If you’re looking for a book that will casually drop facts that will simultaneously make your mouth drop open in disbelief and make you want to share this factoid with everyone, then Mary Roach’s Bonk: The Curious Coupling of Science and Sex is the perfect book. I don’t often outright laugh while reading a book, but my roommate can attest to the fact that every time I opened this book, there was something that had me laughing. Frank descriptions of the ‘sordid’ past of sex research, anecdotes from being a participant in a study, crazy stories that make you exclaim, and more, all come together to create her distinctive blunt, yet hilarious writing voice that entertains you and makes you invested in the story she is telling. Bonk is a wonderful showcase of the time and care Mary Roach routinely puts into the topics she researches.
Right from the get-go Roach captures your attention with her overview of the concept of sex research, while also lending gravity to the stigma and taboo nature surrounding the field. She acknowledges the somewhat questionable methods that the more historical studies used, and suggests that perhaps this is part of the reason why this area of research is often viewed with skepticism, rather than being a legitimate area of study. With this book, Roach makes use of her approachable and entertaining writing style to bring light to the history of sex research, while attempting to make the subject just a little less taboo. She takes great lengths to detail the history of the research, recounting the work of the predecessors and what hoops they went through to complete their work; it was not unheard of for researchers to phrase the title of their work in incredibly vague terms to appease the sensibilities of funding agencies or publishers. With her trip through history, Roach is able to show the progress we have made as a society in regards to how we view sexuality and sex, but at the same time, just how much we have yet to understand about these topics. Considering that sex research didn’t really gain traction, and I use that word lightly since it’s still a seemingly small or not talked-about research field, until the mid-1900s, it’s understandable that we are still learning things about both the male and female body. Years down the road, we’ll probably view the ideas we have today about the subject as archaic as we view those of the ‘50s-70s.
Throughout the book, Roach manages to describe both the psychological and physiological aspects of sex that she learns from the wide variety of experts in this field. She touches upon the fundamental differences of sexual response between men and women, which will surprise few when it seems to be largely based in the physical for men and the emotional for women. Additionally, Roach provides numerous anecdotes of (what some would call) the extreme measures both men and women have taken to improve their sex lives, whether because of societal expectations or because of their own wants and needs. We also learn about the advancing technology that is being used in research labs to better understand the human body, ranging from the classic, and often taboo, ‘observation’ tactic to MRI imaging. Roach is able, through all of this, to show you how important this work is and how every attempt in the past and present is a worthwhile endeavor into understanding this incredibly complex and intricate field of science. She shows us that these researchers often struggled to have their work seen as valid due to any number of preconceived notions about their work or about what kind of people they must be to pursue this type of work. This book causes us to ask ourselves: how is their work to understand a biological reaction and the parts that play a role any different than any other scientist who studies proteins and their role in a cellular process?
While the book may not feel like it comes to a real end with some nice concise and insightful conclusion about the sexuality of humans, I think that that is entirely fitting given the topic. We have so much to learn about the interplay of the physiology and psychology of sex, and it’s too early to have uncovered some great lesson. The book may feel open-ended, but it’s in a way that makes you want to continue to think about the subject and what else there is to learn. And yes, like me, you will probably feel the urge to yell to any friend who’s unfortunate enough to be near you, every time you come across a particularly interesting tidbit of information, for which this book is overflowing with. So, go ahead, take some time to read this book, enjoy Roach’s witty approach to a traditionally sensitive topic, and maybe the stigma surrounding this field of science can slowly be chipped away.