Bonk: The Curious Coupling of Science and Sex is a hugely entertaining book on sex research that is chaotic, delightful and utterly compelling.
The book is by science writer Mary Roach, whose past book Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers is one of my favourite science books of all time and when the publishers offered to send me a free copy of her new book I jumped at the chance.
Roach does something different to most other science writers – she writes about the research itself and not just about the findings. This means you get a fascinating insight into how people go about researching sex, what motivates them, and often most surprisingly, what exactly they’ve chosen to investigate.
One of the joys of the book is its asides and footnotes which make it a bit like getting a bit drunk with a knowledgeable and slightly overenthusiastic friend. Take this section on spinal cord injury and orgasm:
It’s strange to think of orgasm as a reflex, something dependably triggered, like a knee jerk. [Sex researcher] Sipski assures me that psychological factors also hold sway. Just as emotion affect heart rate and digestion, they also influence sexual response. Sipski identifies orgasm as a reflex of the autonomic nervous system that can be either facilitated or inhibited by cerebral input (thoughts and feelings).
The sacral reflex definition fits nicely with something I stumbled upon in the United States Patent Office web site: Patent 3,941,136, a method for “artificially inducing urination, defecation of sexual excitation” by applying electrodes to “the sacral region on opposites sides of the spine.” The patent holder intended the to help not only people with spinal cord injuries but those with erectile dysfunction or constipation.
The author also takes part in several studies herself, describing the slightly surreal situations that arise from bringing the personal into the lab, and doesn’t lapse into nods and winks when the gritty detail is needed.
Like, Jeff Warren’s excellent The Head Trip: Adventures on the Wheel of Consciousness it’s sort of an educational travelogue through the world of science, where we encounter the people associated with sex research and the research itself. It’s both completely fascinating and very funny in places.