Sunday, April 15, 2012

Bonk: The Curious Coupling of Science and Sex

I should have known better. This is not the first book I've read by Mary Roach and I share her appreciation for the slightly absurd side of anatomy, so I knew that I'd giggle quite a bit during Bonk. Reading it in the quiet car was a mistake, and I should have recognized that fact before I faked a coughing fit while reading about how Ms. Roach's husband Ed won (and probably retired) the Supportive Spouse of the Year award. But more on that later.

Societally, I think we have trouble talking about sex without getting either nudge-nudge-wink-wink snickers or acting like a particularly earnest guest on Oprah. Which is a shame, because it's a serious subject, but also slightly ridiculous (years ago, my mom and her friends decided that if aliens ever invaded earth, all we'd have to do was tell them how we reproduce and the aliens would die laughing). That's why Mary Roach is the perfect author to tackle this subject. She's got a sense of humor and the ability to use it without denigrating any of the scientists or subjects she meets in her research. She appreciates the work done by a pair of Edwardian doctors who measured heart rates of subjects engaged in different activities from sitting to sex, but also imagines them doing a "vigorous foxtrot" with each other and then comparing the results to foxtrotting with their wives. Artificially inseminating sows is a part of modern-day agriculture, but only Ms. Roach would compare the necessary lifting and dropping of the pig's hind quarters to testing the shocks on a car. (Luckily, I was not in the quiet car when I read that...and I'm not sure how long it will be before I can test my shocks without thinking of bacon.) Whether observing procedures, visiting a sex-toy factory, discussing historical sex research, or discussing why women are physiologically more complicated than men, she leavens the clinical tone with plenty of non-insulting humor.

Humor, and a sense of adventure which is where Ed's support comes in. While researching the book, Ms. Roach found out about a study in which couples underwent MRI and ultrasound scans while having sex. Naturally, she wanted to observe and unsurprisingly, the scientists running the study were having trouble finding willing participants and asked if her "organization" knew of any willing volunteers. Free lance writers do not have organizations, but they do have husbands who ask "what's the catch" when offered an all-expenses paid trip to London (and possibly side trips to see Jeremy Irons on stage and/or to Stonehenge). Ed reluctantly agreed, and this led to the slightly surreal passage where one scientist is monitoring the data, the other one is chatting with Ed, and Mary is taking notes...all while Mary and Ed are having sex in an MRI machine. This is why I was giggling in the quiet car, and why Ed was clearly the most supportive spouse of 2007.

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