Tuesday, July 07, 2009

Bonk Me, Baby!

I just posted this review on Amazon:

Because I write erotica and sometimes blog about sexuality, I’ve been asked with some frequency if I’d read Mary Roach’s Bonk: The Curious Coupling of Science and Sex. To be honest, early reviews of the book turned me off. The focus seemed to be on whacky and weird sex experiments that elicited a cringing response more than genuine curiosity or enlightenment. I was also concerned that the reported humor in the book would be less wit than stand-up comedy-style quips, both masking and screaming out our society’s adolescent squeamishness about sex. I wasn’t totally off base on either count, but when I finally did crack the covers of Bonk, I was pleasantly surprised to find a fascinating and witty journey through the labs of scientific pioneers who refuse to be called perverts. Sadly scientists face the same prejudice as fiction writers when it comes to exploring human sexuality. Roach describes her book as “a tribute to the men and women who dared,” as indeed it is. For example, who ever heard of Robert Latou Dickinson, a gynecologist who was documenting clear-eyed information about female sexual desire as early as 1890? Did you know the birth control pill lowered women’s libidos? (I did, but it’s nice to have it scientifically confirmed). Sure you’ll know more about pig foreplay than you probably want to, but the book is definitely thought-provoking and entertaining. Anyone who might be hoping a major publisher cleverly slipped a one-handed read onto the shelves of respectable bookstores will be disappointed, but if you are interested in the intersection of sexuality, culture and history, I guarantee your eyes will light up when you read Bonk.

That’s my what I said on Amazon. Here are a few notes I took while I was reading:

There was definitely some snickering prudery in this book, including many jokes pointing out how ridiculous sex is, how absurd to watch videos with a sensor in your female body cavity, etc. While laughing at and with sex is healthy, I wonder if a more comfortable attitude would have passed with a big publisher like Norton? It’s as if they needed the “science” as well as the “isn’t sex weird and quirky and absurd” to make the book safe, so they wouldn’t be accused of—gasp—turning their readers on. And we know what kind of sick perverts write to turn the reader on!

Dr. Robert Latou Dickinson, who practiced gynecology on tenement dwellers in Brooklyn Heights in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, reminded me a lot of the doctor I spoofed in my Women’s Fantasies piece. However, it’s also sad his insights didn’t reach a wider audience sooner (unlike my Dr. Jeremy, who really was a pervert!).

Apparently the distance between a woman’s clitoris and urethra is a good indication of how easily she reaches orgasm during intercourse. Short, small-breasted women tend to have a shorter distance. “The stereotypical ideal female--Barbie tall with Barbie big breasts--is the one least likely to respond to manly hammering.” (Right now little ole flat-chested me is smiling a great big Barbie smile.)

Did you know that only 1/10th of the clitoris is visible? I learned about this, or rather had it confirmed, from a fascinating sex guide called Are We Having Fun Yet?: The Intelligent Woman's Guide to Sex by Marcia and Lisa Douglass (now sadly out of print but doing better on Amazon than my book at times). Yes, there’s more to women than meets the eye. We also have “morning boners”—it’s not just your imagination.

I loved this line: “The human vagina is accustomed to visitors.” It sounds so friendly! The entrance is even called the “vaginal vestibule.” (As Mary Roach quips: Take off your coat and stay awhile.)

In a 1973 study, researchers put a group of students in a pitch-black room and assured them whatever they did, they would leave the experiment alone without ever seeing the others. An infrared camera recorded the proceedings (which, presumably were not used to blackmail the participants). Ninety percent touched a stranger, fifty percent hugged and an unspecified amount “necked.” This reminds me of a play tryout in college in 1980—the director was a bit of a sadist and voyeur—where the assembled would-be cast members were asked to close our eyes and move about the room to show how we interact in a group. Lots of heavy breathing and staggering about, and I remember encountering one particular male several times. What transpired definitely moved beyond touching to groping after the first few times we literally bumped into each other. I think I feel a story coming on… Thanks, Ms. Roach, for taking me on trip down memory lane!

And whew, there is a documented link between birth control pills and low libido. The pill puts you into menopause hormonally. Only one in four women complain. I did and the doctor looked at me like I was a freak. But I stopped anyway. Good for me for listening to my body.

Finally, Roach gave us what most readers probably picked up the book to find out. What’s the secret to great sex? Studies appearing in Masters and Johnson’s Homosexuality in Perspective (1979) give us a not-so-earth-shattering answer. All the participating couples, gay and straight, reached orgasm. But the gay and lesbian couples had the amazing sex rather than just the efficient sex. How can you do what they did? Take your time and enjoy your partner’s pleasure rather than approaching sex as a goal-oriented “let’s get it done” task that the 1979 het couples favored. Plus there was a “gender empathy” factor involved as well. Hard to borrow that one, although Roach allows that us poor heterosexuals are better educated about good sex than we were back then. I know I’ve made great strides since 1979! Yet I can’t help but make the connection between the slow, thoughtful celebration of sensuality you find in (most) erotica and those very factors that make for transcendent sex.

Maybe we can change the world one dirty story at a time?


Marina said...

Donna, it's so funny that you've posted this now - I just started reading BONK this week! (It's the book I've been taking to the gym.)

I'm only on the 5th chapter or so, but I'm finding it very entertaining and interesting. Sure, there are a few moments where Roach seems a bit repressed and the commentary seems a little corny, but, overall I'm really finding it to be an amusing and informative read. I know the people at the gym have got to be wondering why I'm giggling and smiling so much during my workout lately!

Erobintica said...

I read this awhile back and enjoyed it despite some of the times that Roach seemed a little, as Marina put it, repressed. I did enjoy her quips, but then I like quips. There was some interesting stuff that I didn't know - the clitoral distance thing for one. I agree that folks that are more open minded and somewhat used to thinking/writing/talking about sex might be a bit impatient with the book, but I think that there are probably a lot of folks (and I bet it's mostly women reading it though I don't know any statistics) have had their consciousness raised a tad.

Jeremy Edwards said...

Yet I can’t help but make the connection between the slow, thoughtful celebration of sensuality you find in (most) erotica and those very factors that make for transcendent sex.

Yeah! And part of what erotica teaches, I think, for heterosexuals, is cross-gender empathy.

Donna said...

Definitely synchronicity, Marina! I'll be a number of your gym mates start reading the book themselves now, lol.

You know, maybe it's a sign of my own discomfort that I'm find her occasional squeamishness annoying. Actually I don't have issues with any one person feeling any way they like about sex, but it's a sort of societal har, har that rubs me the wrong way. Also interesting how she presents Muslim culture as so much more sexually repressed. Again, I've no doubt that it is, but it leaves us feel "superior" when we have a lot of problems, too. I'm always looking at the agenda--a legacy of grad school, I suppose.

Anyhow, I agree, Robin, that any consciousness raising is a good thing. And it's a fun book, I just wonder how many people pick it up to be titillated and find just a wee bit of that sort of thing.

Donna said...

Jeremy, we crossed in the "mail"!

An excellent point. It's cross-gender empathy indeed.

See, I knew we were doing a service to humanity!

Emerald said...

"I just wonder how many people pick it up to be titillated and find just a wee bit of that sort of thing."

That makes me wonder how many people do that maybe because the book is from a big publisher and "credible" and "respectable" so that they either feel okay about grabbing it for that reason or(/and) feel like they can reasonably hide that that's what they're looking for. It strikes me as the kind of thing some may indeed do, when, if that's what they're looking for, why not just buy an erotica book? I think for some that may still seem excessively indulgent or risque.

Anyway, thanks for this review, Donna. I have not read the book myself. I will add to your own self-kudos for "listening to your own body" though. :) I also agree with Jeremy's assessment about erotica teaching cross-gender empathy as well. Excellent point!

Alana Noel Voth said...

Awesome review. Thanks!