Review | Bonk by Mary Roach

Bonk: The Curious Coupling of Science and Sex

by Mary Roach

Published by W.W. Norton

288 pages, 2008



Birds Do It, Bees Do It

Reviewed by Caroline Cummins


Years ago, Mary Roach paid the bills as a freelance travel writer. Being Mary Roach, however, she tended to pick offbeat locations (Antarctica) or offer goofy takes on the familiar (poking gentle fun at taxi drivers for a three-days-in-London story). Roach is best known now, of course, as an irreverent science writer. But she’s still picking unusual destinations, or finding the funky hiding in the familiar.

Her three books -- Stiff, Spook and now Bonk -- boldly go where most other writers fear to tread, into the realms of cadaver research, scientific attempts at tracking the afterlife and the hush-hush history of sex studies. They’re beloved because, unlike most non-fiction books about science, they’re laugh-out-loud funny. But under the humor is a serious mission: to report on the valuable, if bizarre and/or embarrassing, work that science is doing on the nature of death and sex.

Roach is unafraid to ask questions about things that make most people, even scientists, uncomfortable: What happens when we die? Do we have a soul? Why is sex fun? These are fundamental questions, and Roach is right to ask what science is doing about them. What’s more surprising is that often the scientists themselves don’t ask the tough questions, as Roach finds out in Bonk when she asks Bob Nachtigall, an OB/GYN professor in San Francisco, whether the female orgasm has an effect on female fertility:

He sighed. “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.”

Like Roach’s two previous books, Bonk is an episodic look at the modern history of a particular branch of science research, in this case the study of sex. She covers the usual suspects (Kinsey, Masters and Johnson) and uncovers a few oddballs (a princess obsessed with the location of her clitoris, an Egyptian doctor who secretly pays prostitutes to be research subjects). She gives guys and gals equal time under the sheets, exploring penile implants and third testicles as well as the aforementioned clitoris and vibrators. And, yes, masturbation is declared to be scientifically good for everybody.

Roach’s hilariously digressive footnotes are given even more space in her third book, jumping pages and occasionally crowding the main text halfway off the page. One of her favorite sex researchers is a witty, earthy woman named Cindy Meston, who has a knack for making fun of her own profession and its tendencies toward bureaucratic alphabet soup:

She had the task of composing a questionnaire to screen patients to see if they were promising candidates for surgical correction of a crooked penis (due to Peyronie’s disease). The surgery repairs the crook but takes as much as an inch off the length. Meston called the questionnaire the Washington Examination of Expected Negative Identity Post-Peyronie’s: the WEENI PP.

(If you don’t get it, pretend it’s a vanity license plate and say it out loud.)

Roach never claims to be a scientific expert herself, and she doesn’t offer any easy conclusions (except perhaps the bit about masturbation). Yes, science can be wacky, and misguided. And sometimes, eventually, it can be useful. It’s that fumbling toward enlightenment that Roach enjoys and values, and that makes all of her books worthwhile.

As she writes at the end of Bonk, “The laboratory study of sex has never been an easy, safe, or well-paid undertaking. Study by study, the gains may seem small and occasionally silly, but the aggregation of all that has been learned, the lurching tango of academe and popular culture, has led us to a happier place. Hats and pants off to you all.” | August 2008


Caroline Cummins, a longtime contributor to January Magazine, is now the managing editor of the online food magazine Culinate.