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Bonk: The Curious Coupling of Science and Sex (Part 1)

Published: June 7, 2010

In her latest bestseller, Bonk: The Curious Coupling of Science and Sex, Mary Roach tackles the stickiest of subjects with dexterous wit. Dr. Doug and Radio Parallax recently had a chance to speak with Mary Roach about her latest title.

I chuckled when I heard your title. When I was in South Africa once I noticed that “bonk” was used in the papers in lieu of “sex.” An innovative word choice.

Thanks. I get a number of people who send e-mails saying, “You misspelled your title. It’s ‘boink.’” I actually hand out little peel-and-stick letter “i”s. People can stick them on the cover if they feel it must be “boink.”

Scientific studies of sex had an indirect start. You chronicled early studies of copulation in rats, raccoons and porcupines!

I loved that study. In the early days, nobody was brave enough to bring humans into the lab. Nobody had the nerve. In the mean time they thought, let’s see what we can learn from animals. Kinsey went on the road with a movie camera filming animals. You know how porcupines do it? I assumed they go belly to belly because of the spines, but that isn’t the case. Instead, the female flips her tail up over the spines so the male can rest on her tail, thereby not getting poked in the belly.

As recently as the 1960s, physiology texts skipped sex. One can see why when you mentioned the case of Vern Bolo. He landed on the FBI’s list of dangerous Americans. His subversive activities? Publishing scholarly papers on prostitution and working to decriminalize oral sex. And this was the ’70s!

The first person to publish a paper on venereal disease in gynecological publications was booed off the stage. Any time you’d do a project in the area of sex, if you just try to describe it to someone as “We have some women coming in and they’ll be observing pornography … and we’ll be wiring them up to machines.” It sounds funky. When you understand why it’s being done and what the goal of the research is (and the fact that there’s no other way to do it) you begin to see that it’s just a job.

I was surprised to learn that Alfred Kinsey was not merely the questionnaire-type of researcher I thought he was.

People associate him with surveys. While that’s his best known work, he also got interested in the physiology. In the late ’40s he did not feel he could have a laboratory on campus to study physiology. He did it up in his attic, sort of in secret. Of course that made it look even worse! And yes, he was up there taking notes and filming.

William Masters and Virginia Johnson published their studies of human sexuality in the 1970s. You pointed out in Bonk they pre-selected women who were not average.

Masters and Johnson wanted to study human sexual response: the different phases of arousal and orgasm. With that goal you need people who are comfortable in a lab setting, which is not your average person. They really didn’t have much choice. If you’re studying physiology, what happens in the body is the same process whether you are somebody who feels comfortable having sex in front of people or are more private. I don’t think it really affected the nature of their data, but had they been looking at the emotional or cultural side of things, yes, they did have a skewed subject population.

Bonk is full of provocative studies. One that caught my attention was a 2002 study at SUNY-Albany by psychologists who noted that female college students who had sex without condoms seemed less depressed, which suggested to them that semen might have antidepressant properties. Nice try.

Nice try indeed. I sent an e-mail to that guy asking, “How was your paper received when published?” He replied, “With great skepticism and scorn.” [laughs]

Reminds me of a colleague in med school, used to tell female classmates he suffered from “DSB.” “DSB?” they’d ask. “Yes,” he’d deadpan, “Deadly Sperm Buildup.”

[laughs] Help me please!

Sacramentomenshealth.com will be continuing this titillating interview in future installments. Keep up to date on this story and more topics in health and science by subscribing to our RSS feed, finding us on Facebook at www.facebook.com/Sacramento-Mens-Health, or following DougDeSalles on Twitter.