On one of the first few pages of her book Bonk: The Curious Coupling of Science and Sex, Mary Roach writes the following tribute: “This book is a tribute to the men an women who dared. Who, to this day, endure ignorance, closed minds, righteousness, and prudery. Their lives are not easy. But their cocktail parties are the best.”
Bonk is an exploration of our scientific exploration of sex. For many reasons, sex research has been difficult to carry out and often taboo. Researchers face extra challenges getting funding, are treated with skepticism, have trouble finding subjects, have trouble publishing important findings, and can be publicly ridiculed for their research. Roach writes about the euphemisms that researchers have to employ when describing their studies, switching words related to sex to more physiologically based words. She also writes about the range of topics that become difficult to study because of their relation to sex – topics related to genitals, especially to the female body, even if they are not sex specific topics.
Across the book Roach identifies important themes in global culture. Humans are often driven by sex, surrounded by sex, or confused by something sexual, but we rarely discuss sex or anything related to it in a direct way. Even intimate couples find it difficult to have honest and direct conversations about sex. In some ways it is fair to say that sex is hyper-present in the United States, but this doesn’t mean we are ok with openly discussing our sexual experiences with other people, even neutral and independent researchers.
This has created a challenge where we all have many questions and uncertainties related to our sexual development, our sexual orientation, and physiological sexual responses to stimuli throughout our lives, but few good places to get answers to those questions. Even if we can study these topics, it is not easy to access, share, and discuss that research. People who do such research, or claim to be interested in such research, are often stigmatized and other people who know their research interests may not want to associate with them to avoid the same stigma.
Ultimately, what I think Roach believes is that we should work to be more honest and develop better conversations around the science of sex. I think this is something Roach believes is necessary in many academic and scientific fields, not just those related to sex. Her work has generally made an effort to study and explore topics that are gross, taboo, and overlooked, but are always present and important. Sex is something that has many individual and social factors, and failing to research sex leaves us stuck with ignorance, where strong voices can win out over the reality of many people’s experiences. Better science, study, and discussion will hopefully help us better understand ourselves, our bodies, and our physical relationships with others.