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Talk dirty to me

Tara Ison is the author, most recently, of "The List."

What Mary Roach won’t do for a book! In her delicious “Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers,” Roach hung out with severed heads in a dissection lab, sniffed around a body farm (more politely known as a forensic anthropology facility) and studied smashed corpses donated for automobile-crash research -- all to aid her investigation of an aspect of existence most of us prefer to ignore.

Now, in “Bonk: The Curious Coupling of Science and Sex,” Roach has chosen a topic that is perhaps the antithesis of death: our sexual physiology and psychology. Like “Stiff,” “Bonk” (almost interchangeable titles, no?) is rich in dexterous innuendo, laugh-out-loud humor and illuminating fact. It’s a compulsively readable, informative history of the scientific inquiry into the hows and wherefores of engorged tissues and sweaty palms, from Leonardo to Kinsey and on to Annie Sprinkle, including coverage of “artificial coition machines,” panda porn, the challenges of conducting sex studies in Islamic countries and the workings of the orgasm in people with spinal cord injuries.

Roach contends that while the relationship between scientist and science can be tricky, that of the sexologist to sex is especially fraught. Views of sexual activity have always been colored by societal biases or shifting values: The Middle Ages attributed impotence and sterility to demonic forces; the Victorians had their moral take on the “excessive venery” of masturbation; 1950s America had its marriage manuals that turned “the passive, vaginal orgasm into the holy grail of female sexuality"; the contemporary religion of clinical medicine seeks to explain and/or treat every possible form of sexual dysfunction.

As Roach explains, “With sex research, unlike, say, engineering or genome research, almost everything a scientist does can appear -- to the uninformed or close-minded outsider -- to be motivated by a perverse fascination with the subject.” She notes that “William Masters and Virginia Johnson said of their field in the late 1950s, ' . . . science and scientist 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.’ (And then they said, ‘Oh, what the hell,’ and built a penis-camera.)” Regarding a 1984 study of the female orgasm deemed by its principal investigator to be “ethically acceptable as long as the examiner keeps from being erotically involved with the subject,” she points out that "[o]nly in the mutant universe of sexology could a man with his fingers in a woman who is exhibiting ‘hyperventilation, . . . rhythmic pelvic movements, vocalizations, and perspiration’ not be considered erotically involved.”

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But what is the writer’s (or the scientist’s) job, if not to pursue some wonderfully perverse fascination on our behalf? Like the seekers of sexual knowledge she so admires, Roach is a trooper. She doesn’t just report on such phenomena as sex-toy factories, pig inseminations or early 20th century plaster casts of vulvas; at the Female Sexual Psychophysiological Laboratory, she measures her arousal with a “vaginal photoplethysmograph” to help study the correlation (or lack of same) between women’s physiological and psychological states of sexual response. She tests the “Eros Clitoral Therapy Device,” the “only Food and Drug Administration-approved treatment for female sexual arousal disorder.” She talks her husband into making love inside an MRI tube to provide medical physicist Jing Deng with “ultrasound footage of human genitalia in the act of sexual congress.” It’s Roach’s willingness to put herself front and center that guarantees both credible intimacy and intimate hilarity.

Roach learns that “another way to get around the seeming impropriety of laboratory fornication was to so thoroughly bedeck your participants in the trappings of science that what they were doing no longer looked like sex.” And then there’s the very language of sex. She delights in researchers’ anxious reliance on clinical or academic prose to avoid those good, old Anglo-Saxon nouns and verbs: “You need a floorplan to keep track of the vaginas in [Masters and Johnson’s] ‘Human Sexual Response.’ There are vaginal floors, vestibules, platforms, barrels, and outlets. Are people having sex, or are they just visiting Crate and Barrel?”

Clearly, Pfizer understood the importance of language in its media campaign for Viagra: “It wasn’t called impotence anymore; it was ‘erectile dysfunction.’ The stigma of the psychological had been removed.” (Likewise, “frigidity” has evolved into “female sexual arousal disorder,” or FSAD. Faddish treatments and devices are typically couched in wildly euphemistic or metaphorical terms. Even the colloquial has its struggles: “In a study of male and female genital slang carried out at five British universities, respondents came up with 351 ways to say penis . . . and only three for clitoris. . . . The authors felt this reflected society’s disregard of female pleasure, which is probably true, but I simply bemoan the lack of useful synonyms.”

Roach’s preference for the playful over the political is sometimes disappointing, however. She details gender bias in research and language (such as the longtime male-dominated debate between the “vaginocentrists” and the pro-clitoral orgasm team), but she too often glosses over the tragic effects of misguided “treatments.” The profit-seekers or perpetrators of scientific sexual brutalities (such as Leo Stanley’s experimental testicular grafts of animal gonads into San Quentin inmates in the 1920s) often get off easy. And for a writer so conscious of the power of language, her discussion of “clitoridectomies” as the treatment for female “hysteria” up to the 1950s, with no mention of the continuing crisis of female genital mutilation, is too determinedly apolitical.

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Beware, too, the queasy-making or cringe-inducing sequences. There wasn’t a sentence in “Stiff” that made me squirm, but Roach’s needles-and-tubes descriptions of Dr. Gen-Long Hsu’s surgical treatments for erectile dysfunction were hard to bear.

In general, though, if “Stiff” made me glad I wasn’t dead, “Bonk” makes me happy to be alive. Roach’s inquiry into inquiry shows how the very impossibility of accurately reproducing sexual experience in the laboratory is reason enough to celebrate our most complicated instinct: “To my mind, what happened in Dr. Deng’s exam room bore no more relation to sex than a smile held for a camera does to the real thing. It was perfunctory, self-conscious, distracted sex. Other than the parts involved, it bore very little resemblance to what goes on between my husband and myself when there’s not a strange man on one side of us and an ultrasound wand on the other. Though they no doubt have their uses, ultrasound movies are a superficial rendering of the complex and varied body-mind meld that we call sex. Sex is far more than the sum of its moving parts.”


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