Book review

History is bonk

Sex: the good, the bad and the ugly

The Globe and Mail, 24 May 2008

BONK: The Curious Coupling of Science and Sex
By Mary Roach
Norton, 319 pages, $24.95

There's a long-standing debate in sex research about whether female orgasm improves the chances of conception. Hippocrates thought it did; Aristotle disagreed. "You never see anything written about Mrs. Hippocrates or Mrs. Aristotle," Mary Roach writes in her entertaining new book, Bonk, "but I'd put a few drachmas on the former being the one with the spring in her step."

True to form, she inspects the controversy up close. The idea is that orgasmic uterine contractions draw sperm in, thus aiding conception, a phenomenon known as "upsuck." And where better to go to confirm that than a pig farm in Denmark? Danish research indicates that sexually stimulating a sow while she's being artificially inseminated can increase conception rates by 6 per cent. So Danish pig farmers are now encouraged to follow a government-backed five-point stimulation plan. This involves things like hoisting up her back legs and pushing rhythmically with a fist or knee near her vulva. Some farmers even go so far as to jostle the sows' mammaries with their boots. Which reminds me: In Mary Roach's books, always read the footnotes. It's here you'll find, for instance, that pigs and men are the only males on the planet who like to fondle breasts. Who knew? Or that the official statistic of how many men die from having sex (39 cases out of 21,000 autopsy reports) is far too low. That's because when men die having sex at home with their wives (as opposed to in hotels with prostitutes), there isn't always an autopsy. In a scientific paper titled The Coital Coronary: A Reassessment of the Concept, Leonard Derogatis estimates that there are probably more than 11,000 sex-related deaths in the United States every year, making it as common as dying by food poisoning or hepatitis C.

As with her previous books, Stiff and Spook, in this one Roach ranges widely. One minute we're hearing about how polyester dampens the sex lives of rodents forced to wear it. The next, we're watching a doctor in Taiwan implant a penile prosthetic in a 70-year-old man (who, we're informed, has a 40-year-old wife who needs satisfying).

Then we're watching primates courting each other and talking about the hormones that drive all the action. "Hormones," she writes, "can act as the invisible puppet strings behind the discomfiting one-night stand, the shameless flirtation with the bellboy, the unexpected and regrettable kiss between friends. Your genes want you to get pregnant, and hormones are their magic wand."

One of the most provocative sections in the book is about what sex is like for people with spinal-cord injuries. A surprisingly high percentage of paralyzed patients - 40 to 50 per cent - are able to experience orgasms, although it takes about twice as long. For a while, the theory was that only people with incomplete, or very low, spinal cord injuries could have orgasms, but it turns out that's not entirely true. That discovery is leading to new thinking on how orgasm, in all of us, is controlled - for instance, that it might actually be a reflex, part of the autonomic nervous system, like digesting.

Mary Roach is a bold and hilarious writer and a fearless investigator. The book is a great read. Nonetheless, I have two quibbles. One is that, perhaps due to the application of what she calls "the stepdaughter test" - that is, stopping herself from writing anything that might make her stepdaughters gag - she holds back in some places.

Her trademark is to get right in there and tell things as they are, first person and straight up. In Bonk, for instance, we find her convincing her husband, Ed, to fly with her to London so they can be the first subjects in an ultrasound imaging study of two people having sex. The telling is very funny, but when the chapter ends, you're left with the strong sense that she's kept some important bits off the page.

Similarly, she spends a fair amount of time discussing research on whether the distance between the clitoris and the vagina has anything to do with which women can achieve orgasm from intercourse alone. Marie Bonaparte (great-grandniece of Napoleon) was the first to notice an association: more than 2 centimetres, according to her, and you were out of luck. (She had hers surgically relocated more than once - but to no avail.) Roach makes a big song and dance about measuring herself, then coyly declines to report, or give her reaction. That's not the un-stepdaughter-tested Mary Roach we've all come to love.

My other small complaint is that her selection of material seems very arbitrary. Sex research, unlike dead bodies or the afterlife, is a reasonably mature science. In this book, it comes off as a series of tangents. Although she gives nods to some of the major players, I found myself wondering why some very marginal people got so much play, while so many others got no mention at all. We spend a whole chapter in Egypt, for instance, with a doctor who does not collaborate with other scientists, finances all his own research, conducts much of it with paid prostitutes and could not demonstrate even one of his findings after promising her he'd do so.

She ends on a positive note, though, pointing out that at least somebody thought to investigate the most important question of all: What makes great sex? A little-known study by sex researchers Masters and Johnson found that gays and lesbians had a lot to teach heterosexuals. The main lesson? Take your time.

Too much information

Sex is one of those rare topics wherein the desire for others to keep the nitty-gritty of their experiences private is stronger even than the wish to keep mum on one's own nitty-gritty. I would rather have disclosed to my own mother, in full detail and four-part harmony, the events of a certain summer spent sleeping my way through the backpacker hotels of South America than to have heard her, at the age of seventy-nine, say to me, "Your father had some trouble keeping an erection." (I had it coming: I'd asked about the six-year gap between my brother's birth and mine.) I remember the moment clearly. I felt like Alvy in Annie Hall, where he's standing on a Manhattan

sidewalk talking to an elderly couple about how they keep the spark in their marriage, and the old man says, "We use a large, vibrating egg."

From Bonk