Bonk: The Curious Coupling of Science and Sex

Bonk: The Curious Coupling of Science and Sex bears more than a passing resemblance to Peter Sagal’s The Book of Vice in terms of tone and content: both take a jaunty look at a squeamish area and then use their investigation as a launching point for examining society, politics, gender roles, and history.

To be fair, the last part of that sentence is overly grandiose, but it’s nonetheless accurate, and many of the positive comments I wrote about The Book of Vice could easily be transposed to Bonk. Perhaps not surprisingly, Amazon pairs the two with its buy-both-and-get-more-money-off-the-combo-package feature. The difference are important, however; if Bonk has a thesis, it is that science has long used its objectivity cloak to elude societal retribution and social backlash, with varying levels of success that have nonetheless increased over the years. Furthermore, much of this inquiry ends up saying more about the scientists and society than it does about sex itself. Roach says:

When I began this book, I harbored a naïve fantasy that I would find a team of scientists working to discover the secret to amazing, mind-rippling sex. They would report to work late a night in a windowless, hi-tech laboratory and have unplaceable accents and penetrating stares.

More often she found rather pedestrian researchers concerned with knowledge and funding to pursue that knowledge in an attempt to bring sex out of myth, religion, and superstition. Her main heroes, to the extent Bonk has heroes, are early sex researchers William Masters and Virginia Johnson, who make an early appearance on page 23—”Foreplay” is the chapter heading that would normally be “Introduction”—and we’re still learning about them on page 299—”Persons studied in pairs.” To quote Roach again:

I learned about the project in a New York Times health column. Jane Brody had described the book and its conclusions the week it came out. The subheads the paper had supplied were vague and coy: “Persons Studied in Pairs,” said one. It was like writing up the Million Man March under the headline “Persons Walking in a Group.” In a sentence at the end of a paragraph describing study protocols, Brody notes simply: “Some were assigned partners.” The casual reader, alighting here, might have mistaken the column for a piece about square dancing. I immediately tracked down a copy of the book.

Roach likes to castigate the euphemisms and other covers frequently employed by journalists and others, as she does here, while also laughing at the science-y jargon of experts. This gives her prose the slangy style of your friend at a Sunday morning brunch or a comedian at a club the Saturday night before. She can play for the high end of science and the low-end of slapstick. Still, she’s obviously on the side of the researchers and others working toward openness:

But let’s give Masters and Johnson their due. And while we’re at it, Alfred Kinsey and Robert Latou Dickinson and Old Dad and everyone else in these pages. 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.

This triumphalism might be misplaced—what would the Wall Street Journal editorial page say to such a paragraph?—but if you look past the humor scrim you’ll see that Roach does have a point, and she also ensures that anyone who tries to refute her in a serious tone will come off looking like a stodgy minister at a dance. Furthermore, Roach seems cognizant of her own place in the historical march toward making people comfortable talking about sex openly, and the future might take as dim a view of her as we take of Victorian sex manuals. And I’m not sure what Foucault would think of Roach’s approach to sexual discourse, particularly regarding its examination of history.

But with luck the future will forgive her and still laugh, since a large part of Bonk, like The Book of Vice, is really just using sex to comment on other or abstract ideas; as one researcher says, “You think you know a lot until you start to ask some really basic questions, and you realize you know nothing.” I’ve heard English and computer science professors make similar remarks, whether about the meaning of the capital-N Novel or whether P = NP; in the case of Bonk, the quote just happens to be on the subject of whether women’s orgasms help with sperm transport and conception. In Roach’s, uh, hands, the question launches a historical disquisition on the quest to discover the answer, which, while amusing, also gives the opportunity to realize that we’re probably living in an era where the dominant beliefs about sex, gender, and the like will appear ridiculous someday. While I mentioned triumphalism before, I should also that Roach is triumphant about progress, both normatively and scientifically, and that is a conclusion I can’t help but agreeing with, especially when it’s presented in such an excellent package.

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