Sex & Relationships

'Bonk' Tells Us Some Amazing Things About Sex

Author Mary Roach on why you're lucky that you're not a rhesus monkey and other interesting tidbits from scientific sex research.
It turns out there is quite a bit of variability in the distance between the clitoris and the vagina.

Princess Marie Bonaparte -- great grandniece of Napoleon and an accomplished amateur scientist -- discovered this tidbit of information in her doomed quest for the elusive vaginal orgasm. Bonaparte measured the genitals of 243 women and concluded that women with a shorter span between their clitoris and vagina were more likely to orgasm during sex.

Armed with this information Bonaparte decided to subject herself -- twice -- to having her clitoris surgically moved.

Alas, it was to no avail. As we learn in Mary Roach's new book Bonk: The Curious Coupling of Science and Sex, the princesses' story did not have a happy ending. (Ironically Bonaparte moved on to psychoanalysis and became a devotee of Sigmund Freud, an arch-enemy of the clitoral orgasm).

If informational nuggets like this turn you on, then Roach's hilarious overview of sex research throughout history is for you. Bonk features hundreds of surprising and amazing facts that Roach gathered in her investigation of the science of sex. Here are just a few eye-openers: In the 1970s, Masters and Johnson observed that homosexuals were far better lovers than heterosexuals, perhaps because of gender empathy; women are more likely to have risky affairs when their hormones are peaking; rhesus monkeys climax within five seconds of entering their partner, giving new meaning to the term quickie; more than a few men throughout history have had animal testes grafted onto their genitals in the hopes of increasing their virility.

Let's be clear, though. Sex research is not an exact science, given the mysterious, unquantifiable factors like emotion, attraction and 'sexual chemistry' that influence sexuality. But some things are pretty obvious, observable, and predictable nevertheless, and we find out what happens in the laboratories of sex throughout history. It is not always a pretty picture, but one that is often hilarious.

Bonk profiles the great pioneers of the science of sex, like Alfred Kinsey and the aforementioned Masters and Johnson, as well as dozens of lesser lights who undertook brave, creative, or just plain wacky experiments in their pursuit of knowledge.

And the best part in reading this book is that Roach is damned funny. Experiencing Roach in Bonk provides the "full monty" of reading non-fiction. You are titillated, you learn hundreds of new fascinating, and sometimes ludicrous things about sex and human behavior, and you often laugh your butt off. Consider the British study that found 351 terms for penis, including "the one-eyed milkman," but only three for the clitoris, which by the way doubles in size when stimulated and is far more erogenous than the penis.

Roach goes everywhere to learn about sex -- far back into history, to foreign lands, and into territory where sex is not usually on the agenda, like among people with incapacitating spinal injuries. Here Roach highlights the pioneering work of Marcalee Sipski, and we learn that men can have sex with catheters in their penises and that orgasm is sometimes achievable in people with the most serious injuries.

We spoke with Roach over the phone about the science of sex.

How has sex research evolved over the past several decades and how has sexual understanding changed as a result?

In the seventies you had researchers like Masters and Johnson doing pure physiological sex research. When the basic processes of arousal and orgasm were figured out, or beginning to be figured out, there was less of that type of research. During the AIDS era there was a lot of research directed toward behavioral surveys and figuring out risk taking behaviors and their connection to the transmission of HIV, so a lot of money went into that area. Nowadays there's a lot more money, and a lot of sex research is devoted to coming up with therapies for sexual dysfunction, whether it's pharmaceutical or otherwise. So that's a general look at how sex research has changed since the '60s.

Much of the first few chapters are about the female orgasm and the persistent myth of the vaginal orgasm. Does the myth still persist? Do men still cling to it?

I don't know if the myth still persists. Hopefully not. It was interesting for me to see how even figures as large as Masters and Johnson came out saying 'No! There's no such thing, it's all just indirect stimulation of the clitoris, and there's no such thing as a vaginal orgasm, the clitoris is always involved.' Then came that study by Alzate where women came in and he was sort of frictioning the front wall of the vagina and reliably producing orgasms without any contribution at all from the clitoris. To me it's silly because there's not ... there are nipple orgasms, there are dream orgasms, there are people who can think themselves into orgasm. Kinsey met a woman who ... stroking her eyebrows made her have an orgasm. Everybody's wired differently. So I hope people aren't still clinging to that particular myth.

What about the G-Spot or as you say "that other erogenous zone?" Is there research about that, and what should the lovers of women know about it?

Clearly the front wall of the vagina is an erotic area and there still persists some sort of discussion about whether there is a separate structure. Can you differentiate the tissue of the g-spot from the rest of the front wall of the vagina? There are people who bicker back and forth about that. But clearly, whether or not it's a separate structure, the front has an erogenous area. If it didn't, those rabbit style vibrators wouldn't be the terrific sales item that they are.

You state that erections are all about blood and that impotence has moved from the realm of the psychological to the physical. What is your take on the psychological vs. the physical in terms of sexual dysfunction?

With men, clearly when you age there's an age-related change in the tissue of erectile chambers and that can be helped; Viagra is very useful for that. In somebody who doesn't have any age-related changes in their tissue and is able to get an erection while they're sleeping (which is how they determine if it's psychological or physiological) they look for nocturnal erections. In somebody who has no trouble getting an erection in their sleep, it's an indicator that it's a psychological issue. And sometimes these men are given Viagra anyway. I asked a urologist, "Why are you giving these people Viagra if it's clearly a psychological issue?" He said that what happens when somebody starts being unable to get an erection is that the anxiety sets in and then they really can't. It's sort of a vicious cycle. They try to break that vicious cycle by giving them Viagra and at the same time suggesting they have therapy. I thought, fair enough.

The belt and suspenders approach.

Exactly. Sometimes I think it's several issues when it comes to libido and differences in a couple's interest in sex and how often they want to have sex. That's a situation where pharmaceutical solutions aren't enough. There isn't anything right now for women in terms of raising libido. There is in Europe. I think there's a testosterone patch that is available there. But even with all of these pharmaceutical solutions, I think that open communication and conversation should also play a critical part.

There's a new study out that suggests that sex takes from 3 to 13 minutes. It treats sex pretty mechanically. Of course 3 to 13 minutes is a lot longer than some monkeys take time to orgasm ...

Your chimpanzees take about five seconds to get there. There was a statistic that I saw that said from two to five minutes. But what they're talking about is just from penetration to orgasm, so they were leaving out, say, a twenty minute sensual massage, and foreplay ... it could be an hour of really fantastic foreplay before you get to the part where their stopwatch starts going. So it's kind of a misleading figure. The statistic I saw, they were just talking about from the time of penetration to orgasm, not the entire sexual encounter. Hopefully your statistic also is that; hopefully that wasn't the whole thing.

Hopefully it wasn't. But part of the question is why does society still conflate sex with traditional intercourse?

True. Exactly. So often with sex research they fail to define their terms. They'll say sex -- well, what do you mean by sex? Are you talking about the film that somebody watched beforehand? Does that go into it too? Or the oral foreplay? What are you calling sex? If you don't define it, people think 'They're just talking about the in-and-out part.' And there doesn't even need to be an in-and-out part. So we need to pay attention to how they're defining things.

At the end of the book you talk about how homosexuals are generally much better lovers because they take the time for foreplay and exploration but heterosexuals generally don't. Can you explain why?

This was a study done in the seventies. I'm hoping that straight people have made some strides since then. Around that time there were a lot of books like the Hite Report that were very much talking about technique, in a very mechanistic way -- sex manuals and sex tips. For the first time they were putting out all of these 'Here's the way to satisfy your partner,' etc. So people were overly concerned with the mechanic aspects of sex: 'Now I need to do this for ten seconds and now I have to rub her here'. It was all very goal-directed and not about losing yourself in the whole process of turning each other on.

Another thing the study mentioned was the gender empathy issue. If you're both of the same gender you have an intuitive sense of what works, whereas straight people have to kind of fumble around and figure it out.

Do you think sex research encourages this sort of goal-oriented attitude towards sex?

No. I think that women's magazines and men's magazines, which are always saying 'Five tips that will drive him or her wild' and give you a laundry list of things to do encourage that attitude. And people feel incompetent and like they are lacking something because they are not doing that. Sex research for the most part is ignored by the general public. It goes on in labs. Sex research doesn't come out and say 'here's how to have better sex' usually. Often it's in its own abstract world.

There was one Masters and Johnson study that found that the sex fantasies of gay and straight people were similar. And rape fantasies, or forced sexual encounters, rated high on the list for both groups. Do you have a sense of why that is or what that might mean?

No. I'm just reporting what they found. I'm not a sociologist or a cultural speculator. I don't know why that is. Possibly it's tied to issues of control. They always talk about how it's people in positions of power or control that often like to be sexually rendered helpless and dominated.

Historically most sex researchers were men. Do you think this impacted the research?

Sure. One example in the book is that when primatologists studied sexual behavior in primates other than people they just assumed female monkeys were releasing some sort of chemical that was making the males act. It never crossed their minds that the females were initiating sex. And they came up with this stuff that they called copulins that the females were supposedly releasing, which would trigger sexual behaviors in the males, and that the females had no idea and were totally passive. I spent an afternoon in a rhesus compound outside of Atlanta. The females avoid the males unless they're ovulating, and then basically they just go up to them and slap the ground like 'Check it out, I'm here, lets have sex.' But they do all the initiating of sex. It was years before the primatologists at the time, who were all male, picked up on that because it wasn't on their radar that females would be anything other than passive receptacles.

Like the young monkey that was having sex for the first time, she was a little more subtle because she had to work around the dominant female.

Exactly. It was like an eight-grade dance where you go up to the punch table at the same time. But definitely she was taking the initiative and making the overtures. Carefully, subtly, but obviously.

For the five-second copulation.

Exactly. For what? Is that it? You blink and you miss it. Be thankful that you're not a rhesus monkey.

Are there other examples of wider cultural misunderstandings about sexuality influencing research?

Well, there was the case of Marie Bonaparte -- the woman who surgically had her clitoris moved. I'm assuming that her surgeon, Josef Halban, suggested moving her clitoris, as opposed to just having her try a different position or something oral. So she resorted to these drastic measures. It was an intercourse-centric view of what sex needed to be, the idea that you had to move the clitoris closer to the vagina so that missionary position intercourse could make her orgasm. I don't know if it was his personal view or the prevailing cultural view that sex is intercourse and nothing else. That's one sad example.

I got a kick out of reading the painful history of the repression of masturbation. And for men especially, there is actually a biological reason for masturbation.

If you let it sit around long enough the sperm start getting deformed and are not particularly useful for making their way into an egg. So I liked that Roy Levin had come up with an evolutionary explanation for masturbation -- that it in fact served a valuable purpose.

Another point in the book has to do with the role of hormones in sexual desire. You come down pretty hard on birth control pills.

When I was working on the book a study came out about how birth control pills lower the amount of freed-up testosterone in the blood (testosterone is what drives up female libido) and what I thought was extraordinary was that this isn't mentioned as a side effect either on the product or by health providers. It's never mentioned to you when you get a prescription for the pill. When you get an anti-depressant, one of the side-effects is that it lowers your libido. But for the birth control pill the FDA isn't concerned about libido. They're just concerned about medical risks. It seems like something they might want to mention to people.

Any theories about that?

I think because it's considered a lifestyle issue and it's not on their list of things to check for. If it's not a medical condition it's thought of as a lifestyle thing. It's why they don't include it for that category of drug.

The last question is something I always like to ask somebody who's on the circuit. How are people reacting to your book and what do they seem to be most interested in?

This is an interesting book to be on the circuit with because people come up to me and ask questions as if I were a sex therapist. So I'll have someone come up to me and say 'I don't know, my husband wants to have sex with me all the time, and as far as I'm concerned I'd be happy with birthdays and holidays and I'd rather wash dishes than have sex.' So people come up to me and say these outrageous things and then they go 'Am I normal?' A guy came up to me and said 'You know I had a heart attack ten years ago and I haven't had an erection since, but you know what, it's interesting, you don't really have to have the erection to have the orgasm and I just realized that.' And I said "Yeah, isn't that something."

I didn't realize that either.

It's been a different book tour, I'll give you that. In terms of what people are interested in from the book -- the sex between me and Ed, of course people are curious and they want more on that. But it's all over the map.

Any shocks or surprises?

Well, the book is at number ten on the New York Times list for next week. That was a shock.

And it was probably an arrow, going up?

I'm hoping. It started at eighteen and hopefully it'll go up a little more before it drops like a stone.
Don Hazen is the executive editor of AlterNet.