Book Review: Bonk: The Curious Coupling of Science and Sex, Mary Roach (2008)

Monday, April 7th, 2008

It’s sex-ay (science) time!

five out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free copy of this book for review through Library Thing’s Early Reviewer program.)

Kegels and paraclitoridiennes and Thrillhammers, oh my!

Popular science writer Mary Roach is no stranger to the business of taboo-busting; her previous works, STIFF: THE CURIOUS LIVES OF HUMAN CADAVERS and SPOOK: SCIENCE TACKLES THE AFTERLIFE are books one might hesitate to discuss in polite company. (The biology of “human soup” isn’t exactly acceptable dinner conversation, now, is it?) Lucky for us, Mary Roach* is a curious and intrepid soul who’s more than willing tread where many of us would rather not – and then pen a witty, sarcastically humorous account of her journey.

BONK: THE CURIOUS COUPLING OF SCIENCE AND SEX is Ms. Roach’s latest foray into the dark nooks and crannies of the scientific community’s attic. Starting with the 1800s, the author details the history of scientific inquiries into human and animal sexuality. In its infancy, sexual research was awkward and, at times, nonsensical; as understanding of human biology increased, the field of sexual science evolved. Nowhere is this more evident than in science’s treatment of women and gender; whereas scientists once argued whether women could even have orgasms, they now quibble over the most efficient means of getting the ladyfolk there. Just as the development of sexual knowledge reflects the progression of science and the embrace of the scientific method, so too does it correspond to women’s liberation and gender equality. Thus, a history of sex studies is a history of science and social movements.

All is not meta with Ms. Roach, however. In fact, her delight seems to be in the details. While her discussion does focus on some overarching topics and themes – including the history of research into and knowledge of sexuality; female and male anatomy and psychology, including the similarities and differences between the genders; the physiology of sex, and how one goes about documenting it; and technology’s impact on sexuality – BONK is full of meandering tangents and interesting side notes. Though the asterisks are many, don’t skip a one. While a few are a bit extraneous even for me, some of the juiciest tidbits are in the side notes.**

BONK is a popular science book that’s suitable for both lay people and professionals alike. The science in BONK is presented in such a way that it’s accessible and engaging, yet it isn’t watered down, either. Ms. Roach has an engaging writing style and a biting sense of humor, making this a “science of sex” book quite unlike any other. At times sardonic, macabre and morbid, she just has a way of skewering sacred cows – she’ll show you precisely how the hot dog is made before cajoling you into taking a bite.**** Like many gourmet dishes, Ms. Roach’s brand of humor may not please every palate – but this doesn’t make it any less of a delicacy.

While I enjoyed the book immensely, I do have to offer a caveat. If you’re sensitive to images of animal suffering (more specifically, vivisection and factory farming), read BONK with caution. As with any “history of science” book, BONK contains scenes of gratuitous violence against animals. For example, one early study the author describes involved the decapitation of a female dog – while mating (!) – in order to study the mobility of the male’s semen. It’s pretty gruesome stuff, and while Ms. Roach is for the most part appropriately horrified, some of the more modern abuses are left unquestioned.

* Even the woman’s name tickles my fancy. “Mary Roach.” Roach clip, anyone?

** For example, I bet you didn’t know that perforated postal stamps are a low-tech way to determine whether a man is medically (as opposed to psychologically) impotent. Just wrap a roll around the package in question, and ship it off for overnight delivery. If the stamps are torn upon morning pickup, said package is in working (physical) order.***

*** The USPS both knows of and endorses the practice, FYI.

**** Much in the same manner she cajoled her husband into bonking in an MRI machine in the name of science. Or so one might assume.*****

***** Pants off to you, Ed!

(This review was originally published on Amazon and Library Thing, and is also available on Goodreads. Please click through and vote it helpful if you think it so!)