The Science of Sleeping Together
Mary Roach has taken on ghosts and cadavers. Now she's got her eye on sex.
Mary Roach is the funniest science writer since Samuel Tissot, bar none. Who was Samuel Tissot, you ask? He was the author of Onanism; or, A Treatise Upon the Disorders Produced by Masturbation, a "slim, pernicious work of hyperbolic quackery" published in 1760, which is quoted in Roach's new book, Bonk: The Curious Coupling of Science and Sex.
Describing "the effects of self-pollution on a watchmaker referred to as L.D. [Tissot wrote]: 'A pale and watery blood often dripped from his nose, he drooled continually; subject to attacks of diarrhea, he defecated in his bed without noticing it, there was a constant flow of semen ...' Hello, yes this watch you sold me is all sticky and stuff?"
Such is the wit and imparted wisdom of the ages that Roach trades in, to great, laugh-'til-you-gag, or vice versa, effect, in not only Bonk but also in her two previous books, Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers and Spook: Science Tackles the Afterlife.
With Bonk, Roach manages to render even the squirmiest of sex-research topics (penile flensing, for example) if not palatable then at the very least excellent fodder for dinner-party icebreakers.
Roach spoke to the Chronicle by phone prior to her upcoming appearance at the Alamo Drafthouse's the Best of Sex Ed show (sponsored by BookPeople) this Monday.
Austin Chronicle: Your books have the best titles. I imagine it's tough to distill the essence of one of your factoid-dense books into a single-syllable word.
Mary Roach: Well, talking about all three titles, with Spook it was an incredible, insane journey of probably 250 titles. I would submit a list of 30 titles, and then my editor would say, "Mary, none of these really sing for us," and then she'd come up with one like Ghost Hunters, which, of course, sounds like a cheesy Discovery Channel show. We had, let's see, Goosepimples ...
AC: Eek? Yipes!?
MR: Boo! Yeah, we had tons. Coming up with Bonk was a little more difficult. Screw was too vulgar. Shag was too British. There was a big Boink vs. Bonk discussion, not so much with me and my people at Norton but with friends and acquaintances telling me it's "boink" and not "bonk." They actually did market research at Norton to make sure that people knew what it was about in case Bonk wasn't clear enough.
AC: "Boink" sounds like an onomatopoeia sound effect Mad magazine's Don Martin would've used.
MR: Totally. When the eyeball pops out and bounces down the street before the steamroller hits it? "Boink." My editor was very anti-Boink.
The original subtitle was Sex in the Laboratory, which I kind of like better than The Curious Coupling of Science and Sex. It was felt, however, that a laboratory suggested something boring or, like, scientists hooking up after hours. I thought that would've actually worked pretty well.
AC: When you begin researching a new book, where do you start? I like to think of you hunched over some ancient tome of forbidden knowledge at midnight in an abandoned library, reading by the light of a single guttering candle. Or, alternately, with a crowbar, in that vast warehouse at the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark.
MR: I go to my friendly Google. Because when I start out, I start from a place of absolute and utter ignorance. In the case of Bonk, I Googled "Sex ... Research ... Institute ... Facility" and so on. I needed to find out who was out there doing interesting things with sex. In a laboratory setting. Eventually I end up in some wonderful, weird archives, but that's further along, before the massive e-mailing begins. I generally only use the Internet, though, to find out where this kind of research is being conducted. I never use it for hard data, although I sometimes use it for footnotes, as in Bonk, where I discovered the hidden history of Pyrex as a shatterproof butt plug on the Pyrex website.
AC: In Bonk, as in all your books, you've really mastered the art of making weird science marginally less weird for a lay audience – no pun intended. That's hard to do – still no pun intended.
MR: Yeah, but I love reading the scientific papers, actually, because they have that wonderful jargon, the 20-syllable words. They've got that wonderful geek quality that I depend on. For a book like Bonk, I'm hitting the [University of California-San Francisco] Medical School library endlessly. There are whole weeks of that at a time. But then a lot of time is spent spinning my wheels, carefully writing an e-mail that lets somebody know that I support the research that they're doing, that I'm not writing an exposé, that I'm not out to pull their funding, you know? I'm just trying to write this letter that will win them over and allow me entrance into their world. And then half of those bounce back, or it's an old e-mail address, or they just don't want to have to deal with me. So there's a lot of wasted time when I'm working on the research portion of a book. I'm not very efficient.
AC: How many people turned you down flat for Bonk?
MR: You know, the sex researchers surprised me, because they are people who have every reason to say no, but nobody did.
AC: No one? That is surprising.
MR: Initially the Kinsey Institute just didn't respond. And then they responded very curtly. But then when I called, the woman was very nice. As it turned out, they're not doing anything physiological these days; they're doing mostly survey work. But nobody said "No" outright. People said, "Well, you can't watch, because the subjects review committee won't allow it, but you can be a subject yourself." So there was usually a way around it. I got a lot more nos with Stiff, particularly in England. People are very uncomfortable with cadaver research in Europe. In two or three countries, I got no replies. Then again, maybe I didn't have the right address.
AC: Not many nonfiction writers can wield surplus data like you can, via your insanely entertaining and informative footnotes. I might go so far as to say you have a footnote fetish.
MR: I know, I know. I may have overdone it this time. I counted, and there were 116 in Bonk and only 43 in Stiff. But people always tell me my footnotes are the best part, and so I figure that since the footnotes are only 8 percent of the book, I better give people more.
AC: What's the most surprising piece of information you uncovered during your research for Bonk? What was the one thing that really blew your mind?
MR: Oh, God, there were so many. I'll give you three: Women have nocturnal clitoral erections. Who knew? I didn't know that, and it's pretty amazing. Another amazing thing: Some men can have multiple orgasms. Another thing I didn't know. And then on a less explicit level, what I found surprising was just the number of really basic questions about human sexuality that remain unanswered, such as whether orgasm plays a part in upping your chances of conceiving. Tons of debate have gone into that question, and it's still not a closed-book case. There's a lot we still don't know. That's what's really surprising.
Mary Roach will appear at the Best of Sex Ed show at the Alamo Ritz (320 E. Sixth) on Monday, April 14, at 7pm. The show also includes host Owen Egerton's favorite archival sex-education films. For more information or to purchase tickets, visit www.originalalamo.com.