Sexology without the boring bits
Bonk - The curious coupling of science and sexMary Roach
W.W. Norton & C., 2009
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‘Sexology’. The word itself is enough to fire up your imagination and conjure scenes of passionate studies in search of the Pleasure Supreme: outrageous experiments, hot scientists and adventurous research projects about mysterious erotic practices.
Unfortunately that’s just imagination, however. Real sexology is an uncommonly dull discipline that focuses almost entirely on three subjects. There is basic education and prevention, a desperate battle against institutional obscurantism; there is erectile dysfunctions, now about vanquished by Viagra and questionable surgery; there is female arousal deficiency (usually caused by trite relationship issues with oneself and the partner). Thousands of further possible topics remain unstudied, partly because nobody finances “controversial” research, and partly due to the assumption that sex isn’t so important for serious people – even if they ruminate about it 24 hours a day just like everyone does. The net result: an incomprehensible ignorance of even fundamental questions such as the exact shape of the clitoris, that science “discovered” in full only in 2009.
Bonk, by brilliant science popularizer Mary Roach, luckily is about the remaining part of sexology: the fun, or at least the interesting, one. The book actually traces the history of this scientific field following two major and attention-grabbing themes. The first is a strong focus on curious anecdotes – like the incredible saga of the Napoleon’s niece who, in order to finally enjoy a good orgasm, lead a decades-long research that saw her disguised as a male, arguing with Freud and even inventing the surgical repositioning of the clitoris, which she tested on herself first. Twice.
The second recurring theme is the field research the author took upon herself. Instead of just browsing academic papers, Roach went in person to talk with probably mad surgeons, help sow inseminators, watch the mating of various animal species and even to participate as a guinea pig in an embarrassing experiment. Not to mention her quest to find the world’s first fucking machine, of course. All of these episodes are told with spirit and irony coupled with the utmost scientific precision, abundant footnotes and a rich bibliography.
As entertaining as following the author on her surreal experiences is, Bonk above all shows the reader how little we actually know about sex. Better still, it highlights how sexuality and its trappings make for a privileged observation point over uncountable other hidden sides of the human soul. If this sounds like an exaggeration, try reading the chapter about the “medical use only” vibrators industry: it’s a great lesson about hypocrisy and prejudice.
Finally, this book is also mildly therapeutic. After you read about the troubles of the lady who is tormented by debilitating orgasms whenever she brushes her teeth, or those of the Muslim widows who are forced to prostitute themselves in order to have any sex life, you are left with the impression that you can be more indulgent with your own small, inevitable little difficulties. Oh, and if you hoped Bonk had the ultimate secret for having fabulous sex, let me spoil it for you. One of the most shocking revelations comes from a long study of the minute details of what various couples actually did when they had sex. After months of collating data, researchers found out that all the most satisfied couples shared one trick: they talked about what they liked among partners. A great reason to start learning about the topic, isn’t it?
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