Non-Fiction: “Bonk” by Mary Roach

bonkOkay, I’m going to try and bang this one right out. (thematically-appropriate puns for the win!)

Picture it: I’m getting ready to drive to D.C. for Operation: Pick Up My Dear Friend Sarah In D.C. So She Can Photograph My Sister’s Wedding. And I know I’m going to stop occasionally for food, and since I’m going to be alone, I intend to bring a book with me to read at the table. I don’t want to bring Alexander Hamilton – it’s way too big. The other book I was currently reading at time was What a Pirate Desires, and that cover would have surely inspired conversations that I didn’t want to have. Namely, I was using the drive as an escape from talking to people.

So I wanted a book that a) I owned, because I have previously left library books at someone’s house accidentally, which then caused that person to mail my library book back to me so I could return it (thanks Sarah!), b) was small enough to fit in my purse without weighing a metric ton, and c) interesting enough that I would actually read it on the road.

And Bonk was what I found. I know I bought it a while ago because of its subtitle: The Curious Coupling of Science and Sex. But I definitely brought it with me on my trip this year because the cover was innocuous enough that no one would give it a second thought:

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No one said a word to me aside from “More coffee, dear?” The answer to which was, “Can I get it to go? Thanks!”

Oh, I know why I bought this – I just looked through the book to find Mary Roach’s credentials, and I saw via the hand-written “$7.50” on the inside cover that I bought this at one of my trips to the Harvard bookstore – probably my first trip, where I bought Mildred Pierce. And that would have timed when I had Showtime and was into watching Masters of Sex, the story of Masters and Johnson and their human sexuality study. See? I’m not a pervert, I’m just curious!

And Mary Roach is, above all, curious. Other books she’s written before and since Bonk include: Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers (which I’m pretty sure I’ve seen on My Dear Friend Emily’s bookshelf, seeing as how she originally went to school to become a medical examiner); Gulp: Adventures on the Alimentary Canal; and her most recent, Grunt: The Curious Science of Humans At War.

Additionally, Ms. Roach does not describe herself as a scientist: I just perused her website and her list of credentials are all her published books and magazine articles; not a single doctorate among them. As a writer who is immersed in her subject the same way I immersed myself in Hannibal – I know the subject inside and out, but I was not one of the creators of Hannibal, just an observer – she is able to write about these subjects in an amazingly accessible way.

Look, I read a lot of books – my book blog backlog as proof positive of that. And of those books, a fair amount end up being non-fiction. And there have been some non-fiction books which were written by people within that field, and the communication tends to get murky because I think the author doesn’t realize s/he should be writing for outside the industry. A perfect example of this is Michael Lewis and The Big Short: Mr. Lewis worked on Wall Street. He dealt with stocks and bonds routinely. So when he went to talk about the housing market crash, he knew what all of those terms meant, because he was within the industry. And while he made valiant attempts to explain those terms within the book, it wasn’t until Adam McKay and the movie did it visually that I was able to say, Yes, I kind of get this now. (I still don’t, and would direct anyone who wants to understand that subject to the film, because it did a really great job.)

But when I read Mr. Lewis’s Moneyball (sidenote, I’m rereading it now – GO CUBS GO oh my god they won the World Series I am still in shock and crying about it), you can tell he is using his statistical background and applying it to baseball, and he doesn’t have the language of baseball because he wasn’t in baseball. Therefore, I find Moneyball more accessible and understandable than I did The Big Short.

For Ms. Roach, as the only industry she is in is writing, any topic she puts her mind to will be like when Mr. Lewis tackles baseball: she’s not in the industry, she doesn’t have the language; therefore, she will make every attempt to explain the terms and concepts to make the concept accessible not only to her, but to her readers as well.

And I appreciated that, reading about Masters & Johnson’s penis camera while eating Momma’s French Toast Breakfast at the Tewksbury, Massachusetts Cracker Barrel.

NOTE FROM THE IMMEDIATE FUTURE: Hi, Readers! Thanks for sticking with me through my digressions. Now, look: this book is not a how-to book on sex; it gets into some serious sciencey discussions.  And I’m going to talk about the book now, and that is going to include some strong language: I’m going to be bringing up female genitalia, orgasms, and all sorts of stuff that you may not feel comfortable reading about in a Cracker Barrel. So if you don’t want to know about this or feel that it’s inappropriate to talk about, go ahead and skip to the last paragraph. It’s cool. But I wanted to warn you before you were knee-deep in a paragraph about female masturbation without notice. Cheers!

Masters and Johnson is where Ms. Roach begins, which is an excellent starting point: Bill Masters and Virginia Johnson began their research on human sexuality in the 1950s; prior to that, sex and the science behind it was definitely not an appropriate topic of study. The first season of Masters of Sex attempts to show the difficulties Bill Masters had in getting his study off the ground, but then the show veers into interpersonal relationships and while the show is good, don’t watch it for science, okay? In order to study what actually happens, physiologically, to a woman when she orgasms, they patented a penis-camera: essentially, a vibrator with a camera in it. That discussion leads Ms. Roach into the sex machine industry, where she ends up at the Center for Sex and Culture in San Francisco:

The Center for Sex and Culture does not court the curious passerby. No sign is posted on the outside of the building or inside the entryway. It is a nonprofit in a plain brown wrapper. Eventually, you notice the street number, 298, on a window near the door. There is an intercom with a buzzer labeled CSC. When you ring it, a voice says simply, “Hello?” forcing you to announce that you are HERE FOR THE SEX-MACHINE EVENT. [p. 54]

Ms. Roach’s curiosity leads her through a number of topics: Does the distance between the clitoris and vagina affect the strength of a woman’s orgasm? Does orgasm increase fertility? Is surgery the answer to impotence? How can we diagnose and help low female libido issues?

What fascinates me is how the stigma of talking about sex – even in purely scientific terms – has caused our complete lack of education on these points. And I’m not even talking about abstinence-only programs and how we educate our teenagers on sex directly influences how they will approach sex when they’re old enough and how belief structures fit into all of that. I’m saying, we were able to put a man on the moon within ten years of Jack Kennedy saying we should do that, but we have yet to know definitively how a woman approaches sexual arousal, because we think it’s private and shouldn’t be studied, and who knows how many women could have benefited from that study?

Here’s an example: in Chapter 10, “The Prescription-Strength Vibrator,” Ms. Roach meets with doctors who are trying to find solutions for so-called “sexually dysfunctional women.” I say “so-called” because I don’t want a man to tell me what’s considered sexually dysfunctional to me as a woman; I am not discounting a woman’s sense of being dysfunctional in that department. But she brings up a theory: if a physical symptom of arousal is increased blood flow to the clitoris, and increased blood flow can also be caused by manual stimulation, would increased masturbation lead to increased arousal for a woman during intercourse? Ms. Roach emails this question to a professor of gynecologic oncology, who then refers her to Maryann Schroder, a licensed sexology at the University of Chicago.

“You have posed a very interesting question,” she said. “It hasn’t been studied, if you can believe.” She reminded me of what happened to the last person who got involved with masturbation as a beneficial activity: Surgeon General Joycelyn Elders. Former President Bill Clinton dismissed Elders after she suggested, in a World AIDS Day speech, that masturbation was something that “should perhaps be taught.”

“Can you imagine if I tried to get funding for a study that had masturbation in the title?” And then, quite unintentionally, Dr. Schroder delivered the ultimate masturbation-research sound bite. “Masturbation,” she said, “is a touchy area.” [p. 209]

WELCOME BACK, Readers who skipped the sex talk but also missed the best pun I’ve ever seen in print!

I really enjoyed this book. Ms. Roach is a wonderful writer, who does not shy away from stigmatized topics, and infuses her research with humor. She’s incredibly welcoming and accessible in her writing, and in non-fiction, that is a huge bonus factor. I highly recommend this book – even if you’re not going to ironically read it in a stereotypical Southern breakfast environment, while escaping from a family wedding (NOTE: I went back, I have the pictures to prove it) – and look forward to reading the rest of Ms. Roach’s back catalogue.

Grade for Bonk: The Curious Coupling of Science and Sex: 5 stars