Bonk author Mary Roach and the science of gettin' it on
Let's talk about sex (academically)
David Paul Morris
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Sex research occupies a dubious place in the scientific world. While it's a field that has led to crucial discoveries like some of the causes of cervical cancer—and is responsible for about a third of all the e-mails in your inbox (need some V1AGR4?)—it's still regarded by many as the sort of thing that you just don't talk about. Unless you're Mary Roach, that is. Roach, a science writer whose previous books, Stiff and Spook, shed a funny, gonzo light on human cadavers and the afterlife, respectively, threw herself into the world of sex research with similar abandon. The resulting book, Bonk, came together after she pored through the work of Alfred Kinsey and William Masters and Virginia Johnson, traversed the globe to find how they “do it” in other cultures, and recruited her husband to join her as a test subject in a London lab. Roach will share some of what she learned tonight at BookPeople, but Decider spoke with her first to talk about prostitutes, what it takes to get George W. Bush to fund your research, and whether America will ever be able to talk about sex without giggling.
Decider: In the preface, you talk about how your friends and family were suspicious when you were writing this book, and how every sex researcher encounters the same thing when they tell people what they do, as though their motivations are questionable. Do you think it's still impossible for people to be mature about sex?
Mary Roach: For anybody who encounters a sex research project, it's very hard to be like, "Oh yeah, they brought a couple of people into a lab, had them breathe through snorkel masks, put clothespins on their noses, wired them up, and then told them to have sex." It's very hard to take that at face value. You just kinda go, "What?!" Most people are either amused or titillated. No, I don't think we’re able to because otherwise my book would just be another science book.
D: Where does that giggle response come from?
MR: We exist in this weirdly schizo culture, where sex is everywhere in the media and yet, at the same time, you don't sit down and have a conversation about what you did in bed last night with your friends. Despite the ubiquity of sex, it's still a taboo when it comes to day-to-day conversation. And if you ask the average person if they'll be a subject in a sex experiment, unless they get off on being observed, most people would go, "God, no! That'd be so embarrassing."
D: Do you think that'll change? In the book, you say things like, "That wouldn't fly in 1950—or in 2007, for that matter." Are we ever going to get there?
MR: I was talking about Masters and Johnson, which was the ’50s, which was between two people in the lab. Nowadays, they put one person in the lab, and they have to masturbate while watching pornographic material—and that's not a big deal because you have privacy. But it's hard to really imagine couples having sex in a laboratory today, 60 years later. We don't seem to have made a tremendous amount of progress in that area. I think that stems mostly from ignorance of what the project is, and that they're hearing about it out of context. When I was writing Stiff, people would be, like, "Oh, my God! They used cadavers in a landmine experiment! That's completely disgusting and disrespectful of the human form!" But once you explain it to people, they go, "Oh, that makes sense." It's the same with sex research. People go, "Oh! They bring people into a lab, and they're showing them pornography, and our tax dollars are paying for this!" But then you go, "Well, there's this thing called female sexual arousal disorder, and we're trying to see what contributes to that," and then people start to understand. The taboo just comes from a lack of information.
D: A lot of the researchers in the ’50s—especially Masters and Johnson—used prostitutes in their research. Do you see ethical issues with that?
MR: Prostitutes were used to being paid for sexual things. To them, it was just another gig. They weren't being coerced. I don't see an ethical problem with it, but there are people who say that if you want a "normal" example to use for research, prostitutes are not ideal.
D: Was it weirder for the non-prostitutes?
MR: They used the prostitutes for the beta test, basically, and they hadn't really worked out the kinks yet. They wanted people who were very comfortable talking about sex, too, to help them figure out how to do their work. After that, they brought in non-prostitutes, so they weren't being used simultaneously. Also, it was a university setting. The Masters and Johnson Human Sexual Response Project was such an amazing undertaking, and people were so supportive that I think it just became something like giving blood. You did it because you really believed in it—at least, as far as I can tell. Sadly, I couldn't speak to any of those people, because they were all anonymous.
D: Clyde Martin, who had worked with Kinsey before striking out on his own, went on to use sex research to attack promiscuity from a political standpoint. Do you think people who might be uncomfortable with sex studies would be more inclined to support research like his?
MR: It certainly might make it easier to get funding. I don't know of many people who've done sex research with an eye toward people saying sex is bad for you, except for the promiscuity and cervical cancer link—which is actually a valid discovery. But if you were working on something during the last administration, you'd have a much easier time getting your project funded.