The Curious Coupling of
Science and Sex
(Norton)If Mary Roach had produced a book like this in the mid-1950s, they would have run her out of town ... or possibly put her in jail. And if I had bought it, or tried to mail it: the same. Now it gets reviewed in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, the Wall Street Journal, on O, and in RALPH.
The author certainly goes above and beyond the call of duty in her research. A Dr. Deng of the Diagnostic Testing Unit of London's Heart Hospital has produced '4-D' "ultrasound footage of human genitalia in the act of sexual congress." Roach offers herself and her husband Ed for a study of "how various body parts work during various activities," the specified activity being, well, doing, in camera, or, better, on camera, the beast with two backs.
Then somewhat towards the later part of the book, Roach volunteers to participate in a study at "The Female Sexual Psychophysiology Lab" at the University of Texas in Austin. She will be fitted with a "vaginal photoplethysmograph probe" to study her level of arousal while watching selected pornography. All in the name of science.
Bonk is not so much a bodice-ripper as a page-turner. Like Roach's other titles, it is carefully researched ... funny in a certain dry and not-so-prurient way. It only drifts into a snigger on occasion: for instance, this on Masters and Johnson's seminal work on sexual behavior:
You need a floor plan to keep track of the vaginas in Human Sexual Response. There are vaginal floors, vestibules, platforms, barrels, and outlets. Are people having sex, or are they just visiting Crate and Barrel?
Bonk does leave a few questions behind. She participates in the usual pillorying of Freud who might easily be seen as a crank (re: "the well-behaved clitoris"), but considering the laced-up times for which he was writing we should, I believe, be forgiving. "Even the fact that he is proved to be a quack has not diminished the power of his Word," wrote Tom Wolfe in a recent article on NASA.
Freud's sometimes screwy view of men and women was more than made up for by his writing style, which was superb, and most of all his ground-breaking studies of dreams. The Interpretation of Dreams is thoughtful, sound, can be life (or sleep) changing, and is a dream to read, even in translation.
Likewise, Roach has problems with Alfred Kinsey, even offers him up as "an extreme case." We have to remember the times in which he wrote. She cites his lengthy investigation of the process of ejaculation, using hundreds of gay men, recorded between 1946 and 1947; she makes it all into a bit of a lurid joke. But to find so many homosexuals available for research purposes in the United States was unheard of in those times. Frank Rich recently noted in New York Times, that in post-WWII America, any homosexual activity was a felony. Local and state police regularly broke down bedroom doors of suspected gays, often with newspaper photographers in tow. In seven states, homosexuals, if convicted, could be legally castrated.
§ § §
In 1961, I arrived in New York from Europe. I had carefully packed Henry Miller's Tropic of Cancer, Jean Genet's Thief's Journal, along with Dostoevsky's Crime and Punishment in my suitcase. At what is now JFK, a U. S. Custom's inspector went carefully through my baggage and found the books. He paused a long time over the first two, then gazed at me with a steely, unforgiving eye.
"Son," he said: "let me give you a piece of advice." Another pause. "Change your taste in literature," (He pronounced it "lit-er-a-toor.") He then dumped the three books back in my suitcase and threw it back to me.
Roach is obviously reveling in a world that has changed so drastically (me too.) There even seems to be some academic interest in Bonk. The last few pages are given over to "A Reading Group Guide," which includes ten "discussion questions:" Number Three: "Sex is far more than the sum of its moving parts." Unpack that statement.