The Curious Coupling of Science and Sex
By Mary Roach
Illustrated. 319 pp. W.W. Norton & Company. $24.95.
‘Bonk,’ by Mary Roach: Sexual Advances (March 30, 2008)
Janet Maslin writes:
Readers of Mary Roach’s first two books know what “Bonk” means. It means that the author of “Stiff” and “Spook” has plastered another snappy, one-word title onto another of her fluffy, facile and by now formulaic surveys of science-related exotica. This time erotica is also a factor, since Ms. Roach’s new subject is sex research. In order to give “Bonk” a first-person chumminess, the writer moonlights as her own favorite guinea pig.
“I’ve been tripping over the cringe factor all year,” Ms. Roach writes in the introductory chapter that she calls “Foreplay.” No wonder: the cringe factor is everywhere. Whether Ms. Roach is measuring her own genitalia for one doctor’s study (“It is interesting,” he writes to her, “that you could reach this stage of life and not really have any call to know how the parts line up”) or interviewing skilled Danish pig inseminators, she continues to ask herself whether she’s making her readers queasy. It seems an utterly rhetorical question.
When she jokingly envisions a moment of voyeurism “because that’s the kind of sicko I am,” she is not really describing her own proclivities. She’s describing her way of writing. Sounding like a sicko is important to “Bonk.” Sounding like a coy, winsome sicko is even more so.
That approach enables Ms. Roach to describe, say, the spurting of vaginal fluids in a tone of clinical interest, then shrug off the subject with a wisecrack. “I do so hope they wore lab glasses,” she writes about the sex researchers who conducted that particular investigation.
It’s odd that “Bonk” arouses less morbid interest than Ms. Roach did with her earlier books about the dead and the supernatural. Granted, morbidity was a basic part of those books’ reporting. But a comparably unhealthy curiosity ought to be prompted by some of the bizarre anatomical minutiae that is cataloged here. Certainly that formula works for circus sideshows, with which “Bonk” has too many interests in common. The penile mishaps (one involving a bristled toothbrush), severings (one involves hungry ducks) and surgeries cited by Ms. Roach are nothing if not memorable, but her book consistently undermines its own discoveries. So “Bonk” uneasily mixes revulsion with “those rare, shining moments when urology approaches high comedy.”
“If you hurl an uprooted penis into the air, it will not come back to you,” she writes, invoking the boomerang as an anatomical model. “It will most likely, and who can blame it, want nothing to do with you.” By the same jokey reasoning the existence of vaginal “floors, vestibules, platforms, barrels and outlets” cited in the research of Masters and Johnson prompts Ms. Roach to reach for levity by asking, “Are people having sex, or are they just visiting Crate and Barrel?” At her most flippant Ms. Roach maintains that “like tenors, there are three well-known vaginal fistulas.” After comparing one of these to Pavarotti, she pronounces them “nothing to sing about.”
Even the more serious parts of “Bonk” are aerated by authorial stunts. Most notably, in investigating exactly how researchers study coital imaging, she volunteers to enter an M.R.I. machine with her husband, Ed, and join what she describes here as “the 20-Inch High Club.” As part of this process, “we must hold still for several seconds, like Victorians posing for a tintype, only not like Victorians posing for a tintype.”
What emerges from this experience? One party-perfect anecdote and not much interesting information.
The same frivolousness persists, even about subjects on which few readers really seek enlightenment: genital transplants, orgasmic corpses, furtive sexuality in Egypt and the bizarre business of fertility treatment. Ms. Roach devotes all of two paragraphs to the fabulously strange career of Dr. John R. Brinkley (whose exploits are the subject of a much more entertaining new book devoted to sexual eccentricities, “Charlatan,” by Pope Brock).