Booknotes: Bonk

A few weeks ago, the Boston Public Library finally notified me that a reserve copy of Mary Roach's latest book, Bonk: The Curious Coupling of Science and Sex, was on hold for my reading pleasure. "Hooray!" I thought, "another fun book about sex!" . . . so I checked it out and read it.

I've heard wonderful things about Mary Roach's science writing over the years, from a variety of bibliophile friends, but have not read either of her previous books (Stiff and Spook). They were about death. But, I mean, who wouldn't be entertained by the shenanigans of researchers who dress rats in polyester knickers to test the effect of artificial fabrics on libido? Or pause to consider why in a study "of male and female genital slang carried out at five British universities, respondents came up with 351 ways to say penis . . . and only three for clitoris"? And really, who could resist the knowledge that in the Middle Ages witches were thought to be the cause of impotence: "witches with no formal training in andrology could employ a [simple] approach. They made the man's penis disappear."

Her descriptions of some of the bumbling medical interventions in humans sex lives are often not for the faint of heart, but I found them fascinating in a train-wreck sort of way: so many of our attempts to make sense of human sexuality through the lens of science have been simultanouesly terribly earnest and woefully misguided. In the end, even the most enthusiastic scientists, it seems, have come to the conclusion that what turns people on (or off) is unpredictable, varied, and irreducibly complex.

Roach ends her book with a description of one of Masters and Johnson's later works, published in 1979, which describes the experiences of a group of lesbian, gay, and straight couples, committed and not, whom they invited to their labs and put under the microscope:
Ultimately, [Masters and Johnson] set aside their stopwatches and data charts and turned a qualitative eye upon their volunteers. What emerged were two portraits. There was efficient sex -- skillful, efficient, goal-directed, uninhibited, and with a very low "failure incidence" . . . gay, straight, committed or not . . . [they] tended to have, as they say, 100 percent orgasmic return.

But efficient sex was not amazing sex. The best sex going on in Masters and Johnson's lab was sex being had by the committed gay and lesbian couples. Not because they were practicing special secret homosexual techniques but because they "took their time" (301).
What strikes me is that Masters and Johnson found this simple observation worth noting (and italicizing) in their book . . . isn't time and attention an obvious cornerstone of relational sex? Apparently, for many of the hetero couples Masters and Johnson observed in the late seventies, whatever goal they had in mind (orgasm? procreation?) eclipsed the far richer process of togetherness that the lesbian and gay couples foregrounded in their interactions. The impish side of my soul wonders what the religious right would make of that . . .


  1. [they] tended to have, as they say, 100 percent orgasmic return.

    Where's the footnote about how this applies only to men? I have a tough time imagining that all women had the same outcome....

  2. You'd have to follow up with the original Masters & Johnson study to see what they counted as "orgasmic return" . . . I don't believe Roach clarified it in her text. However, she does point out that couples willing to engage in unscripted sexual activity in a science lab were probably a fairly select group of people -- generally comfortable with and knowledgeable about their own bodies and the bodies of their partners. So this no doubt skewed the data.