Mary Roach – Bonk: The Curious Coupling of Science and Sex

April 10, 2009

Mary Roach is the author of Stiff: The curious Lives of Human Cadavers and Spook: Science Tackles the Afterlife. Her writing has appeared in Salon, Wired, National Geographic, New Scientist, and the New York Times Magazine. Her latest book is Bonk: the Curious Coupling of Science and Sex.

In this conversation with D.J. Grothe, Mary Roach reveals why she looks to science rather than to religion for answers about death and sex, and why she is interested in such topics in the first place. She talks about the history of sex research, including Leonardo Da Vinci’s anatomical explorations of coitus, as well as 19th century sex research connected to fertility and STDs. She talks about religious opposition to scientific research of human sexuality, and how it affects funding. She describes some on Alfred Kinsey’s research that showed the diversity of sexual activity in the United States. She details various scientific attempts to improve human sexuality, including grafting additional testicles on men, or surgically relocating women’s clitorises. She explores the role of the placebo effect in certain sexual cures, such as for impotence or increased arousal. And she talks about the link between sexual satisfaction and overall happiness.

Links Mentioned in this Episode

This is point of inquiry for Friday, April 10th, 2009. 

Welcome to Point of inquiry, I’m DJ Grothe a point of inquiries, the radio show and the podcast of the Center for Inquiry, a think tank advancing reason, science and secular values in public affairs and at the grass. Before we get to this week’s guest, here is a word from our friend James Randi about the upcoming amazing meeting. I’ll be there and I hope you’ll be there to. 

Hello, this is James Randi, if you haven’t guessed already. I am very pleased to announce that registration is now officially open for the amazing meeting seven. The biggest and best critical thinking conference in the world to be held from July 9th through the 12th, 2009 at the Beautiful Southpoint Casino, Hotel and Spa in Las Vegas, Nevada. This is a change in venue that will better accommodate the size of crowd we got last year, just short of nine hundred skeptics of all sizes, ages, shapes, ethnicity, homelands and degrees of enthusiasm. This July, our speakers will include the ubiquitous Michael Shermer from the Skeptic Society. Our good friend Adam Savage of the Myth Busters. Our President Phil Plait from the Bad Astronomy Blog. Of course, Jennifer Wellat from the Science and Entertainment Exchange and the Penn and Teller duo. And of course, while our keynote speaker this year will be Bill Prady, executive producer of the hit television show The Big Bang Theory, and he’ll tell us about how he’s helped make it cool to be an accredited official nerd. We’ll also have our usual stellar panels, workshops at after hours entertainment, including a mentalism act by a well-known bearded and cranky skeptic you may know and love. He’ll be offering his audience a couple of brand new mental wonders that have not been shown before. Even to the magicians of the world, those who attend Town seven will also witness an actual real time test for our world famous challenge prize, an actual scientific, statistically correct, carefully controlled test which may lead to the awarding of the million dollar prize. This is just not to be missed. For more information, go to. Amazing meeting dot com. That’s amazing. Meeting dot com to get all the information on this amazing event, as always. This is James Randi. Still amazing. And I hope to see you there in Las Vegas at the amazing meeting, 7:00. 

I’m happy to have Mary Roach on point of inquiry. She’s the author of Stiff The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers and Spook Science Tackles the Afterlife. Her writings appeared everywhere. Salon Wired. National Geographic News scientists. And The New York Times magazine. She joins me to talk about her book, Bonk The Curious Coupling of Science and Sex. Welcome to Point of Inquiry, Mary Roach. 

Thank you. Happy to be here. 

Mary, I’ve been wanting to have you on for a while. Your other books cover topics that were interested in the show. You’re looking into what science says about big questions in your books, Death, the Immortal Soul, Human Sexuality. Do you think science is a better place to get the truth about all these things rather than, say, religion, where most people develop their views on them? 

Yeah. If it’s truth that you’re after, truth in terms of something that is supported by evidence or proof, then that, yes, if what you’re after is is just an answer that you feel comfortable with, probably religion is a better place. Mm hmm. 

Mary, did you choose these issues cause they’re your personal interests or are you just this kind of quirky person who’s into death and sex and stuff like that? Or is it because you felt that science writing hasn’t really adequately covered these topics for the general public like it maybe should have? 

I would say the former I. I would say it has more to do with my own sort of quirky set of interests and sense of curiosity rather than feeling some obligation to address things that are well enough addressed. 

But nonetheless, I don’t see a lot of other books out there on the science of sex or the science of death. 

That’s true. And I don’t understand why that is. Because particularly with the case of sex research, it’s it’s just wonderfully entertaining material. I mean, sex is a you know, on the one hand, it’s a personal, intimate thing. But on the other side of that, it says it’s biology and physiology and it should be studied. And so when you bring the two together, though, the the personal and the laboratory based science, it’s it presents a number of pretty awkward scenarios. They’re just tremendously fascinating to write about and look into. So I’m actually really surprised that there wasn’t a book like Bork already. 

I want to get into some of the specific interesting things that you talk about sex research in the book. But first, I just want to ask about you as a science writer. You’re writing The Science of Sex. Your previous books, Science of Death, Signs of the Afterlife. But you don’t have a science background that kind of suggests that science isn’t just for the scientists. 

The world is science. I mean, everything you look at outside the window, everything, everything in the world, that there is some branch of science that’s looked into it. So I think it’s I think it’s very sad that people think science is dreary and dull. It’s hard to understand. I’m looking at science and it’s a pretty basic level. I mean, my books sometimes give a scientist high school reading. They’re easy reads. But I do feel it’s so important to keep one’s mind open to science and answers. 

Do you consider yourself a science writer? 

Well, I don’t really know what I’m a little uncomfortable with the title science writer because of the level of sophistication of most people who have that title. You know, Stephen Jay Gould Pinker or any of the people, many people you’ve had on your own program. I’m a little intimidated by that title. It gets applied to me because I am writing about scientific things, but I don’t know what I consider myself, honestly, kind of a weirdo. 

Everyone considers you a good writer, whether or not you’re a science writer or a writer writing about science. We’ll leave that for your readers to figure out. What I was really fascinated about in Bonk is that when you survey the history of the scientific investigation of sex, it’s not something that scientists started figuring out in the 1950s. It goes way back. It’s not just something Kinsey cooked up. 

That’s true. And I was surprised by that as well. You know, if you take it all the way back, you Leonardo was actually fascinated by the as these wonderful drawings, the coalition figures, where he was trying to just imagine what what exactly goes on when two people have sex. Where does that exactly be? Subpoenas go and when? How does conception happen? He actually got some things wrong because he wasn’t working from cadavers, obviously, as he’d like to do. And then in the end, there was also there was this wonderful era where it was believed that female orgasm contributed to or made conception much more likely because the contractions of muscular contractions would sort of draw the semen up and presented quickly to the egg. So there was all these there’s all kinds of people writing about upspeak and fertility and orgasm. And so this was all going on in the in the eighteen hundreds. And I mean, there was a tremendous amount of scientific study of arousal, an orgasm, just as physiological events that tended to happen more in the in the 50s and 60s. But nonetheless, there were people who were interested in various aspects, physiological aspects, whether it was sort of linked in with fertility or or venereal disease, though there definitely were people who were brave enough to take it on and they had to be pretty brave because they tended to get booed out of auditoriums where they were presenting their papers or taken off the membership roster of one or another scientific organization. It really was a career ender. One hundred years ago, 200 years ago. 

Is it like that today or cultural conservatives today upset about, you know, some kind of sex research that you go into in the book? Did you get any flack from the religious right for writing it? 

I did not get any flack. I think just because I I’m not really on their radar screen. I just don’t think that they know who I am. But I think that if I if I were more more visible author, I think I might. I mean, I was I was shocked to learn that when the Kinsey bio pic, the film with Liam Neeson. You wrote that great movie. Yeah. And that’s which would’ve stuck very close to the biography. But they tend to gloss over some of the quirkier aspects of Kinsey’s own sexual life that that film was. There were there people were picketing that film that the members of very conservative elements of the religious right were picketing. 

They tried to shut down the production, which was a fact, and believe that there was a movie on his perversion and and kind of promoting it. 

Yeah. He’s just such a flashpoint for the family values people because they feel they basically think Kinsey invented homosexuality because he’s the one you know, he did that tremendous range of surveys of American adults and asking them, who do you have sex with? How often, what do you do, which hand? You know, just every element of sexuality. And then presented it in these two volumes. And what it demonstrated is that people are a lot more people are having homosexual sex than you would think. A lot more people are having sex with sheep. They’re having sex with. I mean, they’re just there’s just this huge range of sexuality and and all of it, you know, it just feeling was it’s all normal human behavior. Let’s just look at it, put it out there and see how much of it’s going on. And that was tremendously upsetting to opponents of homosexuality. And they just associate him with that. And so he’s sort of become demonized for that. 

From your perspective as a writer who covers this, can you get why the religious right? Here’s a message that the manifold ways people are sexual, you know, the message coming from scientists saying that’s all normal. Can you get why that juts up against their worldview that says, you know, there’s only one way to be sexual? 

It’s very hard for me as I live in the Bay Area, and it’s it’s hard for me to wrap my mind around. Any belief system that objects to someone’s behavior, if that behavior isn’t harming another individual. That’s just where I’m coming from. But I you know, I do. And I don’t I haven’t sat down with enough of these people to know exactly what their objection is other than it’s, you know, sex is for procreation and it’s an abomination. And marriage is for a man and a woman. The book was not really I wasn’t really getting into that side of it so much. But it is for me a challenge to understand their perspective. 

You were talking about Kinsey, one of his intellectual forebears. You talk about this influential figure in his life, Robert Dickinson. 


You report how he got people to demonstrate how they masturbate him. Answer for me why that’s an important scientific question. 

Well, I don’t think that that particular aspect of Dickinson’s work was particularly important. He was he was a sort of a precursor to Kinsey. He’s actually the one who got Kinsey interested in sex research. And Kinsey, as far as I can tell, through modeled his approach. In other words, asking asking people every aspect of their sex life, just covering the whole thing from masturbation to your first sexual experience, Fidelity nine, fidelity, intercourse, whatever. The entire spectrum. So he wasn’t just he wasn’t focusing specifically on masturbation. He had his take. The reason he found it important to talk to two people about sex and he was a gynecologist. So he was talking to women specifically. What was his feeling? That there was just a phenomenal number of marriages that were destroyed by sexual misunderstanding and dissatisfaction and that some very, very simple knowledge could have cleared up a lot of it. For example, he had something like 20 couples who had come in over the course of his practice thinking that they’d been having sexual intercourse, that in fact, the man wasn’t going any farther than the cleft of the labia, the outer labia. Wow. And, you know, thank God we can’t get pregnant. We don’t know what’s going on, let alone with at least the woman anyway. Probably. Well, I don’t know. Maybe it was satisfying, but it was you know, there just wasn’t any conversation and it wasn’t okay to talk about it. And people in women didn’t know that they helped open their legs and be just very simple, basic things about sex. 

So some of his motivations were just kind of public education, you know, very much so, very much so. Improving people’s lives, the more you know about sex, the better you’re going to be added and the better off you’ll be. 

Exactly. Yes. 

A lot of your book actually focuses on scientists asking that question how to make sex better. Some sometimes it’s failed attempts at making sex better for both men and women. You cover some of these failed scientific things like that. A woman’s clitoris should be moved surgically or that if a man has two testicles, maybe having a third is better. There’s a lot of kind of false starts in the history of scientific investigation of sex. 

Yes. And particularly in the history of trying to make sex better. Yeah. The testicle grafting was it. 

Tell me the story about that. That just was fascinating. 

It was a big phase in the early, early part of the nineteen hundreds. It was they would take slices of it. Sometimes it was chimpanzee or other primate testicular material. 

And when you say they. Who do you mean you. 

Surgeons in England or there was a man Dr. Brinkley here in the United States. In Kansas. No, this was in the United. This was here. There was also a guy at the San Quentin prison actually taking material from freshly executed prisoners and taking testicular material and putting it into scrotums of other inmates. And for the purposes of rejuvenating them, not just to cure impotence, but to make them younger. They thought that they thought that gonads were the key to longevity and everlasting vitality. So it was it was a whole package, not just impotence, though. That was one thing they thought it cured. But really what it did is it created infections and occasionally killed people and did not do anything worrying. 

So it’s it’s just another thing, like in the history of medicine, all these ways that scientists went in the wrong direction. But, you know, eventually we figure out the right way to go. 

Right. And what what they trip over all the time is the placebo effect, which is when you’re talking about something like impotence or erectile dysfunction, as it’s now known, that that really comes into play. If somebody if you believe this is going to help you. I mean, a lot of a lot of a lot of it’s in the head when it comes to your sexual state of mind. And if you believe you’ve read something that’s going to make you really. Hard or really horny or whatever it is, it tends to be a self-fulfilling prophecy. So there becomes all this anecdotal information. Hey, it really worked. I feel I feel 100 percent better. I feel there’s a spring in my step or whatever. So that’s science and medicine are always tripping over that. The anecdotal information and until, you know, became regular practice to do a controlled study of a technique or a substance, you had that all the time. If someone would just have a spontaneous recovery and they would attribute it to, you know, the maraschino cherries the last week in my God, that seemed to help. And of course, it went away on its own. Mm hmm. 

I wouldn’t interrupt her conversation. You know, you just talked about getting hard or being horny and, you know, you were using these this kind of sex talk language. That’s what the book’s about. Have you found that your readers? Is it making people more easily talk about sex or is there still this kind of taboo when people come up at book signings or something? Are they furtive about you, you know, signing the book, cetera? 

What’s wonderful, actually, sometimes at readings, particularly somewhere like La Hoya, was a place where I was a fairly conservative, but, you know, different from Seattle or San Francisco. And it was it was this large group of more women than men. And I thought, well, let’s see how this plays. I don’t know, because to me, I’m so used to seeing Claris, penis, vagina, masturbation, orgasm, intercourse. I mean, to me, it’s like talking about tires or your utility bill. 

Well, somehow that also kind of diminishes the zesty ness of it for some people. 

I think that it gives people what I stand up there for half an hour and say these words and talk about it like I’m talking about tires or whatever. It gives people this. It it kind of takes the electricity out of those words. And then I find when I opened up for questions, people are raising that with the first person that took. So take them out of the first person to raise a hand. But once one person has asked a question about sex, then 10 people raising their hand and asking fairly explicit questions. And I guess I do get the sense that it’s kind of liberating for people to to be able to just talk freely and ask questions using those words. It’s the words themselves. 

I think everybody should just spend an hour to say clearers, masturbation, penis, penis, penis, clitoris, say it over and over until it doesn’t. It doesn’t sound strange because if eventually it becomes. Like any other word. And some people are there already, of course. But for some people, it just feels kind of scary. And them in a public setting with strangers. 

On the one hand, you don’t you don’t want, you know, the notions of sexuality become so run of the mill, they’re boring. But on the other hand, you’re right, there shouldn’t be this big taboo about the words. That’s a side benefit, I think, of studying sex scientifically. You know, the sexologists make it okay to talk about all this stuff. Did you go into writing this book with that kind of agenda or is that just a side effect? 

That’s that’s just a side effect. I went into writing this book because I found there was just the material was irresistible and I thought it would be a great way to spend a couple of years. 

Let’s get back into some of the other things you cover in the book. I was surprised that most sex research today doesn’t have to do with men, you know, despite Viagra and all that stuff. It has to do with the woman’s libido, as if by Agra, you know, solved all the male sexual scientific questions. 

Yeah, well, it was it was a pretty big advancement. I mean, it was a pretty. It helps a lot of people and it put it that way. But there’s that. And there is actually there. Someone just told me the other day there’s a a ray, some sort of spray for premature ejaculation. It’s not a numbing thing. And I don’t know how it works. So there’s still work going on in some of the other aspects of male sexuality and male sexual dysfunction. 

But most of it’s dealing with the women’s. 

Yeah, most of it is because. Well, you know, where I agree with such a huge financial boon to the pharmaceutical companies, they’re now just doing everything they can to find something that they can sell to the rest. The other half of the planet. So it’s largely financially motivated. 

There’s a theme for the female Viagra is how it’s termed, but it isn’t. I agree because women don’t need erections. It’s really a female libido booster. Right. Elderly for older women. 

And that’s the difference between BI Agora and this, because Viagra doesn’t change your libido at all. It only changes your physiology. Right? 

That’s correct. Yeah. Yeah, I agree. If you give a woman by Aggrey, you will find a detectable increase in virginal blood flow. But that doesn’t. And they’ve done believe me, they’ve done tests. They would have loved to be able to prescribe it to women, but they’ve done tests. And when you when you give Viagra to a woman and you ask her her subjective. Rating of how aroused she was or how or how much how much interest she has in sex, how sexy she feels, there’s not a difference. No, it’s having more blood flow to the genitals doesn’t make her feel any different. Maybe you can feel it, but it doesn’t make her feel embarrassed or aroused. So it just doesn’t work. 

This research on the woman’s libido, is it mostly coming from you were suggesting pharmacology or. It seems to me there are interesting questions about women’s sexuality in that most women you hear, at least from people who are into this issue, don’t have a fulfilling sex life, you know, with their male partners, you know? 

Well, the the libido booster part part of why there’s so much demand these days for something to raise women’s libido postmenopausal is is because of Viag or you now have a population of men in their 60s, 70s, 80s who can get an erection and have intercourse. And they want to do that a lot because they haven’t been doing it for a and they’re very excited about it. And the winner like Homero, you gonna do this again? 

I mean, it’s so hot. So there is this. Now, this is a balance that’s been created or enhanced by by Viagra. And so that’s also added to the impetus to get some kind of a libido booster on the market. There is a there is actually give low dose testosterone to women. You will see a rise in libido. But the FDA didn’t approve that. The testosterone patch. Right. It’s like an off prescription use for some. Yeah. Yeah, it’s you can get testosterone, very low doses from the compounder, you know, with a prescription. But there was going to be a product on the market. I think it’s available in Europe, but not here. 

Was I right in saying that, you know, a lot of women are sexually dissatisfied, make maybe a lot of people in general are sexually dissatisfied, aren’t there? 

There’s a figure that I’ve seen of 70 percent of women don’t have orgasm from sexual intercourse, from vaginal intercourse. And that’s a pretty high number. But the other thing with that is that if you say you say vaginal intercourse with how you’re defining that, if it’s just in and out portion of intercourse. Well, what happened before was, you know, what about the erotic massage beforehand or the, you know, the oral sex that came before the penetration. So, you know, with that statistic of 70 percent, I’m not sure what that really mean. Seventy percent of women don’t have an orgasm from sexual intercourse. Well, it kind of depends what came before it. So anyway, but but I. I don’t think there’s that many women who would limit themselves to a sex life that only includes sexual intercourse and nothing else. But I think yes, I think it’s fair to say there’s a lot of sexual dissatisfaction out there. 

Your book is not like something Dr. Ruth would have done or something. You know, this isn’t a self-help book. Now, how to make your sex life better. This is a survey of science research into sex. Maybe because of my own interest. I was also surprised that your book didn’t really cover the science of homosexuality much. Is there just no cutting edge scientific research into gay sex these days? 

Well, I’ll tell you why that is. And I was I was trying to find studies on homosexuality to include in the book other than the last chapter has to do with that. And here’s this. Here’s the situation. What people are studying when they’re studying the physiology of sex usually is is arousal and orgasm. And those are basically the same regardless of who you’re having sex with. So in other words, to study arousal and orgasm in a homosexual individual wouldn’t be you know, you did that. The physiology is essentially the same with it, with the exception of what is the role of the prostate in anal sex. And there was a guy, Roy Love, in this wonderful British researcher who was wanted to study that. He was right around the age of retirement, was having trouble getting funding, certainly from that study. He would have a little difficulty getting funding. But but that’s that’s really why, you know, there’s tons of sex research, homosexuality in terms of gender issues and they risk taking behavior and AIDS. A lot of that going on in the 80s. But if you’re if you’re looking at laboratory based studies and people studying arousal and orgasm, there really isn’t a need to separate gay and straight. Mm hmm. 

We were talking about widespread sexual dissatisfaction or guessing at it anyway. In your book, you talk about greater longevity, lower rates of cancer for people who regularly have orgasms. Do you think there’s a connection between sex and overall happiness? Like, the more sex you have, the better off you are psychologically. In in my life, kind of traveling and meeting people. The most miserable people I know are the people I’m guessing. Rarely have good sex. 

Just intuitively, I’m going to say, yes, absolutely. There are there are a lot of studies out there that that make a link between number of orgasms per week and some various aspects of health. And that seems so. That does seem to be going on. I don’t know how carefully they’ve controlled for other life factors like, OK, so is having sex a lot is also kind of a cool liberal person who eats a lot of vegetables, gets exercise. So you’ve got to really, you know, control for all those other factors. When you do an epidemiological study like that, that’s true. Some of them do. A lot of them do. But yeah, I would think that yeah. Well, that that’s where that whole thing is that the line she just needs to get laid or he just needs to get laid there. Just some people that you think did. That’s just the overall impression that you have to you need to get laid. 

Right. If people just had more and better orgasms, there’d be world peace. Maybe that’s a little too fanciful, but I like that. 

Yeah. I can’t imagine the U.N., you know, really working toward that goal, but still. 

Yeah. Might be a little remembered. Jocelyn Elder, see. Right. Right. Yeah. Yeah. We’ll do now. Career. 

Yeah. I remember I brought that up with a I was asking somebody about masturbation as a. Essentially a tool for better health, better sexual health and better health in general, women. 

That story. 

And she she brought up Jocelyn Elders that said masturbation is just a very touchy subject. 

Yeah. In in more ways than one. Yes. When you were traveling and researching all these scientists who are into studying sex, you know, their their career is about these questions in sexology or other kinds of scientifically studying sex. Did you discover any research that you assumed kind of going into it? Science had the answers to that. Then you discovered. Wow. You know, these scientists are still perplexed. 

Yeah. The one that comes to mind has to do with the link between female orgasm and conception. And that’s an issue that you’d think we would have an answer to, because if someone’s trying to get pregnant and they’re having trouble, it’s good to know whether or not orgasm played any role. And it isn’t something it was on. It was believed for centuries that that is to be believed that women had to have an orgasm to conceive. Now, we know that’s not true. But does it play any kind of role? And there was a lot of debate. A number of animal studies that provide evidence of this phenomenon called up succ where the contractions of orgasm pull the semen through the cervix and deliver it quickly to the egg. And there are sexologists who’s looked into this in humans, right? Levon, the guy was talking about before, was the UK sexologists. He was saying, well. Sperm take time to Capacitate to become. Effective at penetrating the egg. And if you beat them up and deliver them quickly, you’re not. You’re actually doing the opposite of helping conception. Other people were saying, well, no, no, no. It’s actually you can see it in the animal kingdom and why would it exist? And so there was there’s still this debate going on. And I remember talking to a fertility expert, someone who counsels couples who are trying to get pregnant. And I said, do you ever talk to them about this whole issue of orgasm, possibly in women possibly enhancing? Fertility. Increasing the odds of conception, he said, well, first, probably. Difficult study to do for various reasons. Statistically, it would be indeed a large population. And he said also, I really didn’t want to enter into the equation this notion of, gee, if you guys were having better sex, maybe you’d get pregnant, he said. That is the last thing you want to tell a couple who are trying to get pregnant, because at this point, you know, sex has become worse. All the joy has gone out of it. And if you introduce into the equation one more thing on that to do. 


Yeah. So nobody wants to do that study, even though. No, we don’t know for sure the answer. It’s it’s not it’s not something people want to want to research. The other big question that I found fascinating and there are a couple researchers who’ve looked into is has to do with this whole notion. We would wish we were speaking before about that statistic of 70 percent of women don’t have an orgasm from. Missionary position. Intercourse. And what makes the difference between 70 percent and 30 percent? You know, the women who do and the women who don’t. And there was this idea that it had to do with clitoral placement how close the clitoris was to the vagina. And not only these are modern day researcher. There was this woman, Marie Bonaparte. 

Right. And legions of Napoleon. Right. You told us an amazing story. 

It is. It’s an amazing story. She’s Napoleon’s great grand niece in the early part of the nineteen hundreds. She became convinced that the reason she herself couldn’t have an orgasm during intercourse with her clitoris was very high. It was placed quite a distance from the opening to her vagina. There is a variation of up to an inch or so. I mean, there’s a lot of variation in the human vulva. They don’t terms. Where are we? Where everything is and how spaced out it is or how tightly packed it is. And she actually measured a bunch of women and interviewed them and found a correlation. And there’s a researcher who later reran her numbers just to see, you know, now that we have the science of statistics, does this correlation still hold? And he did find that it did. But, you know, nowadays there’s so many other ways that women are having that women and men are having sex. And, you know, if the woman is on top, she could kind of make up for that. So I don’t think that it’s a huge factor. But it was it’s just interesting to think that there might be a physiological reason for. You know something, for some women having no trouble at all, having an orgasm during intercourse and other women never in their life having one. 

It kind of raises interesting questions about intelligent design, that if some women are just kind of born in a way that their physiology doesn’t allow them to have good orgasms regularly during sex, that’s kind of. You’d fire the designer. 

Yes. Or you hire the designer of picks who have the clitoris is right inside the vagina. That’s good engineering. 

We were talking earlier about funding. You mentioned Roy LeBon probably not being able to get funding on some of the things he was interested in. Does the controversial nature of these questions affect funding like, you know, because the religious right would object? Or is it more a matter that some of these questions scientists would just consider? You know, general scientists, the scientific community would think that these questions are trivial. You know, like, you know, why do we care how people masturbate, for instance? 

Right. Well, I don’t know that any body has really tried to get we tried to get funding for. How do people masturbate? I mean, Kinsey was doing this sort of a broad cataloging of human sexual behavior. But I know. I know what you mean. A better example. Let’s say there was a study on do women get nocturnally erections? Well, in fact, they get very small clitoral erections on the same cycle that men do. Why do we need to know that? And I can’t say why. We need to know that, other than it’s kind of a cool thing to know. But I think that the answer to your question is more a sense that you won’t be able to get funding because of conservative elements in an age of the Internet. This has become a bit of a problem also because it’s possible to do searches by keyword of grant proposals that receive government funding. So you could then you could highlight. Or pinpoint which studies you want to attack by doing a search on orgasm or penis. And, you know, these say these studies would come up and then if you want to target them for censure or call the media and say, look at this big fat waste of money, nobody study. What do women get? Clearer direction. That’s ridiculous. Not taxpayer dollars. So that the researchers have had become sort of clever about using general, vague terms in their in the titles of their project. 

Right. They they use euphemisms, right? Yes. I really appreciate our conversation, Mary. Last question. If science is revealing one thing about human sexuality that most people don’t know, but that you think they should know something you discovered writing this book. What is that? 

I think it’s it’s a situation where the more you study, particularly in women, the more you study sexuality, the more complicated you realize it is. That’s not the kind of answer that you’re looking for. But just I mean, there’s a woman, this woman, whose study isn’t she? She works with people with spinal cord injury to try to figure out is arousal coming from the mind and going to the genitals or the genitals to the mind. 

Right. Is it the autonomic nervous system or is it you know, is it feeling the tongue or is it in your head or what? 

Yeah, and it is it is unbelievably complex. And just, you know, people say people often say, well, what what why would you study? The human clitoris. Why would you be everybody knows that. M.B., why do you need to study this thing? But that’s kind of like saying, oh, why should we study the esophageal sphincter? We all know how to eat. But, you know, if he didn’t understand esophageal sphincter, you would be able to treat anybody who had reflux or you wouldn’t even understand what reflux was and you’d be treating it the wrong way. And so I think it’s just a big booster of figuring figuring things out and assuming that there’s gonna be a reason to know this stuff at some point. 

Mary Roach, thanks so much for joining me on Point of Inquiry. 

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DJ Grothe

D.J. Grothe is on the Board of Directors for the Institute for Science and Human Values, and is a speaker on various topics that touch on the intersection of education, science and belief. He was once the president of the James Randi Educational Foundation and was former Director of Outreach Programs for the Center for Inquiry and associate editor of Free Inquiry magazine. He previously hosted the weekly radio show and podcast Point of Inquiry, exploring the implications of the scientific outlook with leading thinkers.