'Bonk' by Mary Roach

A no-holds-barred account of life in the sex lab

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As anyone who has read Mary Roach's earlier books knows, her quirky titles guide readers through emotional bramble bushes with plenty of humor and nary a scratch.

When the topic was everyone's eventual state of cadaverhood, Roach wrote the laugh-out-loud "Stiff."

   
"BONK: THE CURIOUS COUPLING OF SCIENCE AND SEX"

By Mary Roach
Norton ($24.95)

   

For those who were skeptical about, but not totally dismissive of, scientific studies of the afterlife, she offered "Spook."

Now Roach risks the wrath of spam filters and human gate-keepers with "Bonk."

Like its predecessors, her new book is a showcase for Roach's hallmark wit and innovative, thorough approach to research. With her first-person approach, readers venture wherever she does, their embarrassment defused by her uninhibited style.

Beginning with "Foreplay" instead of the usual "foreword," Roach serves as a wise-cracking guide on a safari into the human body's and mind's most intimate recesses. Readers soon find themselves on a quest for:

"A mildly outrageous, terrifically courageous, seemingly efficacious display of problem solving, fueled by a bullheaded dedication to amassing facts and dispelling myths in a long neglected area of human physiology."

Roach went to the laboratory where the famous team of Charles Masters and Virginia Johnson did the research for their 1966 book, "Human Sexual Response." Many of their observations came from images captured by "a thrusting mechanical penis-camera that filmed -- from the inside -- [women's] physical responses to it."

Although she was unsuccessful in locating the device itself (possibly dismantled) or any of its original footage (probably still around but under tight security in an undisclosed location), Roach vividly re-creates the research project. She then reviews other past and current research that attempts to correlate detailed measurements of the female genital sub-structures with specific physical, psychological and emotional sensations and responses.

Later chapters do the same for the male of the species and his favorite organ.

No aspect of human reproductive or other sexual behavior and the anatomy involved therein is left unexplored. Readers are bound to learn more than they ever wanted to know about functional and dysfunctional bodies and minds of both sexes.

To Roach, nothing is sacred. She manages to persuade her intrepid husband, Ed, to make love while imaged by ultrasound. The inducement is an expense-paid trip to Europe where the research is being conducted.

It is a distinct improvement over previous studies done in the narrow cylindrical chambers of MRI machines, but the experimental setting and the knowledge that they are being observed is certain to be off-putting. Ed is given that little blue pill just to make sure he succeeds.

Not all of the research Roach describes is so exotic. But her quirky viewpoint turns studies of primate sex or the effect of hormones on humans into entertaining reading.

"Bonk" is far from pornography, but it is hard for readers of either sex to avoid noting their personal responses to it. Does that add to their reading pleasure? And do they feel guilty about it?

Perhaps that's the next project for Roach. Stay tuned for "Porn?"


Monroeville physicist-author Fred Bortz does not discuss alien sex in "Astrobiology," his latest title for young readers, though he admits to being curious about it.


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