Mary Roach single-handedly ruins it

I realize the title could seem vaguely euphemistic, but I'll leave it stand. I've been reading Mary Roach's new book, Bonk, as I was curious about the mainstream press's representation of sex research. There are, unsurprisingly, quite a lot of academic books about sex -- usually from a historical perspective. I wanted to see how this highly lauded author would handle the topic. (I have not read her other books, Stiff or Spook, though I think I did buy one of them (which one?) for a boyfriend. I have no idea if he read the book, nor if it was any good.)

Bonk is not good. Perhaps I have been in academia too long, but her book is like popcorn. The first 100 or so pages, I read quickly. It was easy prose, though like popcorn, there were some mild annoyances and irritations. Like the kernels getting stuck in one's teeth, the first few are negligible, tolerable in the context of a larger enjoyment. However, halfway through the book it was completely clear that there was no point or real connection that she was trying to make about sex research besides maybe: it's been considered taboo and risque for a long time. (What a useful and productive revelation.) Sex researchers come up with funny and outlandish ways to test human intimate behaviors, yet they do it quite seriously with dedication to empiricism in its purest form. Chapters end sort of like the way my cat runs at the closet door mirror, throws himself at it, and then runs off. As though it had never happened. Leaving me baffled as to why he had decided at this precise moment to hurtle himself across the room, whack himself against the mirrored surface, and then pretend as though it were no different than cleaning himself or eating breakfast.

This is how odd Roach is. Nothing gets seen through, it's just a collection of anecdotes -- for what? Titillation? She seems to want to make it all seem very ordinary by piling on information. But there is lots of fascinating stuff to say about why sexual behaviors and attitudes are sectioned off from other human behavior. There's tons of cultural ways of interpreting these things. And human behaviors, whether they're sexual or social (er...not that these are mutually exclusive) or hygenic, or whatever, are fascinating and complex, so why reduce it all to just a wacky romp through scientists' laboratories or sex toy manufacturers' factories? Quite honestly, it pisses me off.

In one of the later chapters she cursorily mentions the (limited) research on the birth control pill's effect on female libido. This is something that really concerns me, as I've read little research on it, though anecdotal evidence from a variety of sources suggest it is a serious problem [though it dawned on me this afternoon that I have been railing against anecdotal science throughout my own blog...I'm just owning up to the inconsistency]. Last summer I read a phenomenal book (though perhaps the exact opposite of Roach's take on a subject, almost too in-depth) on the male birth control pill, by Nelly Oudshoorn, called The Male Pill: a Biography of a Technology in the Making.

As Oudshoorn noted, one of the major obstacles in developing the male birth control pill was the multitude of side effects. Side effects that are considered irrelevant in female hormonal contraceptives (such as, oh, decreased libido) are not necessarily tolerated by male subjects. This discrepancy and the purported difficulty in developing male hormonal contraception reveal really compelling evidence about how male and female bodies are treated differently by science. Suffice it to say, the argument that male's physiology is just "more complicated" to control hormonally is total bullshit. The idea that one sex's biology is "more difficult" begs the obvious question -- "more" relative to what (or to whom)? I would like to quote the ever enlightening "Square One TV" of my childhood (a PBS math/science show that was one of the the few television shows I was allowed to watch regularly as a kid) -- "Change your point of view". [I can't believe I could find this on YouTube...this alone may make me a convert.] Researchers identify the male physiology as "more complicated" because there have been fewer studies or focus on the male reproductive system. Women's reproductive systems offered more socially compelling reasons to muck around in there, and the (presumably) shorter lifespan of a woman's reproductive potential made the research more finite. This lack of understanding of many aspects of male reproductive physiology is especially odd when you consider that for centuries the "human" body that was referred to as universal in medical texts and scientific research was usually a male body (and it's amazing that we managed to develop Viagara but not yet a male contraceptive pill). But that is a story for another time.

Roach cites a primate researcher as commenting that the lack of warning of decreased libido on the birth control pill is because the FDA doesn't really care about the behavioral side effects, particularly sexual behavior side effects. This, it seems, is a really interesting phenomenon worth delving into. (Oh yeah...I guess, I sort of kind of do something like that.) But Roach dumps it in with a gazillion other observations, none of which go beyond a brief mention. Perhaps she thinks the facts speak for themselves. But really, this is not why I read books. Accumulating facts without any sort of analytic reflection is tedious. (Ummm...I think this is called trivia? I have a sinking feeling that a few good friends will take this moment to poke me for my year of enforced trivia night attendance, and yeah, yeah, mea culpa.)

I may need to go on a media diet. I've realized that my information sources are all new-yorker-y and intellectual-liberal-elitist. Also, I've started to realize that I can't trust most of the sources when so many of them have praised Roach's book. I am curious to read this book, Terror and Consent, on American politics, a subject I rarely read in book form. Though the gloom and doom of the world lately is starting to take its toll on me. Hence, the contemplation of information blackout.

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