Reviews in Popular Science: Dirty Work

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AmericanScience is pleased to present the second piece in our Reviews in Popular Science series, written by Katherrine Healey. Katie reviewed Mary Roach's Bonk: The Curious Coupling of Science and Sex.
Katie Healey is a second-year Ph.D. student in the Program for the History of Science and Medicine at Yale. She studies deaf and disability history in nineteenth- and twentieth-century America. In her limited free time, she trains in improv comedy with the Upright Citizens Brigade in NYC and tries out comic material on her loyal kitty, Marlee Catlin. 

Cover of Mary Roach's Bonk: The Curious Coupling of Science and Sex. New York: W.W. Norton, 2008.
NSFW—the internet shorthand warning “not safe for work”— has rather ambiguous implications for scientists. In her 2008 book Bonk: The Curious Coupling of Science and Sex, Mary Roach shows that when it comes to questions of sex, nothing is off-limits for sexologists, gynecologists, and other sex researchers. Roach examines their investigations of intimate questions concerning the purpose of the female orgasm and of whether sexually stimulating livestock during artificial insemination increases fertility. However, she also documents the struggles to legitimize their work on such sensitive subjects. Bonk, therefore, explores how scientists participate in and justify their research in order to attract both funding and experimental subjects. 

Roach dedicates her book to those who devote their lives to studying sex. She reveals that such work is actually an arduous undertaking, and even the most successful scientists are forever vulnerable to accusations of perversion. Sexologists William Masters and Virginia Johnson, the inspirations for Showtime’s popular series Masters of Sex, explained in the late 1950s that scientists studying human sexual arousal “continue to be governed by fear—fear of public opinion,…fear of religious intolerance, fear of political pressure, and, above all, fear of bigotry and prejudice—as much within as without the professional world.” Thankfully, Masters, Johnson, and others steadfastly continued their work despite such fear.

Alfred Kinsey in 1948 at Indiana University.

Although sex researchers’ aims to improve sex lives or increase fertility might reflect altruistic intentions, their methods are not always selfless. In fact, they often use their own bodies as sites of experimentation. “Rather than risk being fired or ostracized by explaining their unconventional project to other people and trying to press those other people into service, researchers,” Roach explains, “would simply, quietly, do it themselves” (29). Take Alfred Kinsey, for instance, the famous American sexologist who interviewed thousands of people about (and sometimes even observed) their most intimate details to publish his reports in the 1940s and 1950s on the sexual behavior of men and women. Kinsey also masturbated on camera while inserting a swizzle stick up his urethra, all in the name of research (his other self-experiments on urethral insertions involved a toothbrush, bristles-side up, and perhaps lends new meaning to NSFW).

In addition, the British sex researcher Giles Brindley, who self-experimented with a homemade electroejaculator, shocked a roomful of urologists at a conference in 1983 by showing  slides of his own penis after various doses of a new drug for erectile dysfunction. He then dropped the pants of his blue track suit, revealing the effectiveness of his most recent dose, and euphemistically offered the audience an “opportunity to confirm the degree of tumescence.” Brindley’s unorthodox unveiling of results inspired eyewitness Laurence Klotz to publish an article entitled “How (Not) to Communicate New Scientific Information” (315).

Roach herself engages in some participant observation, squeezing a penile prosthesis, having sex with her husband while being filmed in 4-D ultrasound, and borrowing an Eros Clitoral Therapy Device for review (it became a gift; the lender didn’t want it back).

Roach also describes researchers’ efforts to legitimize their work. Acquiring funding for sex-related projects, for instance, often proves challenging. Though Kinsey was well funded by the Rockefeller Foundation, he had to resort to some semantic subterfuge in order to pay his photographer as part of his “mammalian behavior studies” (33). Acquiring human experimental subjects proves equally challenging. People often hesitate to voluntarily engage in sexual practices for research. But Roach explains that it’s helpful to “so thoroughly bedeck your participants in the trappings of science that what they [are] doing no longer look[s] like sex” (30). Tangles of EKG wires, esoteric terminology, and “artificial-coition machines” are helpful in this regard. Roach provides abundant examples, such as William Harvey’s patented Therapeutic Apparatus for Relieving Sexual Frustrations in Women Without Sex Partners, complete with “penial assembly” (56). Sex researchers often must paint even the practical results of their research in the most clinical of terms. Despite promises of discreet packaging, many women shy away from purchasing vibrators to assuage their sexual arousal disorder. But, Roach explains, the guise of FDA approval and a doctor’s prescription makes use of the Eros Clitoral Therapy Device less taboo.

Roach’s book is exceedingly descriptive but occasionally light in analysis. Readers may find themselves wondering, for instance, how shifting political climates impacted sex research. A welcome addition would be a more critical examination of  the categories of gender, race, and class. For instance, Roach mentions nothing of Kinsey omitting his plentiful information on the sex lives of African Americans in his ostensibly comprehensive reports on American sexuality, or of how socioeconomic factors influence who seeks contraception or fertility treatments and why. Finally, her statement that Brinkley’s exposure shocked “urologists and their wives” might make feminist readers (or least members of the Society of Women in Urology) cringe. She does, however, include insightful information about the oft-overlooked category of disability. For example, she reveals Kinsey’s observations that orgasms improve muscle spasticity in people with cerebral palsy for up to eight hours. In addition, she describes current research on sexuality among people with spinal cord injuries and diseases.

Roach shines in documenting sex researchers at work in their laboratories (or in Kinsey’s case, the attic), but their human objects of study are often denied agency. This is perhaps best illustrated in the anesthetized patient whose new penile prosthesis, unbeknownst to him, Roach squeezes. Nonetheless, Bonk is a highly engaging, detailed, humorous—and dare I say pleasurable— read.

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