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Lingerie Puts on a Labcoat

Stephanie Eve Boone reviews Bonk: The Curious Coupling of Science and Sex, by Mary Roach, and More: Population, Nature, and What Women Want, by Robert Engelman

Bonk: The Curious Coupling of Science and Sex, by Mary RoachAlfred Kinsey’s 1948 book Sexual Behavior in the Human Male was controversial like a fox, a best-seller that brought him international acclaim.  1953’s Sexual Behavior in the Human Female, however, inspired backlash so severe that the Rockefeller Foundation yanked his funding.  In a scene from the 2004 biopic Kinsey, the scientist reads scathing reviews over his wife’s protests.  “I’m trying to find out why people hate this book so,” he says.  Clara replies: “You told them their grandmothers and their daughters are masturbating.  Having premarital sex; sex with each other.  What did you expect?”  Other factors were in play, of course, but one can reasonably argue that Alfred Kinsey got in trouble because he published scientific evidence that women enjoyed and participated in sexual acts that couldn’t, or weren’t intended to, result in children. 

Kinsey is one of the heroes of Mary Roach’s Bonk: The Curious Coupling of Science and Sex (W.W. Norton & Company, 2008), a witty, scientifically grounded, delightfully accessible survey of men and women who have shared the novel idea that an activity most people think about dozens of times a day merits study under a microscope (or, as you’ll read in Chapter 5, in an MRI machine).  Roach’s goal, a slight variation on Kinsey’s, is to illuminate the scope of human sexual experience and undermine the idea of normalcy in sex and science. 

Although the most famous, Kinsey wasn’t the first or last person to dedicate a huge portion of his career to the science of sex.  Roach’s personal favorite appears to be gynecologist Robert Latou Dickinson, who recorded his patients’ sexual histories from the 1890s to the 1930s and advocated not only masturbation but the kind of sex that cost Lilith a husband (whom she probably didn’t miss).  Behaviorist John Watson called sex “the most important subject in life” and may or may not have studied his mistress’s “responses.”  William Masters and Virginia Johnson left their spouses for each other during a thirty-year collaboration that included a paper entitled “Persons Studied in Pairs” (three guesses what the persons were doing).  Roach weaves their stories together with those of contemporary researchers, and her own transcontinental quest for all sexy science.  In a chapter on the debate about the role of female orgasm in conception, she flies to Denmark and watches professional pig inseminators at work.  In Taiwan she spends the week with the world’s foremost expert in erectile-dysfunction surgery (warning: men, you might want to drink a beer before you read this chapter).  In Cairo she interviews the prolific sex-reflex-specialist Ahmed Shafik, who must publish outside his Muslim homeland. Roach’s dedication takes her to London where, in between sightseeing trips, she and her husband have “three-dimensional moving picture” sex in a laboratory while awkwardly chatting with the University College researcher (he had trouble recruiting volunteers, so the author volunteered herself and loyal Ed).  In Texas, she participates in a slightly invasive study of women’s physiological and psychological responses to pornography.  This willingness to become a subject in her own research might make Roach look weird, but also demonstrates her respect not only for the scientists, but the volunteers who give them something to work with.

Roach claims on her website, “I don't have a science degree and must fake my way through interviews with experts I can't understand.”  Well, she must know how to do her homework, because Bonk, tailored to intelligent non-scientists like its author, demonstrates quite sufficient understanding of physiology, biology, and psychology.  You’ll put this book away with the ability to dazzle and discomfort your friends with facts about the role of the central nervous system in orgasm, the goings-on in Alfred Kinsey’s attic, and the technique through which porcupines avoid the missionary position.  You’ll also encounter tales of institutionalized sexual repression. On her visit to Shafik, Roach learns that men in Egypt often try not to give their wives orgasms so they won’t complain if the men experience impotence.  “If you never eat a kiwi,” says Roach’s source, “you never want a kiwi.”  Most of these stories, fortunately, are set in the past, but they illustrate the climate of discomfort with sexuality, and disregard for women’s sexuality, that causes many of the problems discussed in another new release.

More: Population, Nature, and What Women Want, by Robert EngelmanRobert Engelman doesn’t have much to say about sex, but the belief that women should be able to enjoy it free from worry about child-rearing is implicit throughout More: Population, Nature, and What Women Want (Island Press, 2008).  He’s concerned with the most common biological consequence of the act, which keeps the human population growing at a rate of three people per second.  Engelman’s argument is simple: when family planning is affordable, available, and socially acceptable for each woman on Earth, population stability will naturally follow.  For support, Engelman reaches back to the origins of humanity—and what results is a book that concisely covers human history, through the window of family planning, in fewer than 300 pages.

Engelman is on a mission: he seeks to convince his reader that the key to a sustainable world population is gender equality, and he’s not just patronizingly advocating the treatment of women as equals, but arguing that women have been men’s equals from the beginning.  To accomplish this common-sense task (unfortunately, common sense all too often requires evidence), he offers a revised view of humanity’s ascension, questioning the image of “Man the Toolmaker… honing his weapons and cooperative strategies for bringing down big animals.”  He points to anthropological and archeological theories that women were equally involved in the development of tools, language, and agriculture. Particularly interesting is the theory that women invented horticulture; ironic, considering that patriarchy rose with the development of agrarian societies—in most hunter-gatherer cultures, where women brought home a steady supply of food, they may often have attained equal or near-equal status with men. 

Integrating the discussion of population, he tells us that concern about crowding is not unique to the post-Industrial age; in fact “the most likely hypothesis for what sent the first bipedal primates out of Africa is a prehistoric version of crowding.”  As anyone who has ever scavenged for empty boxes or shelled out for a U-Haul knows, people rarely pick up and move to an unfamiliar place simply for kicks.  As early human populations grew and their landscapes reached carrying capacity, some young people needed to strike out for new land; within a few thousand years, we were fighting each other for habitats and resources.  And family planning isn’t new under the sun, either: particularly when resources were scarce, women sought to limit the number of children they had, using emmenagogues (plants with contraceptive properties), pessaries, primitive condoms, the rhythm method, abortion, even, as a last resort, culturally accepted infanticide—this not because our ancestors were monsters, but because survival for one child could mean starvation for two. 

Most of the book is dedicated to the pre-Medieval timeline, but he eventually touches on familiar figures in the history of birth control and family planning.  The stories of such people as Robert Malthus and Margaret Sanger resonate with the reader who is now familiar with the extended history shaping their ideologies.  Engelman then moves swiftly into a discussion of 20th and 21st century trends in family planning.  To illustrate its tenuous relationship with politics, he tells a little-known story about George H.W. Bush: nicknamed “Rubbers” as a congressman, he was forced to give up his family planning advocacy to become Ronald Reagan’s running mate in 1980.

Refuting the not-uncommon stereotype that women in developing countries want a half-dozen children, Engelman cites anecdotal evidence of women who travel from miles away for affordable birth control, and girls in Africa who hatch plans to have only two children, both after they turn 24.  Ultimately he argues that population stability is and will be greatest where gender equality or near-equality is the norm.  “Leave to women, more than anyone else, the decision about when and how often to bear children,” he writes.  “The history I’ve explored in this book suggests that doing so has moderated population growth in the past, and contemporary evidence makes clear that it does exactly that today.”  Given the historical evidence he provides, one is inclined to agree with him—although its success hinges on a pretty big if.  It may be a few years before women in all parts of the world are encouraged to try kiwis whenever they like.


Stephanie Eve Boone, Terrain.org's reviews editor, has written for such publications as American Book Review, The Buffalo News, The Cleveland Plain-Dealer, Sonora Review, and The Journal of Popular Culture. She blogs about running at Examiner.com and covers national political news for Politics Unlocked. A native of West Virginia, she earned an MFA in nonfiction from the University of Arizona in 2007. A writing teacher, she currently lives in Buffalo, New York, with her fiance, Dan.
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Bonk: The Curious Coupling of Science and Sex

By Mary Roach

   W.W. Norton & Company
   ISBN 978-0393064643

More: Population, Nature, and What Women Want

By Robert Engelman

   Island Press
   ISBN 978-1597260190


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