In 'Bonk,' Mary Roach Explores Science of Sex After tackling the science of death and theories of the afterlife, Mary Roach takes on the nitty gritty of sexual research. Her latest book takes a curious, funny look at what we do and don't know about coital mechanics.
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In 'Bonk,' Mary Roach Explores Science of Sex

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In 'Bonk,' Mary Roach Explores Science of Sex

In 'Bonk,' Mary Roach Explores Science of Sex

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  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.


And I'm Robert Siegel.

Mary Roach has written a book about sex. Nonfiction - it's about sex research. At this point, you would expect an assurance that this is a serious book, clinical not comical. And you would be wrong, because it is both clinical and comical. Mary Roach is a solid science journalist with a glorious sense of humor. That's probably why the title of her book is "Bonk: The Curious Coupling of Science and Sex."

She last talked with us here about her book on cadavers. It was called "Stiff."

A warning: This interview includes references, mostly sober references to sex organs and also to polyester. In "Bonk," Roach explores the current state in the history of research into human sexuality, and she drafts her husband into service as a study subject with her. She also introduces readers to trailblazers in the field, some of whom I'd heard of - Alfred Kinsey, Masters and Johnson. But there were some I hadn't heard of, like Robert Latou Dickinson, a Brooklyn-based physician.

Ms. MARY ROACH (Author, "Bonk: The Curious Coupling of Science and Sex"): Robert Latou Dickinson was a phenomenal man. He was a gynecologist working in the 1890s through about 1930s. He's actually the man who got Kinsey interested in sex. Kinsey had been studying gall wasp speciation, had no inkling of what lay ahead for him, then met this man Robert Latou Dickinson.

In his gynecological practice, Dickinson began asking patients systematically about their sex lives. And not, you know, how is it, but what do you do, and how do you have an orgasm, and how are things going for you, what's - and so he had these detailed case studies. And he began to see that there were a lot of very unhappy and unsatisfied people, and he began going further along and actually started doing some physiological testing. And back then, there wasn't a lot of fancy equipment, so Dr. Dickinson, at one point, became interested in what exactly goes on inside people when they're having sex.

And he used a test tube, he actually inserted it and would shine a light, so he could actually see what was going on in there that if the test tube were standing in for the penis then you would see now where is it hitting. Is it hitting the cervix? And there was - at the time, it was believed that the penis actually interlocked with the cervix, which is not true...

SIEGEL: Mm-hmm.

Ms. ROACH: ...and he could see that, in fact, it wasn't even hitting anywhere near the head of the cervix. And he was able to sort of debunk the coital interlocking theory.

So, he was really the first man to take a really scientific laboratory approach to figuring out what happens when people have sex.

SIEGEL: And he was doing this in the early decades of the 20th century and he, I mean, do we know if lots of his patients were turning him down and were put off by these questions? Or were they all...

Ms. ROACH: As far as I could tell, they were amazingly cooperative. I went into one of the archives where his - some of his files are, and he kept these detailed note cards with the responses that people were giving him. And they were very, very forthcoming and seemed to have no qualms about it.

And this is - I think, actually the 1920s were a surprisingly open-minded and free-wheeling era. This was before the '40s and '50s when we swang back the other way. In the 1920s, there were sex manuals at that time that were encouraging women to try being on top. They were talking about the clitoris. They were, I mean, the 1920s were almost like the '60s in a way, and then we swang back to a more conservative era.

SIEGEL: Now, as you said, Dr. Dickinson, Dr. Robert Latou Dickinson, was the person whose work inspired Alfred Kinsey. In passing, you note, "I give you" - I'm reading a quote now. "I give you a sentence, my favorite sentence in the entire oeuvre of Alfred Kinsey, from 'Sexual Behavior in the Human Female,' quote, 'Cheese crumbs spread in front of a copulating pair of rats may distract the female but not the male.'"

Ms. ROACH: That's my favorite. Yes.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. ROACH: He was making the point that the female, the human female he is talking about, is more prone to distraction during sex. He was talking about, in general, the male - and the female, to a certain extent - when you're very, very aroused, a tremendous amount of stuff can be going on around you, and you won't notice. Your peripheral vision kind of cuts out, you don't notice if somebody's, you know, picking your pocket, and prostitutes have used this to great benefit. You don't feel pain nearly as much - something that would be painful otherwise is, just sort of registers as a mild tactile stimulation.

So, anyway, it was in that passage of the book that he mentioned the copulating rats and the cheese crumbs.

SIEGEL: One of the more exotic studies that you write about was published in -was it European Urology by an Egyptian doctor?

Ms. ROACH: Yes. That was my favorite study of all time. Dr. Shafik, he's an extraordinary gentleman in that he funds his own research. He's a surgeon but he's done a lot of research in the realm, the whole pelvic area. So he's done proctology, urology, andrology, sexology.

And I came across him kind of arbitrarily. I found this paper in which he was looking at the effects of polyester fabric on the fertility and incidence of copulation in rats. And...

SIEGEL: Didn't know that rats wore polyester very much.

Ms. RACH: Well, normally they don't. But in Dr. Shafik's lab, he actually outfitted laboratory rats in tiny little polyester trousers. And there's a little diagram in the paper, and this is a legitimate research paper published in a peer-reviewed journal. And there's a line drawing of a rat wearing these tiny little trousers, and the caption says "the underpant worn by the rat."

SIEGEL: I gather Dr. Shafik passed away last year, you told me.

Ms. ROACH: Yes. Dr. - yes, in October he passed away.

SIEGEL: And he found in that particular study that wearing polyester...

(Soundbite of laughter)

SIEGEL: ...wearing polyester diminished the fertility of the rats. But you, at least, admit the possibility that perhaps it was just wearing anything. Dressing funny might also diminish the fertility of anyone.

Ms. ROACH: Yes. The incidence of copulations, I think, whether you're a rat or a human male wearing those trousers, I mean, you kind of need to see the trousers, but they're very - there's a little hole for the tail and they're drawstring at the top, and they're not very attractive, and I think it would be kind of hard to get a date in that case, yes.

SIEGEL: Well, after meeting people like Dr. Shafik in Cairo, and you and your husband taking part in a study with Dr. Dang in London and so many other interviews you report on on the book, then what do you come away, what's the takeaway knowledge you have from having written "Bonk"?

Ms. ROACH: Well, I think that one of the things that I'm left with is a lingering sense of surprise that there are still a good number of mysteries in the realm of sexual physiology.

You kind of have the sense - as a person who has sex, you figure, well, you know, it seems to work, what else do we need to know, which is kind of a ridiculous attitude. That would be like somebody saying to a person who's studying, say, the esophageal sphincter, well, we all know how to eat, why do we need to study that?

SIEGEL: Mm-hmm.

Ms. ROACH: So, I come against that all the time. People are saying, well, what's the point of this research, you know? Tell me something I don't know about sex. We don't know, for example, the mechanisms of ejaculation, what the trigger is for that. And there've been all kinds of elaborate and quite frightening little studies that have been done in that realm, just any number of things that we really should still be looking into, and yet it's very difficult for sex researchers to get funding for purely anatomical and physiological research these days.

SIEGEL: Well, Mary Roach, author of "Bonk: The Curious Coupling of Science and Sex," thanks a lot for talking with us.

Ms. ROACH: Thank you so much.

SIEGEL: And you can read more about rodents in synthetic clothing, and you can hear Mary give me the scoop on her own experience as an ultrasound imaging guinea pig at our Web site,

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