This review was originally published on the Blowfish Blog.
If ever a book was tailor- made for me to enjoy, this is it.
I’m a huge science nerd. I’m a huge sex nerd. How could I not love a book called Bonk: The Curious Coupling of Science and Sex?
Well, let me tell you how. Exactly.
First, I should disclaim for a brief moment: Bonk is not a terrible book. The subject matter — the history of the scientific study of sex, and some of the more interesting examples of its current state — is a compelling one, loaded with fascinating ideas both about sex itself and the appallingly/ entertainingly conflicted attitudes society has about it. And the author — Mary Roach, celebrated author of Stiff and Spook — is no slouch. She’s a thorough researcher and a clear, fun writer, adept at taking complicated and potentially boring scientific ideas and making them accessible to the lay reader.
Which brings me to the problem.
The problem is this: The author’s attitude towards sex is annoyingly adolescent, bouncing back and forth between giggling and gross-out Especially when it comes to some of the more unusual or extreme sexual variations she’s writing about.
And that really gets up my nose. It’s irritating; it’s insulting to my intelligence… and it leads to some actual misinformation.
Take this. From the introduction, discussing the fact that she injected some of her personal experiences into the book:
My solution was to apply the stepdaughter test. I imagined Lily and Phoebe reading these passages, and I tried to write in a way that wouldn’t mortify them. Though I’ve surely failed that test, I remain hopeful that the rest of you won’t have reason to cringe. (p. 18)
Well… no. Why would I cringe? I’m reading a book about sex. Why would I cringe at descriptions of the author’s sexual experiences, or responses, or participation in sex studies?
In fact, I did cringe when reading this book. Repeatedly. But it wasn’t because the author was being too sexually explicit. It was because she was clearly cringing herself.
One research team collected specimens of the expulsion [female ejaculate] and asked outsiders to characterize it. It is a testimony to the generosity of the human spirit that these volunteers both smelled and tasted the specimens. (p. 198)
Hey, you know what? I have both smelled and tasted female ejaculate. And it didn't require any “generosity” on my part. I was, to put it mildly, happy to do it. Admittedly it wasn’t in a laboratory setting… but the point remains that not everybody would need to search for the generous spirit in their hearts in order to take part in this experiment. If Ms. Roach is grossed out by female ejaculate and would need to buck herself with a spirit of volunteerism in order to smell and taste it, that certainly doesn’t make her unqualified to be a sex writer… but her blithe assumption that everyone shares her reaction is a pretty big strike against her.
I’m not saying there’s a link between Catholicism and sex toys. I’m just saying I’ve got a brand-new interpretation of Isiah 49:2 (“The Lord… hath made me a polished shaft”). (p. 216)
Tee hee. You said “shaft,” Beavis.
And my final example before I move on:
In one of the sections on erectile dysfunction, Roach has a fairly long and detailed discussion about cock rings. But the discussion focuses almost entirely on cock ring mishaps — trips to the emergency room and whatnot — resulting from too-tight cock rings made of too-rigid materials.
And nowhere in this odyssey of penile disaster does she mention that the majority of cock rings are flexible and removable: made of stretchy material such as leather or rubber, and fastening with snaps or laces or Velcro or some such for easy removal. If you read Bonk and had never heard of a cock ring before, you wouldn’t come away thinking, “Hm, interesting, that could be a nifty alternative to Viagra.” You’d come away thinking, “Who in their right mind would do something that stupid?” And you’d come away misinformed. I don’t know if Roach didn’t know about flexible/ removable cock rings, or if she simply chose not to mention them because the disasters were funnier. And I don’t much care. Either excuse is, well, inexcusable.
I understand that she’s trying to present her subject with humor. That’s not the problem. I’m all in favor of the humor, and have even been known to apply it to the topic of sex myself from time to time. But there are varieties of humor available to a writer other than adolescent fits of grossed-out giggles. And they’re rather more appropriate to sex writing… both for an adult writer, and for an adult audience. I hate, hate, hate sex writing by writers who seem embarrassed by their topic.
It might be easier to talk about what this book does wrong by comparing it to a book that does it oh so right. The Technology of Orgasm: Hysteria, the Vibrator, and Women’s Sexual Satisfaction is hilarious. It had me laughing out loud on roughly every tenth page… a feat that Bonk almost never accomplished. And at no point in the book did I get even a whiff of a sense that the author was embarrassed by her topic. Quite the contrary. Rachel Maines approaches sex in general, and the history of vibrators in particular, with an earthy, blunt, clear-eyed gaze, and no embarrassment whatsoever.
And that absolutely does not interfere with her humor. Heck, it’s the foundation of it. Maines is vividly aware of how laughably absurd sex — and people’s reactions to it — can be. But she doesn’t find the very existence of sex to be the source of the laffs. Her humor isn’t the humor of discomfort. It’s not the unnerved giggle of an adolescent; making light of sex to dilute its importance, and making a show of being repulsed by it to deflect the powerful hold it has.
Roach’s humor in Bonk, alas, is exactly that.
And while it doesn’t make Bonk completely unworthy, it does turn it into an interesting but irritating book… when it could have been a great one. I have rarely opened a book with so much excitement and anticipation. And I have rarely closed it with so much frustration at the opportunity it missed.
Bonk: The Curious Coupling of Science and Sex. By Mary Roach. W.W. Norton. ISBN 978-0-393-06464-3. Hardcover. $24.95.
The Technology of Orgasm: Hysteria, the Vibrator, and Women’s Sexual Satisfaction. By Rachel P. Maines. Johns Hopkins University Press. ISBN 978-0-801866-46-3. Trade paper. $17.95.