Bonk: The Curious Coupling of Science and Sex

Cover image for Bonk by Mary Roach by Mary Roach

ISBN 978-0-393-06464-3

“This book is a tribute to the men and women who dared. Who, to this day, endure ignorance, closed minds, righteousness, and prudery. Their lives are not easy. But their cocktail parties are the best.”

With Bonk, Mary Roach delivers a smart and funny read about the history of the scientific investigation of sex. She pays tribute to the researchers who have dared to investigate this taboo subject, evincing a great sense of humour about the prudish state of affairs. At the same time, she calls attention to the truth of the matter; what is truly amazing about the science of sex is how much don’t know or don’t know for certain. Researchers struggle for the funding and human subject review board approval they need to conduct their studies, only to be faced with the further difficulty of being treated as perverts by their colleagues, and having to cloak their research in euphemistic language in order to achieve publication. Unfortunately, as a book of science and humour, Bonk does not delve into what could be done to improve this state of affairs. Certainly, as Roach has demonstrated, we have come a long way, but there is a long way yet to go.

Despite the humourous style, this is not recommended reading material for the faint of heart; Roach investigates and discusses medical procedures that would make most people cringe. Some of the historical procedures (and even a few of the modern ones) are both terrifying and hilarious. Be prepared to read about relocated clitorises, inside out penises, toothbrushes inserted head-first into urethras, and much more. Roach does deploy comedy to mitigate some of the horror, and her sense of humour is fully in line with her subject. For example, she assigns a penile implant patient the pseudonym Mr. Wang.

Roach is also a relentless researcher; she asks all the pertinent questions and then she delivers the answer, even if it turns out that the answer is “we don’t know.” However, even she comes up against impenetrable walls due to the delicate subject. Virginia Johnson (of Masters and Johnson) refuses to speak with her, and the Kinsey Institute informs her that certain videos are “not available” for viewing. Her research is by no means confined to books and archives, although she has uncovered some of the very interesting patents in the U.S. Patent office (for example Patent 3, 941, 136 which is an anal electrostimulator designed to induce orgasm, defecation or urination in animals). She visits the researchers and doctors in person, and even volunteers herself and her husband as study participants in order to provide an inside view which considers the research subject as well as the scientists.

This book contains a lot of footnotes, but don’t skip them! These are not the usual dry research notes and asides, but rather, hilarious tangential tidbits that Roach obviously could not pass up including somewhere. A moderately long bibliography is included for those interested in further, but the hardback edition lacks an index.

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10 thoughts on “Bonk: The Curious Coupling of Science and Sex

  1. I listened to the audiobook of this, and was laughing so hard in places – the narrator managed the line between serious and funny perfectly

      1. I didn’t know; thanks for the heads up! This is the first book I’ve read by her, though, so I still need to go back and read her previous ones. A friend of mine particularly recommended Stiff.

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