Sexual Advances

Paul600 Pamela Paul reviews Mary Roach’s Bonk: The Curious Coupling of Science and Sex.

Intended as much for amusement as for enlightenment, “Bonk” is Roach’s foray into the world of sex research, mostly from Alfred Kinsey onward, but occasionally harking back to the ancient Greeks and medievals (equally unenlightened). Roach belongs to a particular strain of science writer; she’s interested less in scientific subjects than in the ways scientists study their subjects — less, in this case, in sex per se than in the laboratory dissection of sex. She delights in medical euphemism and scholarly jargon; you can hear her titter as she rolls out terms like “vaginal photoplethysmograph probe,” “nocturnal penile tumescence monitoring” and “vaginocavernosus reflex.” Writing about a 1950s-era study of vaginal response in which female subjects copulated with a penis camera, Roach wants to know how exactly the “dildo-camera” operated, who volunteered to make use of it in a laboratory setting and, above all, where the device is now. This is “as good as science gets,” she writes, “a mildly outrageous, terrifically courageous, seemingly efficacious display of creative problem-solving, fueled by a bullheaded dedication to amassing facts and dispelling myths in a long-neglected area of human physiology.”