Between the Covers:
The Science of Sex with Mary Roach


“Once upon a time, there was a princess named Marie. She had long, thick curls and beautiful brown eyes, and her clitoris was three centimeters away from her vagina. The last bit was very depressing for the princess. She could never manage an orgasm during intercourse, and she felt certain that the far-off placement of her clitoris was the reason.”

In her latest New York Times bestselling novel, Mary Roach explores such questions as “Does height affect a woman’s capacity for sexual pleasure?” and “Can a person really achieve orgasm through mental concentration alone?” Bonk: The Curious Coupling of Science and Sex covers facts, myths and the weird, investigating a wide range of studies conducted around the world. I caught up with her at her book reading event at the Bodies Exhibit and solicited her for an interview. Luckily she obliged my humble requests and I was able to squeeze in a few questions during her busy book tour.

H: Your research process must have been interesting, to say the least. How long did it take? Did you hit any speed bumps along the way?
M: It took a couple of years. You know a lot of the time I was waiting for some study to get going and they wouldn’t get funding, or they’d get delayed. So the whole process got stretched out because I’m dependent on the researchers’ schedules and things tend to move very slowly in the academic world. The problem was usually that they weren’t doing something in the labs that was interesting to describe or they were already done with the project or they were only doing survey work.

H: During the course of your research, you traveled to Taiwan, Cairo and London. Did you notice any cultural differences in the way researchers approached the study of sex?
M: Certainly, Professor Shafik [of Cairo] had to. He couldn’t publish in his own country. I didn’t notice other cultural research differences partly because I think that one of the biggest differences is just that there are just whole areas of the globe where no one will do this kind of research. Especially in any kind of conservative Islamic or Muslim nation, it would be a point for criticism. Unfortunately, Dr. Shafik died of a heart attack shortly after the book came out so he never got to see it. He funded his own work, so he’s one of a kind. I don’t know that there would be too many people like him and certainly not in Egypt. He’s a bit of the controversial figure.

H: I’m sorry to hear that; he was a real maverick. I was especially interested in his implications when he said, “In all Arab countries, I don’t know why and how, conservative people are coming up greatly. Greatly!” Similarly, you mention on separate occasion that America in the 1950s was much more conservative than America in the 1920s. In terms of sexual liberation, are societies progressing or regressing…or what?
M: I think that we took a couple steps backwards during the Bush administration because there was such a rise in support of conservative family values. Christian groups would target researchers who did sex research. They would target them for criticism or put them in the spotlight for ‘wasting funds.’ Hopefully, with the Obama administration things are back on track. In general, though, sex is a lower priority for research than, lets say, cancer or cardiac issues or mental health. It tends to be considered a lifestyle issue so it doesn’t get priority for funding as much.

H: Well maybe if sex was given more scientific priority we could more quickly expel common misconceptions. My favorite comes from the Middle Ages (and page 143 in the paperback version of Bonk) explaining male impotence: “…the common assumption was that impotent men had been cursed…[Witches] made the man’s penis disappear.” Of course, some hundred years later, we know this to be untrue. If you had to guess, what which common belief of contemporary society would you predict we’d look back upon 200 hundred years from now and think “Wow, we had it all wrong, didn’t we?”
M: I’m hoping people would look back with utter
surprise and incredulity at the opinions of people who don’t accept homosexuality, who think that it is something to be punished for or ashamed of or discriminated against. I think that seems pretty backwards, so hopefully in 200 years that will be just really puzzling to that people who were persecuted or beaten up or murdered or denied the ability to legally adopt a child because of their sexual preferences. We should be there by now and we are in urban areas, but we’re not in the rest of the world, or even the rest of the country.

H: One of the fun tidbits in your book cites that some bulls actually exhibit homosexual arousal while others may exhibit the desire for multiple cows. If cows don’t seem to mind homosexuality (or threesomes for that matter) why should we? I mean, er, do you think that the existence of homosexuality and “aberrant” behavior in other species supports the “nature over nurture” theory?
M: Well, actually there is a book called Biological Exuberance, which has about 600 pages and contains all kinds of quote unquote aberrant behavior in animals. I wouldn’t draw any conclusions but I think it is so prevalent across the animal kingdom – I think you could certainly point to that as an indicator… that its not surprising that it occurs in humans too. I’m sure conservatives would have a different interpretation of it.

H: Love and sex have been portrayed inextricably in so many instances. And yet, you consciously isolate the two and focus solely on the mechanics of sex. Was that an intentional choice? Would you write a book on love?
M: I’m always interested in surprising and peculiar things going on in laboratories. Love is particularly ill-fitted because it’s almost impossible to bring love into a laboratory situation. So, it doesn’t work as something you can study quantitatively very well and for that same reason… I wouldn’t do a book about it. People write about it in terms of evolution or biology but that’s theory and speculation and it’s not my bag.

H: Then, what is your next venture?
M: My next book is about the early days of aerospace medicine and current day space simulations. It covers all the weird physiological and psychological things that happen to human beings when you put them in an environment for which they are utterly un-adapted. It’s another quirky science.

H: Does aerospace sex make a guest appearance in the book?
M: Oh yeah, certainly. There’s a chapter about zero gravity sex, absolutely! I’ve already written it.

H: Oh, tell me about it!
M: No! You’re going to have to wait.

Mary Roach has been published in Outside, National Geographic, New Scientist, Wired and The New York Times Magazine. She has published three books including Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers, Spook: Science Tackles the Afterlife and most recently, Bonk: The Curious Coupling of Science and Sex. She holds a bachelor’s degree in psychology from Wesleyan University.

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