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Writer brings sex research into focus

After a look at death, Mary Roach turns to more lively pursuits
by: , 
‘Bonk’
by Mary Roach
W.W. Norton

Nonfiction doesn't get much funnier - or weirder - than this.

San Francisco-based author and columnist Mary Roach created her own titillating genre with her two previous hits, 'Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers' and 'Spook: Science Tackles the Afterlife.'

Her latest, 'Bonk: The Curious Coupling of Science and Sex,' doesn't disappoint. Armed with a fierce wit and dogged pursuit of the facts - no matter how intimate they may be - she spent two years crisscrossing the globe in search of the latest research on the physiology of sex.

Whether watching Dutch pig farmers manually stimulate their sows to boost their fertility, visiting a sex researcher in Cairo who dressed rats in polyester pants, or volunteering herself and her husband as subjects for one researcher's unique sex study, Roach knows no boundaries in her quest for answers.

'Nothing makes me blush,' she said in a recent telephone interview from Boston, where she was touring to promote her book. (She'll be at Powell's City of Books tonight.) 'I usually launch into talking about my work like it's the Civil War.'

Science is, after all, about finding answers to seemingly simple questions. You know, the ones like 'Can a person think herself to orgasm?,' 'Can a dead man get an erection?' and 'Why doesn't Viagra help women?'

There's also the one big debate Roach was surprised to find hadn't been answered by researchers through the decades: whether female orgasm boosts the odds of conception by 'upsuck,' her name for the physiological phenomenon of what happens to the deposited sperm.

'There's still not a definitive answer,' Roach said, amazed. 'There's evidence on both sides.'

So far, she said, response to 'Bonk' is enthusiastic, even among the researchers who gave Roach unfettered access to their labs, despite concerns about public image and corporate funding of their projects.

How does she gain such access? 'I always tell them about my previous work,' she said, even sending them copies of 'Stiff' if they're unconvinced. 'I'm not writing a scholarly, erudite book about sex research.'

In the end, most of the researchers were happy to comply. 'I think most are happy to reach an audience without a science background,' Roach said.

One researcher, by the name of Jing Deng, was so accommodating, he offered to let Roach into his lab to witness his rare device that documented the human anatomy while in the act - as long as she supplied the willing couple.

'I immediately said yes without giving a lot of thought of what I'd just agreed to,' Roach says. 'It was critical. There's not a lot of research about sexual intercourse out there.'

So despite much dread, she and her husband, Ed, showed up at Deng's office in London, stripped down and did the deed while Roach took notes and Deng used a special ultrasound wand, making small talk with Ed as if they were at a bus stop.

'It was terrible sex,' Roach says. 'It didn't even seem like sex. Ed took Viagra so he could get through it.'

She writes in her closing lines: 'The laboratory study of sex has never been an easy, safe or well-paid undertaking. Study by study, the gains may seem small and occasionally silly, but the aggregation of all that has been learned, the lurching tango of academe and popular culture, has led us to a happier place. Hats and pants off to you all.'

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Mary Roach

Where: Powell's City of Books, 1005 W. Burnside St.

When: 7:30 p.m. Tuesday, April 29