I write about sex quite a bit because it seems to me it is one field of human enterprise that is reframing itself both morally and mythically, and that it relates sharply to other fields like economics and government in the present and practical reality -- but also raises provocative philosophical issues about the nature of human beings and their relationship to existence. So I read all kinds of surprising and sometimes forbidden stuff and it seems that so do a lot of other people -- more than we suspect.
Most recently my book about sex is Mary Roach’s book, “Bonk,” which my brain keeps converting to “boink.” (I think it’s the BBC influence. I’m still waiting for an occasion to call someone a “gormless oik.” “Oik” is like “uck.” Or even “ick” which featured largely in D. Greg Smith’s guess as to why people squirm about gay sex. Mary’s first book was “Stiff” and the one after “Bonk” is “Spook” which is a little risky given what it is slang for. I wonder what she would entitle a book about racism. Actually, the books all have subtitles. "Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers," "Spook: Science Tackles the Afterlife," "Bonk: The Curious Coupling of Science and Sex," and "Packing for Mars: The Curious Science of Life in the Void." Most recently: “Gulp: Adventures on the Alimentary Canal.”
Anyway, “Bonk” is so funny that I laughed loud and long enough to scare the cats. Something about sex makes it ridiculous in the first place (as every little kid knows when trying to imagine the act that created them) and I sometimes wonder whether the close connection to cruelty and power isn’t a reaction to ridicule. Roach works with a team that researches, follows leads, looks for illustrations, and pesters people for access to weirdo experiments that often yield crucial information.
More than that, she helps us to think about what might be unknown unknowables: things we never suspected and ignored in spite of evidence, because it was inconvenient or shielded by political interests. Sort of like war leaders ignoring the idea that indigenous people on the ground actually matter and have ideas of their own.
The bottom line was startling -- to her and researchers as well. She doesn’t present it until the end: excellent sex is two people who explore each others bodies with care and trust, without Woody Allen’s “spectatoring” (how’m I doin’? how’m I doin’?), with concern for the arousal of the other person, and without driving towards fantastic orgasms. The people who knew this and were good at it were the same-sex couples. NOT the macho hets who knew all about g-spots and could even find a clit. I don’t know whether this helps prejudice or not. Will people ask gays for advice or just find one more reason to be angry?
Like this principle, the fun of the book is getting there. Of course she makes the stations of the couch: Kinsey, Master & Johnson, and dear old Van de Velde. There’s no index, but a useful bibliography organized by chapters, and a less-useful “reading group guide,” to give the book a textbook air. Very sober questions. I doubt discussion in a group would follow the suggested pattern. Nor should it.
Much of the book is about practicalities: how do you figure out what’s going on between two partners whose bodies block sight-lines, whose movements won’t fit into an MRI tunnel, and whose subjective interpretations are unique? In the case of the paralyzed subjects, the mysteries and difficulties seem nearly insurmountable, and yet the motivation for understanding is high. Things like simple statistics of how many revengeful women amputate their husband’s penises reveal deep social and cultural differences. SE Asian women living in houses on stilts where the domestic animals hang out in the shade underneath, generally throw the offending organ out the window. It is more likely to be eaten by a duck than a pig. (No reason given. Maybe ducks are just faster.) In cultures with plumbing, the penis may go down the toilet. The outcomes of reattachment are certainly not guaranteed, but possible.
To some extent anatomy is destiny: if a woman’s clitoris is more than an inch from her vagina, special strategy is necessary to trigger an orgasm. One woman, like the man who had a fistula that allowed the inside of his stomach to be observed, had a prolapsed vagina that allowed her cervix to be observed. But it is much more possible than one would have guessed to surgically convert, augment, repair, and stiffen both male and female genitals. It’s just that results vary, but the proportions of success are high enough for people to be optimistic.
The veterinary aspect of this mammalian subject yields one of the funniest chapters, all about how to get a pig pregnant via AI. First, perfume is of the essence (pheromones, you know) so the boar equivalent of a Chippendale dancer is walked through the barn, though his charm is strictly species-specific (a lot of drooling and grunting). Second, a certain amount of knuckling or kneeing the vulvar entrance helps, and then there is the element of the boar’s weight on the back of the sow, which means that the men (it was all men in this account) must actually “ride” their receiver. (There were no sheep jokes in this book.) A curious young man wanting to know whether chimps have spasmodic orgasms went to work “digitally” and soon had his evidence in hand, or at least on finger.
I wonder how many people reflect on all this information. I’m not talking about taboos or censoring. I think we’ve gotten past that, at least wherever there is access to the Internet or daily newspapers. Where we’re weak is in the social implications and where to draw the lines of criminalization. I think the greatest force for freedom of information is commodification. How can you sell vibrators if no one knows they exist? Judging from the number of sex toys in the catalogues for health aids, a lot of people know exactly what they are and certainly want them. I suspect they sell a lot more briskly than walkers with tennis balls at the end of the legs.
But now that everyone has read “Fifty Shades of Gray” and found out about Ben Wa balls, I wonder if they are ready for the version in the last Dr. Leonard’s catalog, which have magnets inside and “soft” spikes on the outside. The ones with soft chimes in them appeal to me more. Mary Roach does not address this sort of balls (she does, the other kind), but it’s one of the few things she leaves out.
This is meant to be scientific, so she does stick to the lab and clinic. Any emergency responder could elaborate on more bizarre sticky practices, and she notes that. This book was published in 2008, but it is already a classic.