Mary Roach, BONK

Science and sexuality have an uneasy history together, with taboos and repression often interfering with research and understanding.  But that has changed (largely) in modern times, and a wide variety of methods are used in the scientific community to figure out some of the science behind sex.  Bonk: The Curious Coupling of Science and Sex by Mary Roach explores several of these avenues of exploration; and it does so with intelligence, understanding, and a profound sense of humor.

Bonk is, in a sense, all over the map of how sexuality is explored by scientists today.  There are explanations and discussions of anatomy (including genitals, various treatments for impotence, and how to measure stimulation), mechanical, er, assistants (from whether vibrators increase overall sensitivity to coital imaging) to mysteries and debates (the impact hormones and pheromones have on humans, how people with spinal damage and no sensation below their waist can still experience orgasms).  Roach travels around the globe (Canada, Egypt, Taiwan) and goes back in time -- research-wise -- to find out what has been done and what is being done.

Bonk could have been dry stuff -- some authors can even make sex boring -- if it wasn't for Roach's sense of humor as well as her intelligence.  Roach keeps an open mind, but that doesn't stop her from sometimes being incredulous about what she learns or encounters, or making wry or goofy comments on the material: "Shafik won my heart by publishing a paper in European Urology in which he investigated the effects of polyester pants on sexual activity.  Ahmed Shafik dressed lab rats in polyester pants."

While Bonk takes an open and frank approach to the subject matter, there are plenty examples here of repression and fears that stifled this sort of research (and still can today: Several scientists mention the difficulty of being taken seriously or getting approval for their work, while the aforementioned Shafik, who works and lives in Egypt, fears the impact of the repressive Muslim Brotherhood).  But Roach demonstrates that the scientific exploration of sexuality can be serious and playful at the same time -- and, in the end, very illuminating.  Bonk is that rare creature: an informative scientific work that's also witty and entertaining.

Overall grade: A
Reviewed by James Lynch

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