Bonk by Mary Roach

The funny side of science is the gift that keeps giving for Californian writer Mary Roach. Following the popular Stiff and Spook, Roach presents another monosyllabically-titled letter from the oddball research frontline with Bonk. While Stiff looked at cadavers and Spook studied the spirit world, Bonk covers the science of sex.

If sex seems like a more conventional topic than those previous, the people and studies that Roach uncovers are anything but. In fact, as far as we may have come since Kinsey, sexology is still a difficult and curiously inexact science. Most of the research is still conducted in poorly-funded laboratories, where staff conceal their jobs from friends and family behind baffling titles. It comes as a surprise that our sex-obsessed society knows so little about how the act works.

Much of Bonk explores the unique challenges of researching this basic human activity. Social conservatism is still a barrier to research, although comparing Roach’s description of a club night dedicated to (literal) sex-machines with the necessary coyness of pre-war journal articles, it’s clearly a diminishing one. The challenges are more financial — most sex research will never lead to a money-spinner like Viagra — and practical. How do you see what a cervix does during orgasm? Who do you experiment on when studying orgasms? Can arousal be measured objectively? The answers seem to be, respectively, a penis camera, any willing volunteer, and maybe.

The methods for overcoming these practical challenges are the best parts of Bonk, due to their ingenuity and Roach’s witty, irreverent descriptions. Her affection and respect for these oddball scientists is clear and the potential for comedy is high. And Roach seizes that potential with gusto. It’s hard to really blame her. After all, sex has been (ahem) fertile ground for comedians since the dawn of humour. A respectable, scholarly examination of the last century or so of sex research might be illuminating, but it would be terribly dull. Bonk is never dull.

Naturally, the humour is sometimes a bit juvenile — Roach appears to have never met a double entendre she didn’t like — but it’s effective. Take Roach’s observation that “Kinsey wanted Dellenback to film his own staff. There are three ways to read that sentence, all of them true.” Your enjoyment of the book will depend on how funny you find that sentence.

As with Spook, a lot of the laughs are at the expense of past ignorance. Just as the study of ectoplasm is ludicrous to a modern audience, so too is the concept of a cervix “trapping” a penis during intercourse — but it was widely believed. Luckily Roach isn’t in it for the cheap shot as much as she is fascinated by the dedication and enthusiasm of these misguided pioneers. Even when it’s ridiculous (such as Leonardo’s anatomically-incorrect “coition figures”), it makes for interesting reading.

“Interesting” could equally be substituted with “uncomfortable” at several points. Chapter 8’s frank depictions of penis surgery will have most male readers crossing their legs. The female reader’s response to the description of Marie Bonaparte’s clitoral relocation would be similar. Even in these enlightened times, squeamishness will rear its head.

Roach at least shares our discomfort. In the post-gonzo world of journalism, the challenge is often to see what extremes and indignities the author will subject themselves to in the name of a story. Roach is nothing if not personally-involved in her work, but in Bonk she goes above and beyond — having sex with her impossibly-supportive husband inside an MRI scanner.

Unfortunately, the outcome is probably less satisfying than the sex act itself. After an awkward tumble covered in ultrasound gel, Roach can only offer the conclusion that “Sex is far more than the sum of its moving parts”. She could have reached that staying in with candles and a bottle of champagne. This is the weakness of Bonk in a nutshell. Roach is more interested in shocks and laughs than real insights. Her flippancy is refreshing, but over the course of the book it starts to undermine her more serious points. Humour is good for crowd-pleasing, but sometimes the crowd wants some substance mixed in.

The book’s key message is that sex is a tricky subject for science but that small gains in knowledge have improved our enjoyment. Oddly, actual benefits are hard to discern in the research examined. We may know more about the mechanics and physical processes involved, but the answer to the biggest questions of human sexuality is more often than not “it varies”. The limitless ability of humans to be complicated and unpredictable foils understanding.

While Spook debunked pretty much every study of the afterlife undertaken, Roach came to the conclusion that there were more things in heaven and earth than were dreamt of in her philosophy. Bonk make similar points about the limitations of knowledge, but you could be forgiven for thinking that it was an extended (cough) dick joke.

RATING 7 / 10