Sunday, April 13, 2008

Bonk by Mary Roach

I’ve read Mary Roach’s three books in three days. Not three consecutive days, although for Christmas 2006, I received both Stiff and Spook off my Amazon wishlist as presents from a very understanding (or very confused) family member and devoured them on December 25 and 26 respectively. That should tell you a little bit about me and my holidays.

On impulse, just before I went on Spring Break this year, I Googled Roach and found out that her latest book, Bonk, had just been published just days before. Before I even got to the subtitle, I knew I’d have to pick it up in hardcover. When I read the subtitle: “The Curious Intersection Between Sex and Science,” I knew I had scored. No pun intended, although Roach would certainly appreciate the pun.

Stiff remains my favorite non-fiction book period. Although I read Bonk in a matter of less than a day, chuckled my way through it, and admired its art, surprisingly the subject matter of Stiff, the history of experiments on cadavers, is actually a bit more interesting than sex. Not sex itself. But sex studies. And that points to something that Roach attempted to highlight in her book, specifically that sex study has suffered from such restriction that the answer to so many questions about sex is “we don’t know.”

Mary Roach is the David Sedaris of science writing. In order to give her work its due, I’d have to replicate whole chapters here. While the stand-alone chapters in all of her books highlight the works of particular researchers, Roach always becomes a character, more than a guide, in the research. She not only divulges the substance of the research, but she also discusses the process through which she researches the research.

In Bonk, because of the general reluctance of so many researchers to allow a reporter to witness their work (in her Acknowledgements, Roach makes it clear that many of her subjects jeopardized their funding by allowing her to observe), Roach takes this a step further and actually becomes a research participant in two of the studies.

In Chapter Twelve, “Mind Over Vagina,” Roach discusses her own experience at the Female Sexual Psychophysiology Lab at UT Austin. During this experience, she is asked to insert a vaginal photoplethysmorgraph probe into her… er… vagina and watch a series of videos. She writes, “I take the probe out of the bag. An LED and some wiring are encased in a round-tipped, bullet-shaped piece of clear acrylic. ‘Cinderella’s tampon,’ I write in my notebook… I follow the instructions I was given, and now the cable is curling down in front of my chair. I feel like a bike lock.”

Roach also memorably convinces her husband, Ed, to participate in a 4-D imaging experiment in an MRI machine in London. She says that her guide to good taste reporting of the experience was to make the chapter describing the 4-D copulation palatable for her stepchildren. It is, understandably, one of the briefest chapters in the book.

On April 9, NPR featured an interview on Roach, where she discussed the nature of the experiments of the (sadly recently deceased) Egyptian doctor Ahmed Shafik; although his studies of sex ranged far and wide, he’ll forever be noted as the man who studied rats who wore teeny-weeny polyester drawstring pants. Apparently, it’s a scientific fact that rats that sport Sopranos-wear get less action than those who wear natural fibers. Stunning discovery, and so sad for the entire state of Florida. What the NPR interview left out, though, was that Shafik was a big fan on polyester leisure suits, although he swore to Roach that he never wore faux-fiber undies.

A.J.Jacobs, author of Year of Living Biblically, says in a blurb for Bonk, “I would read Mary Roach on the history of Quonset huts. But Mary Roach on sex? That is a godsend.” Pardon my girl crush, but Mary Roach on anything is a godsend. I’ve devoured her books, gotten downright testy with people who’ve tried to interrupt my reads.

Despite the severely gory and outrageous content of Stiff I have recommended it with no reservations to my students. That being said, it led to no small discomfort when I happened to blab that Roach had written a new book. My kids asked me what I planned to read during Spring Break, and without thinking I mention Bonk. I insisted quite firmly that the book was not appropriate for teens, but I know for a fact that at least one nascent Roach fan went out and bought it. I read the book with her in mind and realized that while it was, honestly, inappropriate for a 17-year-old girl, but… you know, if I’d known just a little bit more about sex before I started having sex, whole chunks of my life might have been different. Probably different good, not different bad.

Perhaps I am justifying my own bad judgment here, but if Roach’s book makes any final proclamation about the nature of human sexuality it is that she reveals through good humor and scientific study that no one really “has it down” when it comes to sex. We’re all different. And for anyone who’s ever felt slightly insecure when it comes to sex, that’s a reassuring scientific fact, and certainly a fact worth knowing when you’re just starting out.

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