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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The age of loneliness

Profound changes in technology, work and community are transforming our ultrasocial species into a population of loners.

Our dominant ideology is based on a lie. A series of lies, in fact, but I’ll focus on just one. This is the claim that we are, above all else, self-interested – that we seek to enhance our own wealth and power with little regard for the impact on others.

Some economists use a term to describe this presumed state of being – Homo economicus, or self-maximising man. The concept was formulated, by J S Mill and others, as a thought experiment. Soon it became a modelling tool. Then it became an ideal. Then it evolved into a description of who we really are.

It could not be further from the truth. To study human behaviour is to become aware of how weird we are. Many species will go to great lengths to help and protect their close kin. One or two will show occasional altruism towards unrelated members of their kind. But no species possesses a capacity for general altruism that is anywhere close to our own.

With the possible exception of naked mole-rats, we have the most social minds of all mammals. These minds evolved as an essential means of survival. Slow, weak, armed with rounded teeth and flimsy nails in a world of fangs and claws and horns and tusks, we survived through co-operation, reciprocity and mutual defence, all of which developed to a remarkable degree.

A review paper in the journal Frontiers in Psychology observes that Homo economicus  might be a reasonable description of chimpanzees. “Outsiders . . . would not expect to receive offers of food or solicitude; rather, they would be fiercely attacked . . . food is shared only under harassment; even mothers will not voluntarily offer novel foods to their own infants unless the infants beg for them.” But it is an unreasonable description of human beings.

How many of your friends, colleagues and neighbours behave like chimpanzees? A few, perhaps. If so, are they respected or reviled? Some people do appear to act as if they have no interests but their own – Philip Green and Mike Ashley strike me as possible examples – but their behaviour ­attracts general revulsion. The news is filled with spectacular instances of human viciousness: although psychopaths are rare, their deeds fill the papers. Daily acts of kindness are seldom reported, because they are everywhere.

Every day, I see people helping others with luggage, offering to cede their place in a queue, giving money to the homeless, setting aside time for others, volunteering for causes that offer no material reward. Alongside these quotidian instances are extreme and stunning cases. I think of my Dutch mother-in-law, whose family took in a six-year-old Jewish boy – a stranger – and hid him in their house for two years during the German occupation of the Netherlands. Had he been discovered, they would all have been sent to a concentration camp.

Studies suggest that altruistic tendencies are innate: from the age of 14 months, children try to help each other, attempting to hand over objects another child can’t reach. At the age of two, they start to share valued possessions. By the time they are three, they begin to protest against other people’s violation of moral norms.

Perhaps because we are told by the media, think tanks and politicians that competition and self-interest are the defining norms of human life, we disastrously mischaracterise the way in which other people behave. A survey commissioned by the Common Cause Foundation reported that 78 per cent of respondents believe others to be more selfish than they really are.

I do not wish to suggest that this mythology of selfishness is the sole or even principal cause of the epidemic of loneliness now sweeping the world. But it is likely to contribute to the plague by breeding suspicion and a sense of threat. It also appears to provide a doctrine of justification for those afflicted by isolation, a doctrine that sees individualism as a higher state of existence than community. Perhaps it is hardly surprising that Britain, the European nation in which neoliberalism is most advanced, is, according to government figures, the loneliness capital of Europe.

There are several possible reasons for the atomisation now suffered by the supremely social mammal. Work, which used to bring us together, now disperses us: many people have neither fixed workplaces nor regular colleagues and regular hours. Our leisure time has undergone a similar transformation: cinema replaced by television, sport by computer games, time with friends by time on Facebook.

Social media seems to cut both ways: it brings us together and sets us apart. It helps us to stay in touch, but also cultivates a tendency that surely enhances other people’s sense of isolation: a determination to persuade your followers that you’re having a great time. FOMO – fear of missing out – seems, at least in my mind, to be closely ­associated with loneliness.

Children’s lives in particular have been transformed: since the 1970s, their unaccompanied home range (in other words, the area they roam without adult supervision) has declined in Britain by almost 90 per cent. Not only does this remove them from contact with the natural world, but it limits their contact with other children. When kids played out on the street or in the woods, they quickly formed their own tribes, learning the social skills that would see them through life.

An ageing population, family and community breakdown, the decline of institutions such as churches and trade unions, the switch from public transport to private, inequality, an alienating ethic of consumerism, the loss of common purpose: all these are likely to contribute to one of the most dangerous epidemics of our time.

Yes, I do mean dangerous. The stress response triggered by loneliness raises blood pressure and impairs the immune system. Loneliness enhances the risk of depression, paranoia, addiction, cognitive decline, dem­entia, heart disease, stroke, viral infection, accidents and suicide. It is as potent a cause of early death as smoking 15 cigarettes a day, and can be twice as deadly as obesity.

Perhaps because we are in thrall to the ideology that helps to cause the problem, we turn to the market to try to solve it. Over the past few weeks, the discovery of a new American profession, the people-walker (taking human beings for walks), has caused a small sensation in the media. In Japan there is a fully fledged market for friendship: you can hire friends by the hour with whom to chat and eat and watch TV; or, more disturbingly, to pose for pictures that you can post on social media. They are rented as mourners at funerals and guests at weddings. A recent article describes how a fake friend was used to replace a sister with whom the bride had fallen out. What would the bride’s mother make of it? No problem: she had been rented, too. In September we learned that similar customs have been followed in Britain for some time: an early foray into business for the Home Secretary, Amber Rudd, involved offering to lease her posh friends to underpopulated weddings.



My own experience fits the current pattern: the high incidence of loneliness suffered by people between the ages of 18 and 34. I have sometimes been lonely before and after that period, but it was during those years that I was most afflicted. The worst episode struck when I returned to Britain after six years working in West Papua, Brazil and East Africa. In those parts I sometimes felt like a ghost, drifting through societies to which I did not belong. I was often socially isolated, but I seldom felt lonely, perhaps because the issues I was investigating were so absorbing and the work so frightening that I was swept along by adrenalin and a sense of purpose.

When I came home, however, I fell into a mineshaft. My university friends, with their proper jobs, expensive mortgages and settled, prematurely aged lives, had become incomprehensible to me, and the life I had been leading seemed incomprehensible to everyone. Though feeling like a ghost abroad was in some ways liberating – a psychic decluttering that permitted an intense process of discovery – feeling like a ghost at home was terrifying. I existed, people acknowledged me, greeted me cordially, but I just could not connect. Wherever I went, I heard my own voice bouncing back at me.

Eventually I made new friends. But I still feel scarred by that time, and fearful that such desolation may recur, particularly in old age. These days, my loneliest moments come immediately after I’ve given a talk, when I’m surrounded by people congratulating me or asking questions. I often experience a falling sensation: their voices seem to recede above my head. I think it arises from the nature of the contact: because I can’t speak to anyone for more than a few seconds, it feels like social media brought to life.

The word “sullen” evolved from the Old French solain, which means “lonely”. Loneliness is associated with an enhanced perception of social threat, so one of its paradoxical consequences is a tendency to shut yourself off from strangers. When I was lonely, I felt like lashing out at the society from which I perceived myself excluded, as if the problem lay with other people. To read any comment thread is, I feel, to witness this tendency: you find people who are plainly making efforts to connect, but who do so by insulting and abusing, alienating the rest of the thread with their evident misanthropy. Perhaps some people really are rugged individualists. But others – especially online – appear to use that persona as a rationale for involuntary isolation.

Whatever the reasons might be, it is as if a spell had been cast on us, transforming this ultrasocial species into a population of loners. Like a parasite enhancing the conditions for its own survival, loneliness impedes its own cure by breeding shame and shyness. The work of groups such as Age UK, Mind, Positive Ageing and the Campaign to End Loneliness is life-saving.

When I first wrote about this subject, and the article went viral, several publishers urged me to write a book on the theme. Three years sitting at my desk, studying isolation: what’s the second prize? But I found another way of working on the issue, a way that engages me with others, rather than removing me. With the brilliant musician Ewan McLennan, I have written a concept album (I wrote the first draft of the lyrics; he refined them and wrote the music). Our aim is to use it to help break the spell, with performances of both music and the spoken word designed to bring people together –which, we hope, will end with a party at the nearest pub.

By itself, our work can make only a tiny contribution to addressing the epidemic. But I hope that, both by helping people to acknowledge it and by using the power of music to create common sentiment, we can at least begin to identify the barriers that separate us from others, and to remember that we are not the selfish, ruthless beings we are told we are.

“Breaking the Spell of Loneliness” by Ewan McLennan and George Monbiot is out now. For a full list of forthcoming gigs visit:

This article first appeared in the 20 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brothers in blood