Bonk, by Mary Roach: Friday Weird Science has found its Patron Saint

Review by Scicurious, from Neurotopia
Originally posted on: January 19, 2009 1:27 AM

It is rare that a non-fiction book, let alone a non-fiction book about science, makes me laugh so hard I have to put the book down until I can get off the floor. In fact, I would say it's only happened once. That once was during this last week, when I finally got to read "Bonk: the Curious Coupling of Science and Sex" by Mary Roach.

I don't know why I never read the book before. You'd think as the lover of all things Weird Science, Sci would be all over this thing. Me, I blame grad student poverty.

So how was it? Let's just look at the cover:


Yup, that's two ladybugs doin' it.

I have to say I pretty much knew what to expect. I've been a long time lover of "Stiff: the Curious Lives of Human Cadavers". Both books do not disappoint. What I really need her to do now is bring them both together in the glory of "Stiffy: Sex, Death, and the People who Love them Both". Hey, if she doesn't write it, maybe I'll have to.

I would love to interview Mary Roach. This is a woman after Sci's own kidney. Fearless, smart, and with a great sense of humor. You'd have to be to have sex in room while a scientist is giving you an ultrasound, or to watch porn while scientists measure your degree of vaginal lubrication. One of the things I like best about this author is that she DOES do these things, adding a personal level to her narrative. This prevents what could be just a giggle-fest at other people's expense, and makes her book not only hilarious, but insightful.

'Bonk' really is about the curious coupling of science and sex. Unfortunately, Roach never does talk about how ladybugs do it. Instead, she takes us, step by step, through the different sub-disciplines of sex. The penis, the vagina, the orgasm, the clitoris, the hormones. Along the way she relates the history and current state of sex research (completely fascinating), and the scientists so curious about how it all works that they brave repressive societies, lack of funding, and the potential for lifelong embarassment in pursuit of what it is that REALLY drives the human species. You cannot help but salute the men and women who invented the penis pump and the vagina-cam (mounted on a fake penis), though HOW you salute them exactly is entirely up to you.

Roach has a talent for Weird Science. She's got a down-to-earth narrative tone that is frank and funny, and explains science in simple terms that allow you to learn as much as laugh. Sex research is not just the story of human sex, and Roach gets to delve into the artificial insemination of pigs, monkey sex, and the plastic surgery to raise a snipped dog's self-esteem, examples which bring home the fact our sexual techniques are not far removed from the jungle. There's a great deal to be learned from this book, and I would recommend it for anyone curious about what exactly causes erectile dysfunction, how orgasm works, and how men and women differ in what arouses them. Heck, this book is, in a way, a sex guide, so pick it up if you want to know how to please your man/lady/hedgehog/pig.

The author (Ms. Roach? Dr. Roach?) has a lot to cover, and sometimes gets a little lost, referring to people who we may have met a few chapters back, or who we will meet a few chapters later, but who she doesn't have time to introduce just now. I wish she had avoided this and simply mentioned names and a sentence of research affiliation each time, there are a LOT of researchers out there, and remembering them from one page to the next, let alone one chapter to the next, is a challenge.

I also wish she had made space for more sex research into homosexuality. It is mentioned in various places throughout the book, but more as an aside than a topic on its own. I find this unusual as homosexuality is such a high-profile issue (though perhaps that's why she avoided it). I also find it unusual due to her wealth of research on Kinsey, the "founder" of sex research, who's groundbreaking surveys of sexual behaviors really brought homosexuality into the public eye in the modern age. But she has plenty to get through, and perhaps there will be another book somewhere along the line.

Overall, this book may rank among the best (or at least the most amusing) books I have read this year, and it's only January! The fun and lighthearted tone keeps the science interesting, and her obvious respect for the people she interviewed keeps in mind that this really is science, and science which helps us to understand the most basic of human behaviors.

And yes, I will be mining her references section for everything its worth. Your Friday Weird Science is covered for the next year! Stay tuned!

Here I introduce the Scicurious Book Review Ranking System (SBRRS). Scale is 1-5 brains, five being the best. And it's always best to introduce a system with a great ranking!

"Bonk: the Curious Coupling of Science and Sex" by Mary Roach:


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Bonk sounds interesting, but your opinion of Stiff is no recommendation for me. I found that book too flippant about the corpses being discussed, and I wondered if any other people in the healthcare professions (I'm an RN) may have felt the same way. Worse, the book bogged down halfway through and I don't remember finishing it - I may not have.

I agree with JR. I'm a physician and I couldn't make it to the halfway mark of Stiff. Therefore I've been hesitant to try any of Mary Roach's other writings.