Bonk: The Curious Coupling of Science and Sex by Mary Roach

Content Warning: graphic description of surgical operation on the penis (Chapter 8) and penile urethral manipulation.

As an avid reader of everything Mary Roach, I may be slightly biased in saying that I loved this book. Studying sexuality in college allowed me to embrace research and other non-fiction, and Bonk played a large part in that. These days, I may be slightly bored by this book, as I know by heart not only most of the information presented in it, but lots of other information besides. That said, the first few times I read this, I was new to the world of sexuality, and found no small amount of joy waiting for me between the pages.

Screen Shot 2017-09-03 at 12.04.46 PMA Wesleyan graduate who enjoys “that late-night ‘Animal Planet’ show about horrific animals such as the parasitic worm that attaches itself to fishes’ eyeballs but makes up for it by leading the fish around,” Roach is not a sex-specific writer. She is known for her humor, her wit, and for asking the questions many others don’t think of (How do astronauts use the bathroom in space?* How does diarrhea pose a threat to national security?**). She finds a topic she is interested in and runs with it. I find her inspirational as a person, someone not afraid to ask the unusual questions; someone with unabashed curiosity who travels the world in search of answers.

This book is dedicated to Woody (who this unfortunately/aptly named person is, I do not know), and is a tribute to the people who “endure ignorance, closed minds, righteousness, and prudery. Their lives are not easy. But their cocktail parties are the best” (pg. 14). Opening the book with the foreplay (ahem, I think she meant ‘forward’), much of the book concerns the difficulty in finding out anything about sex at all, due to a serious lack of funding for sexual science. Scientists use indirect routes to answer sex-based questions, diving into topics such as fertility and disease in order to study the things they can’t get funding for, like vaginal fluids (virtually nothing was known about these, in spite of being the first thing with which sperm comes into contact; potentially vital knowledge for fertility science).

Readers should be aware of Roach’s footnotes throughout the text. In reading all of her books, I’ve noticed that some footnotes use an asterisk, while others like Bonk (or at least my copy of it) use a thick, black, five-pointed star. Personally, I have found that the star is much more easily noticed that the asterisk. I often paused in reading to back-track or to ask my SO to find the asterisk I missed, so I could read the footnote at the proper time.

Screen Shot 2017-07-03 at 2.27.51 PMWhen reading books, often people don’t bother with footnotes. Footnotes hold definitions, references, and other (usually) uninteresting information. However, paying attention to the footnotes is vital in reading Mary Roach. This is where you find the most laugh out loud fun facts and quirky thoughts that you have quite possibly ever heard. Want to know which end of a toothbrush Alfred Kinsey inserted into his urethra? Read the footnotes to find out! What do Braille and Victorian doctors have in common? The footnotes, once again, hold the answer.

In learning about scientific studies of sex, my advice to readers is to avoid much of the original material. Roach describes pages of very dry reading, making sex appear to be an almost boring activity. But that was what you had to do in sex research in the past; if it was at all erotic, you weren’t going to get very far with it. Roach’s science is not textbook;
it is neither stale nor boring. It’s fascinating, hilarious, and enlightening. Due to the problematic nature of sexual research and ethics, Roach took part in many studies herself in order to write the book, including ‘coital imaging’ (a.k.a. sex during an ultrasound; she’s very involved in her research). This is typical of her, and makes what she says more valid, because she has done it herself.

As a sex blogger, I do take issue with the chapter on treatments for female sexual dysfunction. For a woman known for her dedication to her research, I can’t help but wonder if Roach slacked off on sex toy research. For this chapter, Roach visits Topco. There are many more ethical companies she could have visited. However, I understand how visiting a large manufacturer would allow her to cover many bases at once, as many other companies will have much smaller collections. At least she didn’t go to Pipedream.

One huge way in which Bonk deviates from other books by Roach is the accessibility of what she is researching. When she dives into topics for her books, she gets to watch cadavers in crash tests, join an anatomy lab, take part in taste-tests, smell cat food Screen Shot 2017-07-03 at 2.29.59 PMingredients, and many other things. While Bonk allowed her to take part in coital imaging, she did not gain the audience of Virginia Johnson, did not find the penis camera, and was told that Alfred Kinsey’s films were unavailable.

While other books opened many doors for Roach and her readers, sex researchers left many doors firmly locked. She was told that much of the material, machines and films, had been dismantled or destroyed. Whether or not this is true, we may never know. Many of the studies were inside jobs, so as not to alarm the public. Destroying the material after the studies would have preserved anonymity. The researchers were likely wary of a reporter, and with good reason, considering how taboo the research still is, and will likely continue to be. However, she did get to watch pig insemination and a surgery to fight erectile dysfunction, so her research was not too harmed.

Roach’s books are geared towards finding interest in reading non-fiction research. The bulk of my issues with a lot of research-based non-fiction is that it is not readable (looking at you, Judith Butler). The reader has to slog through complex ideas and vocabulary that bring on headaches and induce naps. Roach uses humor, a writing style, and language that is accessible to the average reader, which I find to be priceless when discussing the complex and important issues in research. I think that readers who are not especially research-minded can enjoy Bonk.

I think Bonk contains excellent material written very well by a person I have a lot of admiration for. I would recommend this book to anyone interested in sex research, and particularly to readers who are new to the topic.

Personally, I would love to go to one of Mary Roach’s cocktail parties.

Interested in more by Mary Roach? Check out Stiff, Spook, Packing for Mars, Gulp, and Grunt in the science section of your local bookstore. You can also watch her discuss orgasms and research for her book in a Ted Talk here, or read My Planet, her collection of Reader’s Digest columns on everyday life.

Interested in the research included in the novel? Check out The Technology of Orgasm by Rachel P. Maines, The Science of Orgasm by Beverly Whipple, Carlos Beyer-Flores, and Barry R. Komisaruk, Atlas of Human Sex Anatomy by Robert Latou Dickinson, Sexual Behavior in the Human Male and Sexual Behavior in the Human Female by Alfred Kinsey, or Human Sexual Response by William Masters and Virginia Johnson. There is also a reference list available at the back of the book.

Bonk: The Curious Coupling of Science and Sex can be purchased online or from your local bookstore. This review was based on my interpretations of this literature. Curious about what else I’m reading? Check out my Goodreads profile and my bookshelf.

*Packing for Mars, 2010

**Grunt, 2016

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