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Bonk: The Curious Coupling of Science and Sex (Part 2)

Published: June 12, 2010

In the second in our series of three blogs, Dr. Doug continues his interview with author Mary Roach. Mary discusses the science of sex, the history and complications of sex research, and the stigma surrounding this subject.

You asked a professor whether the female orgasm might be useful to aid sperm transport. He said, “I think by now you know how science is. You think you know a lot until you start to ask some really basic questions and you realize you know nothing. I know a lot about artificial insemination, but I have no idea about the answer to your very simple question.” That was profound.

I appreciated him for saying it. People assume that we know how to have sex, so that means we know everything. We don’t! There is so much that we don’t know. It is a complicated act involving the autonomic nervous system, emotions and reproductive organs. Also, particularly with women, there is a disconnect between the body and the mind. There is a whole lab at the University of Texas, Austin where they are trying to tease apart all the subtleties of female sexual desire and arousal. The more you study it, sometimes, it seems like the less you know.

There have been recent headlines on the female orgasm. Some scientists say they think it increases fertility. You examined this in swine breeding.

In Denmark, they are convinced of this. There is animal data suggesting such is the case: contractions of orgasm in a sow can serve to deliver semen in to the egg. Some argue that the sperm needs time to capacitate — the cells are not useful for a few minutes. So they argue that it doesn’t make sense [female orgasm aiding fertilization]. Here again is a reason why we need to study it.

One aspect of Bonk that is quite admirable is that you and your husband took part in some of the research you were chronicling. We salute your volunteerism.

Thank you. I feel I’ve made a little piece of history. Ed and I were the first couple to be scanned in 4-D, meaning three dimensional plus moving over time, having sex. Just the relative parts mind you, not a full-body scan. It was ultrasound — and probably the most awkward 15 minutes of my life.

I also want to compliment you for discussing ED. I’ve worked with erectile dysfunction and I was shuddering as I read the book, to recall that, until not long ago, impotence was treated as a psychological problem. Insult to injury.

It’s true. It was not really until Viagra that people found that there are substances that could produce robust erections. ED became something that could be treated physically, not necessarily get on a psychiatrist’s couch for. On the other hand, there are cases where all the equipment is working fine and there is a psychogenic component. That suggests somebody should perhaps get therapy. By the way, for hundreds of years it was believed that masturbation caused impotence. What a pickle to be in! You can’t even go to your doctor for help because they’ll say, “You know what is causing this.”

You cite a doctor a century ago who advised men to avoid touching their genitals, to the point of allowing urine to drip down their pants rather than risk giving the penis a shake after voiding. Stern advice.

Very stern. Around that time men were advised not to see musicals. They could be too arousing and encourage masturbation or, God forbid, a nocturnal emission.

Thank God for Carol Channing’s benefit that thinking didn’t persist!

They had devices men would put on their penises before sleep to keep them from having nocturnal emissions. They thought that was causing impotence!

I gather that females were not so sternly lectured about masturbation. Why not?

Most men assumed women weren’t having them. In the era we’re talking about, orgasm wasn’t really under consideration. A general vague condition was labeled “hysteria” in women. Doctors would treat this, essentially by sexually stimulating women to orgasm, but they didn’t realize — this was the amazing thing to me — what they were doing to the women. They knew that these women seemed relaxed afterward, and they kept coming back for more treatments. But the doctors didn’t have in their head, “I’m causing an orgasm.” The whole idea of female orgasm itself didn’t really gain currency until Kinsey came along and put statistics out. He presented women as sexual beings with sexual desires and feelings and multiple orgasms. Until these things came out in Kinsey’s work, it was not common knowledge among men that women even had them!

I recall Bill Clinton’s Surgeon General saying that masturbation was something that “perhaps should be taught” causing a firestorm.

Jocelyn Elders was forced to resign. This subject came up when I interviewed a sex researcher about a device that helps women achieve orgasm. It is a very expensive sex toy, really. I asked, “Why don’t you just teach women to masturbate instead of spending $400 on a device that does the same thing?” She said that if she were to even try to do a study on the health benefits of masturbation, imagine what would happen. She brought up Jocelyn Elders with this wonderful line: “Mary, masturbation is a very touchy subject.”

The exciting conclusion to this stimulating interview will be presented this weekend at http://www.sacramentomenshealth.com.