I read Mary Roach’s Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers in 2015. Her sense of humor and ability to research the most unheard of topics is what led me to pick up Bonk: The Curious Coupling of Science and Sex. I wasn't disappointed; Mary Roach and sex jokes go together like chips and guac.
Mary Roach, a science writer who could easily find work as a stand-up comedian, researched the lesser-discussed area of sex and science to bring the world a book it's been missing. Bonk is a summary of that research, acting as a brief overview of sexual history and physiology while giving the reader access to the most obscure facts.
Artificial insemination, vaginal orgasm, sex toys, erectile dysfunction - anything and everything is discussed in Bonk.
It’s easy to take for granted the centuries of research that have given scientists today's understanding of the human body. Blood vessels, brain activity, bone growth - all of these things had to be figured out hands on. (Stiff talks about a lot about early researchers who did what they had to to acquire cadavers to study.) But what about sex research? When did that start? Who started it? Roach highlights all of the major contributors, from Leonardo da Vinci to Alfred Kinsey.
The most interesting chapters, to me, were the first few when Roach discussed 20th century studies and the limitations the researchers had. Most research subjects were prostitutes, scientists had to develop their own equipment, and they were extremely vague when reporting their findings. It’s not surprising that sex research struggled in the 1940’s and 1950’s, but I for one am glad it was done. Roach made sure the benefits of these studies were clear, as knowledge of general sexual health and what causes infertility is something we can all agree is important.
One thing I appreciated was her focus on the strictly physical - not emotional - reactions that occur during arousal and sex. She made a point toward the end of the novel to say that physical arousal in either sex in no way implies that rape didn’t happen because there was erection/lubricant. (Wording and emphasis is mine, I didn’t remember to write down exact quotes before returning this one to the library.) The mindset that men can’t be raped because they had an erection, or that women actually wanted sex because their vagina was lubricated, absolutely makes my blood boil. Physical reactions have been proven to be separate from emotional desire in such cases. Maybe one day the culture will catch up with those studies, but in the meantime, Roach’s factual book is a great start to understanding.
As with Stiff, Bonk started off very strongly. By the last quarter of the book, however, I was ready to be done with it and it took me a couple weeks to finish those chapters. The end material was just as interesting but there are only so many random sex studies a person can read about, especially when a good portion of the book is about sexual behavior in animals. Sorry, pigs.
I would love to meet Mary Roach. I’m sure she’s just as hilarious in real life and could share even more knowledge on the subjects she studies. The rest of her work will be happily read by me in the future, but in the meantime I just wish there was a way I could chat with her over coffee.
Roach’s humor and meticulous research makes Bonk a 4 out of 5 for me. After reading it, I’ve started recommending her to people looking for non-fiction works. If you need me, you can find me in the Mary Roach fan club.