Bonk: The Curious Coupling of Science and Sex is the third book in the #bangingbookclub, run by Hannah Witton, Leena Norms, and Lucy Moon. Check out the Twitter feed to see what everyone else is saying about Bonk and the other reads (last month’s was The Vagina Monologues). This book club focuses on books about sex and sexuality, and Bonk definitely falls under that category. What the club doesn’t prescribe but Mary Roach does provide is a healthy helping of humour: in the book’s description, someone for The New Yorker describes her as “the funniest science writer in the country.” I was sceptical of such a superlative distinction, but it might be true—and if not, she’s up there on the podium.
If you watched the first season of Showtime’s Masters and Sex you will know, somewhat, of what Roach discusses here. (I say the first season, specifically, because subsequent seasons have drifted further into soap opera territory and farther away from the science side of things—which is fine if you want soap opera, but not really my cup of tea.) Roach gives Masters and Johnson their due, of course, and she mentions other notorious scientists, like Alfred Kinsey. She also illuminates the field, though, mentioning names I hadn’t encountered: Robert Latou Dickinson, and women in the field, like Marie Bonaparte (she of the “I had my clitoris moved…”). And while Roach diligently details much of the history of sex research, she spends a great deal of the book talking about the state of the field right now. I found this very gratifying.
I can’t speak for others (particularly those who live in less fortunate areas of the world, like the United States, where sex ed is paltry or non-existent) but I’ve always just kind of had the impression that our scientific knowledge of sex was pretty thorough and complete. We know, in other words, how babies are made. I knew we were still mucking about with genes and fertilization techniques, etc., but I didn’t pay much attention to other parts of the field. I guess I underestimated how much the pleasurable nature of sex for some people motivates us, as a species, to turn our curious and scientific minds to the process. The truth is, sex research is alive and well—but we just don’t talk about it as much as we should!
Roach seems to have a few clear goals. Firstly, she sets out to demystify and dispel stigma around sex research (i.e., it’s not something scientists do because they have a perverted fascination with sex). Secondly, she tries to explore and explain the field without resorting to too much jargon (her explanations of complicated biological processes and surgical procedures are remarkably lucid and easy to follow). Thirdly, she points out areas of sex that have yet to be studied thoroughly enough. Although short, Bonk packs a punch when it comes to the sheer amount of information and number of topics Roach manages to cover. Also, the chapters themselves are short, making this a very easy book to read a little at a time.
I appreciate the way Roach allays accusations that if you’re interested in talking about sex, or researching it in a lab, you must be a pervert. It seems like this should go without saying in 2016 (or 2008, when this book was written), what with the way we’re saturated in media by sex and sexuality. And hey, everyone wants to talk about sex—I’m not interested in having sex and I still want to talk about it. However, this is the peculiar double standard of our times: we are supposed to be interested in sex just enough, but if we are interested too little or too much, we are labelled as deviant. The amount of interest, and the way it should be expressed, varies with one’s gender, social status, age, etc. Slip up in any way and you get policed. Start talking or thinking about sex too young? Perverted. Someone must have “corrupted” your innocence. Start having sexual thoughts about the sex you’re not supposed to be attracted to in your community? Ugh, perverted! Did you start talking about sex, and are you a woman? The height of perversion!!
I digress. And I jest—one theme that Roach unearths is how women’s sexuality has actually been acknowledged and studied in various ways throughout recorded history. Rather than a clear progression from “women do not enjoy sex” to “women enjoy sex but men don’t care” to “women enjoy sex and men should care,” we see a much more complicated, roller-coaster-ride journey as different societies grapple with the radical notion that women are people, and that they should enjoy their bodies as something other than childbearing vessels. And while we live in a very enlightened and privileged time (what with the Pill and all those fancy vibrators), we still have a ways to go.
For all her openness (Roach is pretty candid about the times she had to volunteer herself as a participant to get access to the goings-on in a sex study), elements of Roach’s humour undermine her attempts to make us stop sniggering about sex. I conflicted about this. On one hand, I think Roach is just trying to dispel our discomfort using humour—by pointing it out and then dismissing it with a joke, we can focus on the science. On the other hand, I do feel like she is somewhat reinforcing the very ideas that she dismisses in her introduction; sometimes her jokes feel like they are implying that these researchers are unhealthily fascinated by what’s going on, or at least that there is something weird and freaky about studying the anatomy and biology of sex in humans. To be clear, I don’t think Roach is deliberately implying that—I just worry it’s a side effect of some of her humour.
Bonk might be one of the most edifying books I’ve read in a while—and I read a lot, a fair amount of it non-fiction. The coy chapter titles conceal their contents well, but Roach covers a vast swathe of sex research. She looks at what we know about the role of the clitoris in orgasm before moving on to wondering what role the female orgasm’s biological manifestations plays in reproduction (answer: we’re still not sure). From there she talks a bit about how we can get a good look all up in there (vaginas; I’m talking about sticking cameras up people’s vaginas), before a few chapters on impotence (male and female) and the ways we can “fix” this (male and female). I say “fix” because Roach does point out that, for some people, it’s not actually a problem, and that there are communities and organizations somewhat concerned by the medicalization of sexuality—especially in women. Throughout this book I was constantly thinking about the controversy around “female Viagra”, a treatment Roach alludes to in the book but that has only recently come to fruition.
This book also taught me many cool science tidbits I otherwise haven’t learned before. Vaginal lubricant isn’t glandular but actually the clear plasma component from the blood that fills the walls around the vagina. How cool is that?
Roach seems to spend roughly equal time on vaginas and penises. For a book about sex, it’s not surprising that the subject falls into such a binary. To her credit, Roach does talk about trans people and gay people here and there—as far as Bonk is concerned, it’s mostly focused on the individual, who might have a penis or a vagina, rather than couples of any particular orientation. I found it most interesting that Roach does not even come near the debate over how biology, genetics, or environment might influence our sexual orientations—though I think she was probably right to stay away from that minefield. Overall, this is a book focused almost exclusively on biological parts of coupling rather than the cultural parts—though I don’t mean to suggest that biology presents us with straightforward binaries either. Unfortunately, we still have a long way to go on this front, when many researchers continue to talk about gender queerness in very medical terms and use “healthy” as a synonym for cisgender people. While Bonk doesn’t demonstrate these views, its findings are naturally restricted to what we have studied so far (and the framework around which we study them, as Roach herself points out when she describes the methodologies Masters and Johnson use with gay couples).
That is, of course, the fantastic thing about science. The state of our knowledge is in continual flux: what we know changes every day, every moment, and can make us revise or revisit everything that came before. Bonk represents the state of our knowledge in 2008. It’s far from complete, and I’m sure parts of it are outdated or will be in coming years. But Roach does a great job pulling back the curtain on research into the bedroom, giving her readers a great primer on sex and science and leaving us with the right questions to ask going forward.