You know from the first page of a Mary Roach book that you’re not in for a typical walk in the science park. Of course, when you picked up a book with the title Stiff, or Spook, or Bonk you were probably already hoping for something…different. And on that count, and many others, Roach’s books deliver the goods.
In the latest of her off-beat travels in the world of wierd science– Bonk: The Curious Coupling of Science and Sex–Roach is tourguide along the varied paths of sex science history – from the days of Masters and Johnson and Alfred Kinsey to the present day cadre of sex researchers and the fantastically odd challenges they face. The stories we’re told along the way are anything but mundane and each is delivered with refreshing wit (first hand testimony: laughing while reading isn’t optional). Mary recently chatted with Neuronarrative about her work and writing Bonk.
You write unusually entertaining books about topics most writers wouldn’t think to take on so directly. What’s your thought process leading to a topic like the afterlife, or human cadavers, or the science of sex?
It’s pretty simple. Everything I do falls into the general category of peculiar science. On top of that, it’s got to have some grabby historical elements and some potential for humor. That eliminates just about everything right there. This is always the hardest part for me. The idea.
Many science books are written as arguments to support a thesis, which can make reading them a dry, jargon-laden affair. Your approach to science is quite obviously different – you’re engaged in a much more personal way. How did you come to approach science, so often the stuff of axioms and arguments, with such personal engagement?
This is what happens when people with BA degrees set out to write about science. The secret to my books? Utter ignorance. I’m not entirely joking. The more you know about a topic, the harder it is to skate around as I do. I think that to a certain extent, my humor depends on my being new to the topic. A lot of what I write about is research that I stumble onto and that makes me go, “No way! They did what??!?” But if I had a background in that particular science, the research would make perfect sense, business as usual. That wonderful surreal quality would disappear.
So let’s talk about Bonk. You say that the study of sex goes way, way back – even Leonardo da Vinci dabbled in it a bit. From Leo to Kinsey to now, how far have we come in understanding what makes our nether regions hum?
The gynecologist Robert Latou Dickinson, one of the earliest sex researchers – and the man who got Kinsey interested in sex research – mentioned something fairly amazing. He’d had, I don’t know, six or seven couples come to him complaining that they were having trouble conceiving. (This was around the turn of the last century.) Turned out that in all cases, the men had only penetrated the outer labia. They thought that was intercourse. It wasn’t just that no one studied sex; no one even talked about it. So we’ve come a long way, certainly. That’s not to say that the work is done, though.
Speaking of Kinsey, you say in the book that he was described by some as a “masochist” and a “voyeur” with an unorthodox fondness for swizzle sticks and toothbrushes. Was Kinsey a case of genius paired with perversion, or was he just a guy especially involved with his subjects (be they wasps or…other things)?
I’ve read both biographies of Kinsey – okay, portions of them – and it’s really difficult to say. One biographer suggested the former, one the latter. Ultimately, Kinsey did us all such a tremendous service — by shattering the boundaries of what is “normal” sexually — that I think of him as neither. Not pervert, not eccentric, obsessive scientist, just flat-out hero.
What’s hands down the strangest sex experiment you know of (or were party to)?
That’s a tough one. So many to choose from. Masters and Johnson undertook a doozy that was designed to disprove the upsuck theory. This was a theory that the contractions of female orgasm serve to suck the semen up through the cerivx, thus upping the odds of conception. M&J didn’t buy it. So they cooked up some ersatz semen (I put the recipe in Bonk), and added a radiopaque dye. The stuff was loaded into a cervical cap, and then the women, while wearing the capful o’ semen, proceeded to gratify themselves in front of an x-ray machine. The idea was that if the pretend semen was being sucked up, it would show up on the x-rays. It didn’t.
You’ve been called “a writer impervious to embarrassment,” and no doubt you’ve earned the title. While working on Bonk, was there anything that turned you a few shades of red (or even came close)?
The obvious answer would be the 4-D coital ultrasound imaging that I volunteered Ed and myself for. It actually wasn’t embarrassing; because it honestly didn’t seem like sex. It felt like some strange, awkward medical procedure that you know will be over in 20 minutes, and you’re just going to get through it. Mostly I felt guilty for dragging Ed into it. He was the one with the burden of performance. I was taking notes through it all. Also, I knew how much fun it was going to be to write up the scene, and that helped mitigate the embarrassment.
You say that you’re a writer “obsessed with my research.” So after obsessively taking on a couple of the biggies–death and sex–what’s next? How do you top two topics that preoccupy most of our minds most of the time?
I’m writing about space exploration — the fabulous, surreal insanity of trying to stay alive in an environment for which we’re utterly unequipped. Lots of fun aerospace medicine history stuff, bizarre simulated missions here on earth…
Link to Mary Roach’s website
Credit for Mary Roach’s photo: David Paul Morris