Surprisingly, the research into making sex more pleasurable for women isn’t entirely a new concept. In the 1920s, Marie Bonaparte, a distant relation to Napoleon, published papers on how the distance between the clitoris and the vagina affects a woman’s ability to achieve orgasm through intercourse alone, even going so far as to have surgery performed to move her own clitoris to a more optimal location. Dutch gynecologist Theodoore Van de Velde in a 1930s sex manual recommended raising a woman’s hips to increase her pleasure, endorsed cunnilingus and all but insisted it was a man’s duty to stimulate his partner to orgasm during every sexual encounter, even if he had already reached his own. Medically recommended orgasms! Science is grand.

One of the most interesting passages of the book is dedicated to the work of Alfred Kinsey. I found it startling to discover how many people Kinsey was able to recruit in the 1940s, not the most liberal time period in American history, to be observed or even filmed engaging in heterosexual or homosexual intercourse and masturbation, as well as discussing alternative sexual practices. This wasn’t in some scientific setting either, this was in the attic of his house, with only him and perhaps one or two assistants observing. There is much speculation on whether or not Kinsey himself was a man of science or just a dirty perv who liked to watch people fuck (conclusion: probably both, but it doesn’t really matter because his exhaustive research resulted in undeniably useful, accurate information about human sexuality). It seems the the period between 1925 and 1950 were a glorious time for advances in sex research, until the abruptreturn to Victorian values in the 1950s.

However, I’m encapsulating the entire book here, rather than reviewing it. This should tell you what an entertaining read Bonk is, there is not one single portion of it that isn’t profoundly interesting. Here is just a sample of some of the countless bits of fascinating trivia it offers, ready-made for your next cocktail party conversation.

  • Sexual arousal doesn’t just make its presence known in your pants. Your earlobes swell, your nose runs and your mouth fills with saliva, which may explain those delightful spit strings we all occasionally encounter while kissing.
  • In a study in Great Britain, it was determined that while there are hundreds of nicknames for the penis, there are only three for the clitoris, none of which I will repeat here because they’re all awful. I don’t even like “clit,” I merely hope “down there” will suffice.
  • The recipe to simulate human semen: 7 milliliters room temperature water, 7.16 grams cornstarch, mix and stir for five minutes. This makes a fine accompaniment to the fake blood recipe found in Bruce Campbell’s biography If Chins Could Kill, or you could use it if you want to dress up like Miggs from Silence of the Lambs for Halloween.
  • In San Francisco, cock ring-related injuries are so common they have earned their own rescue worker code.
  • Pigs are the only animals beside human males that fondle the breasts of their female partners. Insert your own jokes here.
  • Men who are suffering from impotency due to psychological reasons will be able to achieve an erection in their sleep, while men suffering from it due to physiological issues will not. This can be tested at home by wrapping a strip of perforated stamps around the base of the penis going to sleep. If the perforations are broken in the morning, congratulations, it’s all in your head.
  • The United States Postal Service quietly approves of using stamps for this purpose.

These facts, as well as Roach’s humorous asides, keep the tone of Bonk light and fast-moving. However, the tone is always respectful, especially in the chapter on how orgasms are experienced by paraplegics and those with degenerative muscle disorders. The light tone is a stark contrast to much of the painfully dry terminology in much of the research Roach delves into, where such phrases as “mounting readiness” are used and algebraic equations are created to determine a human vagina’s capacity for holding sperm. Clearly the researchers fear that unless they wring every last drop of humanity out of their experimentations they’ll be thought of as nothing more than a bunch of sticky-palmed voyeurs.

I should mention that while I read this book, my iPod kept shuffling songs like Berlin’s ‘Sex,’ Radiohead’s ‘The Amazing Sounds of Orgy,’ and Depeche Mode’s ‘Master & Servant.’ An amusing coincidence, or it could be that I just have a lot of songs about sex.

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