Note: This is #42 in my 52 Books in 52 Weeks Challenge for 2008.
Mary Roach’s Bonk: The Curious Coupling of Science and Sex is a book about sex. Well, sort of. It’s not erotica. Or a how-to manual. Or an exploration of sexuality in our culture. Or an examination of sex in the media. Rather, while it does touch briefly on some of those topics, Bonk is the history of the scientific study of sex. It’s also pretty funny and kind of makes me uncomfortable.
You may be unsurprised to find out that sex as a research subject has a history of taboos and upturned noses once you stray outside of baby making territory. Studying the practical plumbing of the human reproductive system is generally seen as okay, though Roach does point out that aspiring gynecologists used to have to learn their crafts by working on cadavers and even when graduating up to the real thing they had to turn their heads politely and work by feel. But the study of sex for its own sake is more hush-hush and got a much slower start thanks in no part to the many weird and unconventional places it goes.
And go there you shall, curious reader. Roach is fearless and unapologetic in her exploration of the field, and she shines her light right up into some pretty shocking places. This was both great and not so great for me. For example, I found the chapters on sex machines and the people who make them weirdly fascinating, and the chapter where Roach talks her husband into experiencing first hand (so to speak) a study that used ultrasound machines to get cross-sections of their coital act was hilariously awkward. She also throws herself into the research in other places, such as touring a prosthetics factory (and by “prosthetics” I mean “prosthetics“), and getting personal with attendees of a meeting people who build those homemade sex machines. But then again, there was only so much discussion I could take when it came to monkey orgasms, genital surgery, and other things I’d rather not even write about here. I’m no prude, but it didn’t take long for me to get my fill of those topics, which Roach goes into with incredible detail.
The best part of the book, though, is Roach’s style, because she is the most entertaining science writer I’ve come across this side of Bill Bryson. She is possessed of a sharp wit and great sense of humor about all this, which goes a long way towards keeping the weird and traditionally private topics approachable and easier to relate to. And it’s not of the sophomoric “boobies, tee hee!” variety, either. Well, sometimes it is, but not often. Instead, Roach makes effective use of footnotes and asides to make jokes about not only the people she’s reporting on, but also to make self-deprecating quips at her own expense since she’s not as far out there as they are. In short, Roach manages just the right mixture of factual science reporting and wry humor. I laughed out loud many times during this book, and that’s got to count for something.
Others doing the 52-in-52 thing this week: