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The NS Interview: Mary Roach, author

“Nasal congestion is an erection of the nose”.

Mary Roach
Mary Roach. Credit: David Paul Morris

“Nasal congestion is an erection of the nose”.

What is the state of scientific sex research? Are there still lots of mysteries?
My book Bonk looks specifically at the physiological - as opposed to the cultural, political or psychological - elements of sex. As I finished up, there was a frenzy of clinical trials of drugs for low libido in post-menopausal women. Hypoactive sexual desire disorder, I believe they were calling it. A rush was under way to find a pill for the other 50 per cent of the ageing population, basically. And along with that, a healthy debate as to whether the hormonal shifts that are a natural component of ageing should be labelled and treated as a medical disorder.

What was the most surprising thing you discovered while researching Bonk?
I was surprised every other day by things I stumbled upon in my research. That women have nocturnal erections (of the clitoris). That men can have multiple orgasms. That the lining of the nose contains erectile tissue of the same kind as the genitals. Nasal congestion is an erection of the nose!

Were you surprised that there are sex researchers working in the Islamic world?
Well, I only spoke to one - the Egyptian surgeon Ahmed Shafik, who has since died. I don't know whether his experience is typical, but he had to hire sex workers in order to have research subjects. And he never published papers in his own country.

Has sex research become controversial, politically, in the United States?
Because there are now online databases of federally funded research, and these databases are searchable by keyword, sex researchers have
to be careful how they title their projects. It's become a simple matter, for those who are so inclined, to find and target researchers whose work they object to on religious grounds.

You wrote about having sex with your husband while being studied through ultrasound. Was it excruciatingly embarrassing, or did the clinical aspect take over?
The researcher is right there beside you, holding the ultrasound wand to your skin. Because of the setting, the clinical attitude of the researcher, it seemed less like sex than like some awkward, moderately invasive medical procedure. It was perfunctory, passionless, distracted, hurried sex. Truly the worst sex either of us had ever had. The joy, for me, came from the anticipation of the fun I would have writing it up. I was taking notes through it all.

When you told people you were writing the book, what was their general reaction?
Given that my first book had to do with cadavers, I think people felt a little reassured by this one. You know - Mary's writing about sex now, maybe she's not all that far off her trolley.

Was there anything you had to leave out?
Yes. A short scene in the office of Ahmed Shafik that had to do with the anal wink reflex. That's all you need to know.

At your Ted talk, you spoke about brain death being no barrier to achieving orgasm. How well do we understand orgasms?
A lot of debate still goes on about female orgasm and why it evolved. An entire 400-page scholarly book dissects and rejects a half-dozen different explanations. The biology is fairly straightforward - it's a sacral nerve reflex. As with most reflexes, a tremendous variation in wiring exists. Some people can't manage even one; others have bothersome spontaneous orgasms or orgasms triggered by tooth-brushing or putting on lip balm or riding a bicycle. I got a lot of interesting mail after the Ted talk.

Do you think women's rights are going backwards in America?
Women's reproductive rights are on the chopping block here in the US. Hospitals and organisations with religious affiliations have been challenging federal requirements to provide insurance coverage for contraception. So far they have been unsuccessful, but if Obama loses the election, deeply dire developments are lurking around the corner.

You've written about death, sex and space exploration. What's next?
My next book, due out in early 2013, is tentatively titled Gulp: Adventures on the Alimentary Canal.

Do you vote?
With great dorky pride, yes. I'm one of those goobers who comes out of the polling place actually wearing the "I VOTED" sticker on my jacket.

Was there a plan for your career?
None whatsoever. Just a sort of naive liberal-arts-major conviction that one thing would lead to another.

Is there anything you'd like to forget?
The password to my eBay account.

Are we all doomed?
My answer changes depending on whether I happen to be reading the paper.

Defining Moments

1959 Born in Etna, New Hampshire
1981 Graduates from Wesleyan University, Connecticut; works as a copy editor and PR representative for San Francisco Zoo
2003 Her first book, Stiff: the Curious Lives of Human Cadavers, is published
2008 Publishes her study of sex, Bonk
2009 Gives a Ted talk entitled "Ten Things You Didn't Know About Orgasm"
2010 Publishes latest bestseller, Packing for Mars: the Curious Science of Life in the Void