Mary Roach has dealt mostly with death
in her former books Stiff and Spook. In her
most recent book, she decided to tackle the other most uncomfortable
topic: sex. If that’s not enough to make our wingnut
brethren squirmy, she mixes in the other big "no-no" of the fundie
set — empiricism. The book is called Bonk: The Curious Coupling
of Science and Sex, and I can’t rave about it enough.
think the topic would be a natural draw, because sex is just so damn
interesting. As Roach explains after reading the works of Masters
and Johnson — not necessarily. In the hands of dry science writing,
even sex can seem kind of boring. But Roach is the antithesis of a
dry writer. Jokes jump off every page and strikingly few of
them are smarmy – a real achievement if you think about the subject.
I loved the book for all the
great science-y stuff I learned of course, but I was also impressed with Roach’s handling of a touchy subject – people who make a living
addressing touchy subjects. Many of the scientists she spoke with
were less than thrilled about the assumptions people make about you
when you research human sexuality. An example from the book:
Levin can recall overhearing
a pair of [colleagues in physiology] sniping about him at the urinals
during the conference where he presented his paper. The unspoken
assumption was that he was somehow deriving an illicit thrill from calculating
the ion concentrations of vaginal fluids. That people study sex
because they are perverts.
She notes that being a writer
covering sexual topics, she tends to get the same reactions from people, something to which I can relate. Writing about sex in frank terms and advocating
for sexual health and reproductive rights means your opposition will
happily reach for the term "pervert" or a synonym to dismiss
you. Nevermind that the moral scoldings of anti-choicers demonstrate far more
perverse imaginations than the rest of us could summon — witness anti-choice
state senator Bill Napoli from South Dakota, who lavishly imagined the
violation of the only woman he’ll allow to have an abortion, stating,
"A real-life description to me would be a rape victim, brutally raped,
savaged. The girl was a virgin. She was religious. She planned on saving
her virginity until she was married. She was brutalized and raped, sodomized
as bad as you can possibly make it, and is impregnated." Even
Larry Flynt would have had trouble coming up with that.
What Roach demonstrates in
the book is that prudery, coupled with suspicion about kind-hearted people
who do not flinch from sexual frankness, create major obstacles for scientists
who really just want to collect empirical evidence to help people.
A theme can be easily detected.
It was the laboratory
where scientists confirmed that women really do orgasm from clitoral
stimulation, and that the clitoris is on the outside — not that the
source of orgasms drifted into the vagina as a woman matures as Freud
would suggest, or that the clitoris sits at the back of a woman’s
throat as a very famous seventies porn movie would have it.
It was in
the laboratory where Masters and Johnson discovered that committed gay
and lesbian couples were having better sex than committed straight couples,
and that straight couples could improve things by embracing better communication.
Because scientists have forged ahead and measured and observed human
sexuality, they’ve improved contraception and STD prevention.
In other words, by shaming scientists who research sex, culture warriors restrict access to valuable knowledge that could help women and gays push back against their oppression and advocate for better health and happier sex lives. Some might call
that a coincidence but I call that the patriarchy.
We don’t call people who
obsess over studying geology perverts, nor do we shame those with a
passion for French literature for wanting to deepen their knowledge.
But one area where we can clearly chart the direct line between knowledge
and power is sex, and that’s one area where searching for more knowledge
gets you labeled a pervert. Isn’t that the whole rationale for
abstinence-only programs – that somehow sex is the one special area
where knowing less is supposed to be preferable to knowing more?
Sadly, some liberals poo-poo
the importance of empirical knowledge of sexuality arguing, with
good reason, that many women knew where their clitorises were before scientists pulled the big "A-ha!" in the laboratory.
True. But women also "knew" that vaginal orgasms were "more mature"
than clitoral ones (because Freud said so outside of the world of empirical
research) and that douching with Coca-Cola prevented pregnancy.
Folk wisdom can be right or wrong but we’re all better off with an
opportunity to test it out in the laboratory and start settling some bets.
The best defense against accusations
of perversion because you like to research or write about sexuality
is a good offense. Cultivate a distinct disregard for the opinions
of prudes. I’ve always found accusations that I’m obsessed with
sex to be paper-thin if challenged. Why is it a bad thing to think
about sex a lot? No one can really say.
Really, if it’s
so bad, it should have bad results. Yet prudery shames people away from pushing
that line of inquiry as well. As Mary Roach discusses in her book – to cast
doubt on an obsession with learning about sex is more to cast doubt
on any obsession with learning. Few people are interested in being
branded as know-nothings, and so pointing this out will often suffice
as a defense against the perversion-through-intellectual-interest accusation.