In a world that is endlessly awkward, one author is approaching sex in a scientific perspective.
Mary Roach, author of Stiff and Spook, spoke at the Walter A. Buehler Alumni and Visitors Center on Monday night about her new book Bonk, which couples science and sex.
The book focuses on sexual physiology – what happens during sex, why it happens and how we could make it better. The book also focuses on sex researchers and the methods they use to study the subject.
Bonk has won various awards including The San Francisco Chronicle’s Best Books of 2008 and is a New York Times Top 10 Bestseller.
What sets her apart from other authors is not her topic per se, but the manner in which she writes it. Her writing style not only allows for her humor to shine through but also informs readers on scientific matters.
Her other books, Stiff and Spook, discuss two completely different topics. Stiff is about the life of a cadaver and what strange things they can be used for. Spook delves into the realm of the paranormal and how people, from scientists to sheep farmers, have tried to prove what happens when we die.
After being introduced, Roach opened the speech with one of many sexual innuendos.
“I would like to thank you all for coming,” Roach said before quickly realizing her orgasmic pun. “Everything I say turns out to be a euphemism [nowadays].”
Roach first became interested in writing about the physiology of sex when she stumbled across a study done by William Masters and Virginia Johnson who studied sex with a penis-camera that they built.
“[I came across this study] and I remember thinking ‘that is going to be my next book,'” Roach said.
Becoming serious again, Roach began her discussion on sex research.
“Sex is this personal, intimate, private thing on one hand, and in the other, it’s anatomy and physiology,” she said. “And how do you study it? … So researchers have a unique problem on their hands.”
She continued her talk with how, as a writer, she likes to get into the middle of things and see them first hand.
In one specific case, another British researcher wanted to conduct a 3-D ultrasound of a couple having sex. Roach volunteered herself and her husband for the experiment.
“Being a subject for a sex study made it less like sex and more like a hospital procedure that you have to do and know is going to be embarrassing but you have to do it anyway,” she said. “My husband had to do all the work and I just seemed to be there for the ride … in fact, I was taking notes the entire time.”
Besides personal experience and field research, Roach spent much of her time researching for her books in the library. She said examples of her research included Phantom Erection after Amputation of Penis and Sexual Intercourse as a Potential Treatment for Intractable Hiccups.
Roach said when people ask her what she is writing about, many people assume that they know all there is about sex.
“There’s this tendency to assume that if you know how to have sex that basically that’s all there is to know,” Roach said. “Sex is a complicated physiological phenomenon.”
Roach then focused on female orgasms and how only 30 percent of women claim to have an orgasm while having intercourse.
One study she looked at showed a correlation between the distance of the clitoris and the vaginal opening and the rate of female orgasm – the closer the clitoris is to the vaginal opening, the more likely it was that the female would orgasm during intercourse. On this topic, Roach approached a surgeon who specializes in sex-change and asked how far he usually placed the clitoris.
“He responded that he usually places it about one inch away from the vaginal opening, which is about average,” she said. “In response, I told him maybe he should reconsider making it closer – he didn’t answer back.”
Her talk about orgasms did not end there. She talked about the “upsuck” theory that proposed that the evolutionary purpose of a female orgasm was to “suck up” sperm from the vagina into the uterus to increase the chances of pregnancy.
Although this is not true for humans, many other mammals have a similar reaction, which is why, as Roach claims, cow and pig inseminators stimulate the animals because it increases the chance of pregnancy by 6 percent.
After her speech, there was time for questions or comments from audience members.
One audience member in particular asked Roach if the book would help the common person have better sex.
“Yes [it will help you have better sex] but it’s not like a self-help book that outlines what you need to do,” Roach said. “[However] I did include some illuminating tidbits I’ve picked up.”
Those who attended were enthusiastic about Roach’s talk.
“[Roach] approaches the subject of sex in a way that our generation can understand – in jokes – and yet still makes it useful and interesting,” said Aaron Skilken, a sophomore technocultural studies and American studies double major.
“She make[s] science interesting, understandable and engaging, which is very hard to pull off,” said Amy Clarke, a lecturer in the University Writing Program. “She’s a great model for scientists who want to get the public interested in what they do and for anyone who is doing their own writing.”
NICK MARKWITH can be reached at email@example.com.