Sunday, 2 September 2012
"Bonk: The Curious Coupling of Sex and Science," by Mary Roach
Stuff and Nonsense by Amy Cockram is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 2.0 UK: England & Wales License.
Warning: this post might be a bit rude, as is the book cover of the version that I read.
This is a fascinating book. However, I almost got put off reading it when I flicked through the book - a bad habit for which my husband tells me off - by the phrase "occasional complication of childbirth" when paired with "rectovaginal fistula". This had a similar wince-inducing, leg-crossing effect on me to that which I imagine a man has to the word "vasectomy" or to reading what Kinsey did with the bristled end of a toothbrush. Men should be warned: male members (pun intended) of the readership will find likely find this book induces more winces in them than in the women.
Mary Roach's quest through the annals of sexuality takes her out of the library and into the unique laboratories of more recent sex researchers. She even becomes a subject of study herself in the absence of willing volunteers for their research. These male and female sex researchers are constantly fighting for funding, and fighting against public and academic preconceived ideas that the work they do is somehow dirty and prurient. She spends time with some people - male and female - who specialise in artificially inseminating pigs (and apparently the natural underarm smell of the human male contains the same pheromones as a sweaty boar: one study shows that you can entice women to sit on a chair in a dentist's waiting room which they normally shun by spraying it with a can of Boarmate).
One thing that I love about Mary Roach's books is her strong sense of the absurd, which is readily shown in this book (she writes some of the funniest footnotes I have ever read). She also hints at one thing that I felt reading this book; some of the animal experiments that she writes about seem to say more about human sadism that human sexuality. It takes an unique mind to think of clonking a post-coital female hamster on the back of the head so that you can then cut her open and see how far the sperm has travelled. Mary Roach includes a few animal species on which variations of this experiment have been tried, but the hamster somehow seems to be the most special. In a non-vivisectiony animal experiment, I was particularly fond of the researcher who put underpants on rats - line drawing included - to discover if wearing polyester has an effect on male fertility (the result of this experiment can be summed up in this phrase: guys, stick to cotton).
I recognised the names of some of the sex researchers in this book because my PhD was on American drama and male homosexuality in the twentieth century. I read quite a bit of early sexology from researchers such as Kinsey and Havelock Ellis, so I was familiar with some of their stranger ideas (Havelock Ellis thought that gay men were particularly fond of the colour green and were unable to whistle). There were also many researchers and experiments of whom I was previously unaware.
I would recommend this informative and funny book to all but the young and impressionable, the squeamish and the prudish. For those of you who fit into any or all of these categories and who aren't planning to read this book, I finish this review with the line drawing of a rat wearing underpants from the polyester study by Dr Ahmed Shafik. Enjoy. It's amazing what you can find on the internet.