SPECIAL TO THE AMERICAN-STATESMAN
Sunday, April 13, 2008
Did you know that the University of Texas is at the forefront of research into vaginal photoplethysmography? Do you have any idea what that means? Mary Roach's new book explains.
"Bonk" surveys the history of sex research, from Leonardo da Vinci's "coition" drawings to the famous Dr. Kinsey and Masters and Johnson studies to present-day scientists working to cure erectile dysfunction.
Roach, it should be known up front, is no sanctimonious science writer. Her previous two efforts, "Stiff: The Curious Life of Human Cadavers," and "Spook: Science Tackles the Afterlife," were notable for their irreverence. Not that Roach ever belittles her topic — she merely manages to find humor where others would never think to look. She's also restrained enough to consign the really outrageous — and sometimes icky — factoids to the footnotes. (Hint: Read the footnotes!)
In advance of her Monday appearance in Austin, Roach spoke with us by phone from her home in Oakland, Calif.
Austin American-Statesman: After reading your book, everything starts to sound euphemistic and oddly sexual. So, I'm curious: Is the mysterious 'Woody' to whom the book is dedicated a real person or a euphemism?
Roach:No, it's my husband's real nickname. His name is Ed, but his whole family calls him "Woody." Funny, isn't it?
You spent some time in Austin researching your book. What did you find here?
Cyndi Meston — she runs the Sexual Psychophysiology Laboratory at the University of Texas, where she studies the relationship between psychology and sex.
So what is vaginal photoplethysmography?
It's a tool to measure a woman's sexual response. Sex researchers are heavily reliant on multisyllabic phrases to mask what they are actually studying. In today's climate, it is more and more a problem getting funding. There are conservative groups who do Internet searches for the word "sexual" and when the research pops up, they put a spotlight on it and suggest that funding should not be funded. Scientists will say physical instead of sexual ...
It seems like the golden age of sex research was the '60s and 1970s. What changed?
That was the pioneering era. Two things happened. First, as discoveries were made, there was less and less to figure out. Then, when AIDS came along, sex research became very directed toward trying to get a handle on HIV and shifted toward studies of risk taking and sexual motivation.
You repeat throughout the book that there is a perception that sex researchers are perverts. Did you ever find an instance of a scientist being turned on by his or her own work?
Well, they are human, but I only ever heard of one instance in all my research of alleged impropriety. When you think of all the other professionals whose careers are ended because of sexual impropriety — dentists, psychiatrists — it's quite amazing. Pomeroy, a colleague of Kinsey, wrote a book about his years at Kinsey institute. He said that not once was there an issue — I wonder if he doesn't protest too much. It's hard to imagine someone wouldn't be affected by what they're doing.
You even volunteered to become the subject of a study at one point.
Yes, my husband, Woody, and I participated in a study ... It's all in the book.
The last chapter in your book cites a Masters and Johnson study that suggests homosexuals are better than heterosexuals at sex. Does that strike you as controversial?
First, that study is over 30 years old. Second, the most important thing in improving sex is to talk about it. Heteros have made a good deal of progress in talking about sex, but as a group, homosexuals were more at ease with everything about sex.
After so much research into sex, do you have a favorite tip you can share?
I'm an advocate of more laughter in the bedroom. If the guy has a "failure of erective performance," you just have to find a way to laugh it off before it becomes a serious problem. People should read my book in bed. (Pause.) I'm not just saying this to sell more books. OK, maybe I am, but you never know; it might help.