Mary Roach. Credit: David Paul Morris
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The NS Interview: Mary Roach, author

“Nasal congestion is an erection of the nose”.

“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

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

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An English hero for the ages: Ian Botham at 60

Botham blends his sportsmanship and deep-seated passion for cricket with a lust for life.

Begging W H Auden’s pardon, it is possible both to honour and to value the vertical man, and in the case of Ian Botham, who turned 60 on 24 November, it is our bounden duty. No sportsman has given Britons so much to enjoy in the past half-century and no sportsman is loved more. Two decades after he retired from first-class cricket, his reputation as one of life’s champions remains unassailable.

No mere cricketer is he, either. Botham is a philanthropist, having raised more than £12m for various charities, notably Leukaemia and Lymphoma Research. In December, 30 years after his first walk from John o’Groats to Land’s End, he will set off again, in South Africa, where England are on tour. And he really does walk, too, not amble. As somebody who accompanied him on one of his dozen walks said: “You can’t keep up with him. The man is a phenomenon.”

Of all postwar sportsmen, only Bobby Charlton and, at a pinch, Henry Cooper come close to matching Botham’s enduring popularity. But Charlton, a shy man who was scarred by the Munich plane crash of 1958 (and may never have recovered from its emotional effects), has never comfortably occupied a public stage; and Cooper, being a boxer, had a solitary role. Botham, by contrast, spoke for England. Whenever he picked up his bat, or had a ball in his hand, he left spectators in no doubt.

Others have also spoken for England. Bobby Moore and Martin Johnson, captains respectively of England’s World Cup-winning football and rugby teams, were great players but did not reach out to people as naturally as Botham. Nick Faldo, Lester Piggott, Sebastian Coe and, to bring us up to date, Lewis Hamilton have beaten the best in the world, but they lacked those qualities that Botham displayed so freely. That is not to mark them down. They were, and are, champions. But Botham was born under a different star.

It was John Arlott, the great cricket commentator, who first spotted his uniqueness. Covering a match at Taunton in 1974, he asked the young colt to carry his bags up the rickety staircase to the press box, where Arlott, wearing his oenophile’s hat, pulled out a bottle of red wine and invited Botham to drink. Forty years later Botham is a discriminating wine drinker – and maker. Along with his friend and fellow England great Bob Willis, and their Australian wine­making pal Geoff Merrill, he has put his name to a notable Shiraz, “BMW”.

Arlott, with his nose for talent and good company, saw something in the young Botham that Brian Close, his captain at Somerset, was beginning to bring out. Later, Mike Brearley, as England captain, drew out something even more remarkable. As Rodgers and Hammerstein wrote, you’ve got to be carefully taught. And Botham, a fine team man as well as a supreme individual performer, has never withheld praise from those who enabled him to find his voice.

If sport reveals character, then cricket is the game that reveals it most clearly. In no other sport is the individual performance rooted so firmly in a team context. Every over brings a contest of skill and intelligence between batsman and bowler but only a team can win the match. “A cricketer,” as Arlott said, “is showing you something of himself all the time.”

Cricket also reveals national character more than any other sport. Football may be the most popular game in the world but cricket, and cricketers, tell us far more about England and Englishness. It is instructive, in this regard, to hear what Philippe Auclair, a French journalist and author long resident in London, has to say about Botham: “He is essentially an 18th-century Englishman.” In one! It’s not difficult to sense a kinship with Tom Jones, Fielding’s embodiment of 18th-century life, who began his journey, as readers may recall, in Somerset.

A country boy who played for Worcestershire after leaving Somerset, and who lives by choice in North Yorkshire, Botham is an old-fashioned Englishman. Although nobody has yet found him listening to the parson’s sermon, he is conservative with a small and upper-case C, a robust monarchist, handy with rod and gun, and happiest with a beaker in front of him. He represents (though he would never claim to be a representative) all those people who understand instinctively what England means, not in a narrow way, but through something that is in the blood.

Above all, he will be remembered for ever as the hero of 1981. Even now it takes some believing that Botham bowled and batted with such striking success that the Australians, who were one up after two Tests, were crushed. Some of us who were actually at Headingley for the famous third Test – thousands who claim to have been there were not – recall the odds of 500-1 on an England victory going up on the electronic scoreboard that Saturday evening.

Botham made 149 not out as England, following on, beat the Aussies by 18 runs. For three hours the country seemed to stop. In the next Test, at Edgbaston, Botham took five wickets for one run as Australia fell under his spell. Then, at Old Trafford, on a dank Saturday afternoon, he played the most memorable innings of his life and one of the greatest innings ever played by an Englishman: 118 magnificent, joyful runs. Joy: that’s the word. Botham brought joy into people’s lives.

Yet it was the final Test at the Oval, which ended in a draw, that brought from him a performance no less remarkable than those from before. He bowled 89 overs in that match, flat out, continuing to run in when others withdrew with injury. That was the team man coming to the fore. Little wonder his comrades thought the world of him.

Modest, loyal, respectful to opponents, grateful to all who have lent him a hand, and supported throughout a turbulent life by Kath, his rock of a wife, and their three children, this is a cricketing hero to rank with W G Grace, Jack Hobbs, Wally Hammond and Fred Trueman. A feature in the lives of all who saw him, and a very English hero. 

This article first appeared in the 26 November 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Terror vs the State