The Nature-Nurture-Nietzsche Blog

Exploring life at the intersection of biology, psychology, and philosophy.

Making (the Science of) Sex Fun

A talk by Mary Roach on her book "Bonk: The Curious Coupling of Science and Sex"

I listen to a lot of lectures, interviews, and debates on my iPod. It's a great way to upload new knowledge and new ideas to your brain with minimal effort. You can do it while you're exercising or doing chores, while you're walking to work or to class, or while you're lying in bed with a cold or a bout of insomnia. There's some excellent material out there, and almost all of it is free.

From time to time, when I come across something particularly enjoyable or enlightening, I'll post recommendations. To get the ball rolling, let me point you to an interesting talk by bestselling science writer Mary Roach. It's about Roach's 2009 book Bonk: The Curious Coupling of Science and Sex. One of the great things about all of Roach's books is the fascinating real-life characters you get to meet. In the talk, Roach introduces us to some of the cast of characters from Bonk. They include:

  • The woman who had an orgasm every time she brushed her teeth. You might expect she'd have the best oral hygiene in the world. Sadly, though, she was superstitious and thought she was possessed by demons. In the end, she gave up the brush and turned to mouthwash.
  • The woman who can think herself to orgasm. It takes her around a minute. The last time she did it, she was on a tram at Disneyland.
  • The woman who had her clitoris surgically moved closer to her vagina in an attempt to increase sexual pleasure during intercourse. Surprisingly, it didn’t make much difference. The woman, incidentally, was Napoleon's grand-niece.

Roach's talk also features lots of interesting factoids from the weird and wonderful world of sex research. So, for example:

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  • Sex may be a good cure for hiccups. Roach cites a medical report detailing the case of an Israeli man afflicted with chronic, "intractable" hiccups. Over several days, he tried everything he could to stop them, all to no avail. Eventually, still hiccuping, he and his wife had sex. And apparently, that did the trick. So, if you ever have hiccups, and they just won't stop, that's something you can try. But what if you don't have a significant other at the time? The researchers helpfully suggest that “unattached hiccuppers” could try masturbation.
  • Danish pig farmers manually "pleasure" sows as part of the process of artificially inseminating them. The practice is based on the "upsuck" theory, according to which female orgasm functions to suck sperm into the uterus, thereby increasing the female's chances of getting pregnant. The theory is controversial; many famous sexologists are "upsuck skeptics," as Roach puts it. If the skeptics turn out to be right, and the upsuck theory turns out to be false, then a lot of Danish farmers are sexually stimulating their pigs for absolutely no reason...
  • There's a large medical literature dealing with the sensitive subject of men and women who turn up to A&E with “foreign bodies” trapped in their rectal passages. I say “men and women,” but one major review of the literature reported that all but seven of 202 cases involved men. The article describes some of the cases, and the descriptions are often quite funny. So, for instance, one case involved a bottle of impulse body spray, “incarcerated” in the body of a 39-year old lawyer. Other retrieved items included screwdrivers, a dull knife, a salami and a plantain (with condom). Arguably, the most memorable case, though, involved not a single item but a collection—namely, “Spectacles, suitcase key, tobacco pouch, and magazine.”

There's one piece of research that Roach doesn't mention here, but which she covers in her TED talk. The research involved sonographic observations of babies in the womb. The headline discovery was that, even before birth, boys manage to locate their penises with their hands, and that, having done so, they then move their hands "in a fashion resembling masturbation movements". So now you know.

Here's the link to the talk. I couldn't embed the video on this page, so I've put Roach's TED talk here instead. Enjoy!

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Steve Stewart-Williams is a lecturer at Swansea University and author of the book Darwin, God, and the Meaning of Life.

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