Mary Roach has a knack for distilling complicated scientific topics into prose that the general reader can understand. She does it with her own sense of curiosity and humor, which makes the learning fun. Previously, I’ve chortled my way through books that examined the afterlife for human cadavers (2003’s Stiff), and human spirits (2005’s Spooks), space exploration (2010’s Packing for Mars), the digestive system (2013’s Gulp), and the military (2016’s Grunt). Somehow I had missed reading her second book, Bonk (2008), although not from a sense of squeamishness about the subject. Or at least, not my squeamishness; for a long time it was the only Mary Roach book my local library did not have on the shelves.
Happily, that was no longer the case when I checked the ebook catalog earlier this year, and I was quick to add myself to the holds list. I can report that the expected mix of knowledge and good humor were present in the usual abundance for a Roach production, even as the subject once again would not seem to lend itself to jocularity. Sure, people take death and war seriously, but sex occupies a particularly fraught place, at least in modern American culture. For proof, you’ve only to look at the fact that a movie is much more likely to receive an R rating for showing a woman’s bare breasts than for showing crowds of people getting mown down with an automatic rifle.
The idea of studying sex as a scientific topic, in a lab with experiments involving real people, seems particularly fascinating. Roach provides a good overview of the difficulty in quantitatively measuring something whose most notable effects seem psychological rather than physiological. And that’s not even to get into the aversion of funders in providing money to study such a ticklish subject (no pun intended). Roach’s interest was piqued years ago when she stumbled on a medical journal article about a 1980s UCLA study that measured human sexual response. One group of men were asked to manipulate “the more usual suspect” during the experiment, while the control group was asked to rub their kneecaps at measured intervals:
One of my favorite features of Roach’s work is how she cheerfully submits herself to observing and sometimes participating in the scientific research, the better to understand and explain it to her readers. And Bonk is no exception, although I’ll leave it to you to discover exactly how she accomplishes it. (All I’ll say here is her husband Ed must be a singularly good-natured and accommodating spouse.)
I can’t say Bonk is my favorite Mary Roach book (that’s a tie between Gulp and Stiff), but it was an enjoyable romp through the laboratories of sexuality.