I picked up Bonk entirely on a whim: it was sitting precociously on the shelf of new books at the library. It wasn’t until later, when I was reading that, I noticed that “Amazon.com customers who bought Bonk also bought: When You Are Engulfed In Flames.” And was also asked by a friend of mine if I’ve ever read Stiff, which is Roach’s previous book. Clearly, the stars had aligned on this book in some way.
I’ve said before that I compare every “[science|history|other] made fun” book to the superb Bill Bryson, who I believe has mastered the right proportion of fact, narrative, and whimsy. An unfortunate side product of this is that every science-related book that I read ends up falling pitifully short of my unfairly high standard.
Bonk is a book about sex—not just any sex, but sex through the eye of the Scientific Establishment™ both contemporary and historical. Needless to say, the studies of Alfred Kinsey make an appearance, though they don’t play as large a role as you think. There’s mention of other sex studies of old (Masters & Johnson, for instance); the overriding theme throughout the book seems to be that sex is very complicated, but it’s also such a touchy subject that there’s no good way to learn about it.
Mostly, I find the author interesting: she’s an attractive 30-something woman, and by her own admission a student of the old school of sex—that is to say, it stays in her bedroom with her husband and nobody else needs to know anything about it. Her involvement in the topic of her book1 grows as the pages turn; at one point, she convinces her husband to let a doctor perform an ultrasound on their naughty bits while they, er, reconsummate their marriage on a hospital bed. She feels the newly-prosthesetized2 penis of a Taiwanese man suffering from 8 years of impotence. She goes to conventions/galleries featuring sex machines: literally that machines do nothing but mechanically thrust a fake rubber penis, and which have apparently spawned a whole category of fetish porn. Interestingly enough, Roach’s reasons for attending such a conference are not curiosity about particular fetishes, but the fact that famed sexologists of old (Masters & Johnson, again) used just such a device in order to test female physiological response.
The book is an interesting mix about the vagaries of erectile dysfunction, the vagaries of female sexuality and sexual physiology, the heated debate over vaginal orgasm (!), the continued quest for scientific knowledge about sex and its effects, &c.
I keep hearing about Roach being the “funniest science writer,” and I admit that I got a few chuckles out of the book, but mostly her humor comes in casual asides to the reader, and more often humorous footnotes. But it’s strangely detached from the meat of the text: Roach will very seriously cover a topic, ever the responsible journalist, and at the end of a thought or section will suddenly tack on a quip as though it was an afterthought or a poorly-timed delivery—and yes, some of the quips go for the easy laugh, as you might expect in a book about sex.
I mentioned that Kinsey plays a relatively minor role in the book, and that’s true: Roach isn’t merely a Kinsey worshiper; in fact, she seems very careful to not be particularly enthusiastic about endorsing any sort of school of thought other than a modern, pragmatic one. In other words, you won’t likely find anything offensive in here unless you think that God only accepts missionary style.
So is it worth it? Having not read any of Roach’s other (recommended) books, I can’t compare Bonk to any of them. The latter didn’t blow me away, but it was a solid read nonetheless, and remained interesting more or less throughout. If you’re looking to laugh uproariously, this isn’t for you. If you simply want a quirky look at the scientific history of sex, this is your book.