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BonkReview - Bonk
The Curious Coupling of Science and Sex
by Mary Roach
W. W. Norton, 2008
Review by Robert Scott Stewart, Ph.D.
Jul 29th 2008 (Volume 12, Issue 31)

Males, it seems, tend to be much more focused and less easily distracted when it comes to sex. As Alfred Kinsey discovered, "Cheese crumbs spread in front of a copulating pair of rats may distract the female, but not the male" (252). Interestingly, this 'fact' helps to explain why Viagra works well for many men but attempts to find a 'female Viagra' have been far less successful. In men, there tends to be a strong connection between mind and body with respect to sexual arousal. Hence, an erection is a sign of arousal, and lack of one usually means there isn't any arousal. Women tend to be more complicated: vaginal lubrication, e.g., doesn't necessarily mean that a woman is sexually aroused, and the lack of lubrication doesn't necessarily mean she is sexually uninterested. (No wonder we men are so often confused.) Hence, if a man has trouble getting or maintaining an erection -- "erectile dysfunction," or "ED" in current parlance -- it is typically some sort of problem 'of the body,' which can be cured by a purely chemical intervention. When women complain of a lack of interest in sex, however, the problem is not so straightforwardly corporeal and hence a cure isn't likely to be purely chemical. As Roach puts it, "it is the mind that speaks to a women's heart, not her vaginal walls" (255).

Due to this complexity, it is often perilous drawing sexual conclusions based solely on bodily responses to various stimuli. Roach reports on one fascinating (and disturbing) study carried out by Canada's National Defence Medical Centre in the 1950's and 1960's.

The purpose of this study was to uncover sexual orientation via physical criteria in order to keep gays out of the military. In this case, the criterion was pupil response. Subjects were strapped into a machine -- the "Fruit Machine," no less -- to record pupil response when the subjects were presented with various stimuli. "If a man's pupils widen while he looks at a naked man, they figured, then that must indicate a preference for the male package" (256). As Roach points out, the experiment was beset with problems from the start: to begin, they had difficulty attracting test subjects. The Department of Defence maintained, of course, that they had no gays in the forces and so sent no subjects, and Mounties were, understandably, reticent to volunteer as a control group or anything else. The experimenters also forgot to control for the brightness of the images subjects were being shown: "Meaning that if an RCMP recruit looked at an image of a dark brown horse, the Fruit Machine operator would have to assume that the Mountie and his mount were engaging in something more than national security" (256). Switching from pupil dilation to measuring changes in the circumference of a man's penis wasn't much better since people can, through will power and training, come to control their response. Indeed, through Pavlovian conditioning, people can be trained to develop new erotic fetishes, such as knee-high, fur- lined boots, high-heeled black shoes, and golden sandals (257).

Roach's book is filled with reports of such studies, covering everything from the relationship between clitoral location and sexual excitement, whether female orgasm produces an "upsuck" that boosts fertility, attempts to improve male fertility through testicle grafts (taken from a host of sources including monkeys and executed convicts), whether masturbation is good for your health, finding sex test subjects in Islamic countries, to the exploits of some of the early pioneers in sex studies, including Kinsey and Masters and Johnson. Needless to say, it's a quirky book, and Roach has a quirky sense of humor as well as a quirky sense of what is interesting subject matter. Examples of her humor include the following, the first of which occurs in a discussion about 'sex machines'. "At the base of the penile assembly was a wide, black, wiry cuff of 'fur-like' or 'hair-like' material. For the partner-less woman who wants not only the ultimate climax or orgasm, but also the feeling that she is actually having sex with a shoe buffer" (57). "Women who came to him for contraceptive advice were told to wear a piece of cat liver in an ivory tube attached to their left foot. Though I suppose this might well help keep you from getting pregnant, in the same way that Birkenstocks might" (214). Examples of some of the very odd subject matter Roach provides her readers covers everything from odd urethral insertions for sexual pleasure (Kinsey used a toothbrush, bristle end first) while others used corsage pins, twigs from Christmas tress, and a farmer who used a rat's tail (33, footnote) to the various machinations of pig 'inseminators' in their efforts to impregnate sows (including how to 'milk' a boar and riding on the sow's back as she is inseminated in order to mimic the male's movements during intercourse).

Oddly, however, Roach hardly discusses sexual behavior at all. That is, her book focuses almost exclusively on biology and neurophysiology at the expense of the ways in which humans in particular think about sex and the effect those 'thoughts' -- conscious or unconscious -- have on our sexual behavior. Moreover, in a book that takes a number of pokes at scientific investigations of sex, one would have thought that many of theories propounded by sociobiologists-- or evolutionary psychology as it is now more typically called -- would have made good grist for her satiric mill. Unfortunately, these theories don't get any mention at all. Finally, I was also somewhat disappointed by the lack of a unifying theme for this book beyond what the subtitle affords us. That is, the book is more a random sampling of some strange work done by scientists in the field of sex research than it is a unified whole working towards a conclusion. That having been said, however, much of the material here is fascinating and Roach presents it in an accessible and humorous way.

© 2008 Robert Scott Stewart

Robert Scott Stewart, Ph.D., Professor of Philosophy, Cape Breton University


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