In 'Bonk,' Mary Roach Explores Science of Sex

Author Mary Roach's new book is called "Bonk." i i

hide captionMary Roach explores the state and the history of research into human sexuality in her new book, Bonk.

David Paul Morris
Author Mary Roach's new book is called "Bonk."

Mary Roach explores the state and the history of research into human sexuality in her new book, Bonk.

David Paul Morris

Putting It Out There for Science

While writing Bonk, Mary Roach convinced her husband to participate in a doctor's study on the physiology of sex.

Eliminating polyester from your wardrobe may be a smart move if you're looking to attract a mate.

That is just one of the many curious findings Mary Roach writes about in her new book, Bonk: The Curious Couple of Science and Sex, which examines the history of research on copulation.

Her previous works include Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers, on the science of death, and Spook: Science Tackles the Afterlife, a look at what happens after we die.

In a conversation with Robert Siegel, Roach describes the evolution of sex research: from studies by Alfred Kinsey and the lesser-known Robert Latou Dickenson, to the Egyptian doctor Ahmed Shafik, who dressed rats in polyester pants. Shafik's conclusion? Rodents in leisure suits don't get much play.

Roach says the 1920s were a surprisingly racy decade for sex research. During that era, the aforementioned Dickenson, a Brooklyn-based gynecologist, became the first to take a laboratory-based approach to examining what happens physiologically when people have sex.

"There were sex manuals at the time that were encouraging women to try being on top," Roach says. "The 1920s were almost like the '60s in a way — and then we swung back to a more conservative era."

Dickenson later inspired Kinsey to conduct his famous studies of American sexual habits, she says.

Roach says that despite numerous studies on sex conducted over the years, much remains to be learned about coital mechanics.

"I'm left with a lingering sense of surprise that there are still a good number of mysteries in the realm of sexual physiology."

Excerpt: 'Bonk: The Curious Coupling of Science and Sex'

Book cover for 'Bonk'

Chapter 13

What Would Allah Say?

The Strange, Brave Career of Ahmed Shafik

Dr. Ahmed Shafik wears three-piece suits with gold watch fobs and a diamond stick pin in the lapel. His glasses are the thick, black rectangular style of the Nasser era. He owns a Cairo hospital and lives in a mansion with marble walls. He was nominated for a Nobel Prize. I don't care about any of this. Shafik won my heart by publishing a paper in European Urology in which he investigated the effects of polyester on sexual activity. Ahmed Shafik dressed lab rats in polyester pants.

There were seventy-five rats. They wore their pants for one year. Shafik found that over time the ones dressed in polyester or poly-cotton blend had sex significantly less often than the rats whose slacks were cotton or wool. (Shafik thinks the reason is that polyester sets up troublesome electrostatic fields in and around the genitals. Having seen an illustration of a rat wearing the pants, I would say there's an equal possibility that it's simply harder to get a date when you dress funny.)

Dr. Shafik published five studies on the effects of wearing polyester, and then moved on to something else. If you print out a list of Shafik's journal articles—and you will need a roll of butcher paper, because there are 1,016 so far—it is hard to say what his specialty is. He has wandered through urology, andrology, sexology, proctology. If you ask him what he is, what he writes under "Occupation" on his tax form, he will smile broadly and exclaim, "I am Ahmed Shafik!"

It is a full-time job. Though Shafik, now seventy-three, is retired from teaching, he continues a heavy schedule of surgery and research, the former funding the latter. (His surgical specialty, as best I can gather, is despots with colorectal issues. He says he has worked on Castro's plumbing, though not recently, and that of the late Mobuto Sese Seko.) Self-funding affords Shafik the freedom to indulge his more esoteric interests —research projects with no obvious practical ramifications or corporate appeal. In this way he is, as his office manager Margot Yehia has pointed out, a holdover from the nineteenth century, when science was undertaken simply for the sake of understanding the world.

Excerpted from Bonk: The Curious Coupling of Science and Sex by Mary Roach. Copyright 2008 by Mary Roach. Reprinted with permission of the publisher, W.W. Norton and Co. Inc.

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