Episode 44: Mary Roach: Revealing the (often amusing) Secrets of Sex Research
The study of sexual physiology—what happens, and why, and how to make it happen better—has been going on for centuries, behind the closed doors of laboratories, brothels, Alfred Kinsey's attic, and, more recently, MRI centers, pig farms, and sex-toy R&D labs. My guest, Mary Roach, author of Bonk: The Curious Coupling of Science and Sex (2008), spent two years wheedling and conniving her way behind those doors to bring you the answers to the questions Dr. Ruth never asked. Can a dead man get an erection? Testicles: if two are good, would three be better? Does orgasm boost fertility? Is vaginal orgasm a myth? Is the clitoris a tiny penis? Why doesn't Viagra help women—or, for that matter, pandas? Join us for a fun and informative interview, and don’t miss Mary’s exercise for you to try at home.
Chip August: Welcome to Sex, Love, and Intimacy. I'm your host, Chip August, and today on the show, we are gonna be talking about sexuality. We're going to be talking about sexual physiology, we're gonna be talking about the curious coupling of science and sex. We are talking with author Mary Roach, and Mary has written several books, one called Spooks: Science Tackles the Afterlife and one called Stiffs: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers and her current book is called Bonk: The Curious Coupling of Science and Sex.
Mary Roach: PD-5 inhibitors like Viagra or Cialis work for a big chunk of the population that needs them, but there are some men who, there's prostate surgery or they're older and the erectile tissues tend to become fibrous and in that case there are implants that really are just silicon rods or inflatable rods in the two erectile chambers which are side by side in the penis. So that is how penile implants work.
Mary Roach: There was all this talk about, initially there was this discussion among sex researchers: is a vaginal orgasm just an indirect clitoral orgasm? People saying "No no no no, it's just because the penis is indirectly stimulating the clitoris and that's why women tend to have an orgasm during intercourse. It's not a vaginal orgasm." But that was before anybody knew about the front wall of the vagina.
Mary Roach: There's this book called The Science of Orgasm by Barry Komisaruk and Beverly Whipple, and in that chapter they listed a stunning list of conditions, physical conditions that are helped or prevented by regular orgasm.
Chip August: Mary was raised in Etna, New Hampshire. She holds a Bachelor's Degree in Psychology from Wesleyan University and she currently resides in California. She began writing at the San Francisco Zoological Society where she was producing press releases on topics like elephant wart surgery, and then in 1986 she sold a humor piece about the IRS to the San Francisco Chronicle and that's led to a whole spate of humorous first-person essays for publications including Sports Illustrated, Vogue, The New York Times Magazine, Discover, Outside, and Reader's Digest. She's a really entertaining and interesting writer, Mary Roach welcome to the show.
Mary Roach: Thank you.
Chip August: Now, as I understand, this book Bonk, you go out there and kinda collect a lot of data about sex. About how it works and how it doesn't work and what's been going on for centuries and who's been studying what. It seems like it's everything from Bravel to Alfred Kinsey and more, is that right?
Mary Roach: Sure, yes, it's really a book about sex slots in a sense, sex research, a lot of it is people, questionnaires about behavior and risk-taking behavior and prostitutes and children, all over the map, and surveys. I'm not covering any of that, I'm covering people, trying to figure out the physiology of sex and what happens when people have intercourse, and physiologically what happens when people have orgasms, so that's the particular front of sex research that I was interested in, and yes it goes all the way back to Leonardo da Vinci. So there's everything in between.
Chip August: Okay, so what did da Vinci have to say about sex?
Mary Roach: Well, Leonardo da Vinci, he was an anatomist, and mostly he got his information from studying cadavers, and obviously that doesn't work very well when you want to figure out the mechanics of sexual intercourse. You would have to do a fair amount of manipulating your cadavers and it would be impractical and...
Chip August: Could be kind of fun, though.
Mary Roach: Could be kind of fun, yeah! I once saw a Shakespeare play done with people playing cadavers. Anyway, so... I think probably if somebody was actually strong enough you could actually... but sometimes his cadavers would have erections because they were cadavers that had been hung on the gallows and just left by the side of the road, and those were used for anatomical studies. So sometimes, it was in fact Leonardo who remarked on the fact that what gives a man an erection is blood, not air, they used to think it was air. And he figured out because of this handy little fact that they'd been hung that they had erections, these cadavers. But he could technically have done that but he did not, and he then would have had to cut them in half to see what was going on inside, so that would have been messy. But what he did is, he had these famous figures called the Copulation Figures and he basically read anatomical text of the Greeks and the Arabs. He had in his head an idea of what it looked like and he drew these very elaborate cutaway drawings. As it turned out, he had a number of things wrong, though, and it wasn't until the 1890s somebody actually figured out what happens when people have intercourse. Nobody knew what was going on in there. There was a guy, Robert Latou Dickinson, who was a gynecologist who practiced in the 1890s through the 1930s and he actually got women to agree to prove that this thing called "coital interlocking" was not going on. There was a belief that Leonardo had put forth that the penis actually docked in the cervix, kind of like the space shuttle docking in the space station, and that there was an interlock, and that if you couldn't get pregnant it had to do with you had a bad interlock. But in fact it doesn't happen at all, the penis doesn't even...
Chip August: One would think Leonardo would have known that from his own experience.
Mary Roach: Apparently, Leonardo... I came across some scholars who believe Leonardo never actually had sexual intercourse and there was a quote from him saying that it was disgusting.
Chip August: So without the personal experience of not being "locked in" he had to sort of guess his way through this, huh?
Mary Roach: Yeah, right.
Chip August: I'm still sort of going back to this: you're telling me a dead guy can get an erection?
Mary Roach: I'm sorry, what?
Chip August: You're telling me a dead person can get an erection?
Mary Roach: Yes, actually a dead person can. I've actually seen it on film, believe it or not. This makes me sound really weird, doesn't it?
Chip August: It does!
Mary Roach: There's a researcher in Taiwan who does, he works for the Microsurgical Potency Reconstruction and Research Center, and he's looking at surgical therapies for erectile dysfunction. And it concerns the veins through which blood drains from the penis, so if you had fewer of these veins that were draining the blood you could maintain your erection for a longer span of time, and he was interested in which veins are the most important. So he did a cadaver study, and he ran some filling through the penis standing in for blood, and actually using different configurations of veins that he had taken some and some off. Anyway, the dead man had an erection, I have seen it with my own eyes.
Chip August: Wow, you know that puts you in a very rare class of people, I think.
Mary Roach: It does, indeed.
Chip August: Okay, so you spend a fair amount of time in this book talking about penises and transplants and implants and all kinds of creative approaches to impotence. Can you talk a little bit about some of these approaches to impotence?
Mary Roach: Sure, the obvious choice is of course PD-5 inhibitors like Viagra or Cialis, and those work for a big chunk of the population that needs them, but there are some men who with prostate surgery or they're older and the erectile tissue tends to become fibrous with age, it doesn't stretch as much, it doesn't hold as much blood. So it becomes difficult to have the same kind of erection you had when you were twenty-five. And Viagra sometimes doesn't really do the trick. And in that case there are implants that really are just putting silicone rods or inflatable rods into the two erectile chambers which are side by side in the penis, and then in the case of saline or air, by squeezing a little bladder that's implanted in the scrotum, so that is how penile implants work. And some of them, the ones that don't pump up, you're kind of the same size during sex and after sex you've got to tuck it out of the way. Sort of like a W-limb, you would put it into position, it would stay there, and then you would fold it down like the exercise equipment that you can lay flat and tuck under the bed, kind of that principle. It would never get flaccid and contract, that doesn't happen anymore because you have these permanent pieces in the penis. So that's your implant, in a nutshell. Transplanting, I actually got curious about that when I heard about the, you know that famous face transplant.
Chip August: Right.
Mary Roach: You can transplant the face which is a very complex routine, with a lot of very different types of tissue which would be a real challenge for a transplant. If that can be done, then why not a penis? If your penis was really, had been in an accident, or for whatever reason it was just not working and it was not gonna be something you could easily remedy, why couldn't you just sew on a new one? Actually contacted a surgeon about this and he said the problem is that with transplantation, the body tends to treat a new piece of the anatomy as a foreign object and kind of attack it, and one of the things that happens when it attacks it is that it makes the erectile tissue scarred and more fibrous which would defeat the whole purpose. And you couldn't take, for the men who have had their penis removed because of cancer and they are under and immunosuppressive drug which transplant patients often are to prevent the body from attacking a new member. So if it doesn't work, it wouldn't work as a solution.
Chip August: Well, I hope they keep working on it. It's like a thing that would be useful to figure out.
Mary Roach: It does work to a... I found a paper on an epidemic of penis amputation from vengeful wives in Thailand. There was a woman who made the news, she went and cut her husband's penis off with a kitchen knife, she'd found out he'd been cheating on her. And this sparked a whole epidemic of women doing the same thing. So she threw it out the window and the ducks ran off with it, so there was this saying in Thailand, "I'd better get home or the ducks will have something to eat!" These men went out, retrieved the penis from underneath their house where the ducks were. Washed it, it hadn't been eaten by ducks that is. Washed it off, brought it to the hospital, and it is possible to reattach a penis, your own penis. A transplant doesn't work if it's some foreign tissue, but that actually does. They have a little more success. They're not quite up to par with where they were before the incident but surgeons can do some amazing things.
Chip August: It is pretty remarkable, the information that you have floating around inside your head. I have lots more questions but I also want to take a break here. We're gonna take a break and give a chance to let our sponsors support us, and let us support our sponsors. You're listening to Sex, Love, and Intimacy. I'm with Mary Roach, we are talking about sex. We are talking about sort of the science of sex, and we'll be right back.
Chip August: Welcome back, you're listening to Sex, Love, and Intimacy. I'm your host, Chip August. I'm talking to Mary Roach, the author of Bonk: The Curious Coupling of Science and Sex, and when we left we were talking about penises and erections. You post a very interesting question somewhere in the book where you ask about testicles, if two are good, wouldn't three be better? What did you come up with as an answer to that?
Mary Roach: Decidedly not.
Chip August: Oh, really?
Mary Roach: Well, not if the third testicle comes from a goat, a chimpanzee, or an executed convict which is what was going on in the 1920s. This testicle transplantation, well not transplantation, implantation craze. It was thought that if you put extra testicular material inside a man's scrotum that he would be extra-potent, he would be rejuvenated, he'd feel younger, his complexion would clear up, he'd be smarter. I mean, anything, you name it they were attributing it to testicular grafting. It was quite a craze in the 20's. There was even a clinic in the Midwest that Dr. Brinkley, who had a phony medical degree, and these men would come down on a train and they would go out, and they actually picked their, there were goats, and they would pick out the one they wanted. And the doctor would cut them open and put a little slice of this testicular material into their scrotum. In fact, what it did for the men was often give them an infection, occasionally kill them, and really do nothing for them, for their sex lives.
Chip August: Well, I guess that's really good to know.
Mary Roach: So if anybody offers that to you as a service, say no.
Chip August: Yeah, take a pass, I got it.
Mary Roach: Take a pass.
Chip August: Just say "Two is enough, thank you." So we've talked about men, let's talk about women for a little bit. Okay, so if women's genital tissue is also erectile tissue, how come Viagra doesn't help women?
Mary Roach: What the main thing Viagra does for men is enable them to penetrate an orifice. Viagra's all about giving a man an erection and helping him keep it, and women don't need to do that to have sex, so it's not necessary for women to have an erect clitoris. So, also most women are not complaining about the fact that their clitoris isn't being erect. Most women, if they go to a sexual dysfunction clinic, usually it has to do with libido, or not enjoying sex. That's the more common complaint with women. With men it's almost across the board a mechanical issue, like I can't get an erection, or it doesn't last long enough. Women are not complaining about that, so even though there is that parallel between the penis and the clitoris, which was interesting to me. I didn't know the clitoris had two erectile chambers and a foreskin and it's just a little teeny penis.
Chip August: Around here because we're very, uh, humanistic we like to say that actually a penis is like a really big clitoris but it's the same.
Mary Roach: Thank you, I'm going to steal that from you.
Chip August: You're welcome to it. Just out of curiosity, why doesn't Viagra help pandas?
Mary Roach: Because pandas seem to, the problem is, the reason that anybody gave Viagra to pandas in the first place was that they have very low pregnancy rates. Very hard for captive populations of pandas, very hard to get a baby. And so the people who run these panda preserves in China were trying to figure out what is going on, and they thought perhaps it's an erectile issue and they tried giving the pandas Viagra, and that didn't work. And there were some officials that were quoted, it was kind of amusing, they would say like, "well of course it's not Viagra, the male panda just doesn't know where to put it." They're apparently fumbling lovers, like the most clueless lovers ever designed by nature. They just don't seem to have a lot of interest in sex and they don't seem to know how to go about it. I don't know, you'd think that they'd be extinct long ago.
Chip August: On the other hand, they sound a lot like Leonardo da Vinci, just creative.
Mary Roach: I think maybe that's it, maybe that could be.
Chip August: So, you do a little bit about vaginal orgasms, about are there really vaginal orgasms, are there only clitoral orgasms. Now I, women who are listening to this, I want to apologize in advance, I'm just reading Mary's book here, okay? So I don't want to invalidate any experience you have in your body, and...
Mary Roach: I'm certainly not going to say there aren't vaginal orgasms, because that would be absurd. There are vaginal orgasms, clitoris... sometimes you could be referring specifically to G-spot or non-G-spot, there are... orgasm is a reflex of the nervous systems, you could trigger it by... there's a woman in one of Kinsey's book who could have orgasms by somebody stroking her eyebrow.
Chip August: Yeah.
Mary Roach: You can have an orgasm in your dreams, you can have it by thinking to yourself, so you know of course there are vaginal orgasms.
Chip August: Oh good, oh good.
Mary Roach: Let there be no doubt. Some of what that chapter has to do with was, there was all this talk about, initially there was this discussion among sex researchers: is a vaginal orgasm just an indirect clitoral orgasm? People saying "No no no no, it's just because the penis is indirectly stimulating the clitoris and that's why women tend to have an orgasm during intercourse. It's not a vaginal orgasm." But that was before anybody knew about the front wall of the vagina. Where the G-spot is.
Chip August: I got it, so they may have been misinterpreting the data.
Mary Roach: Yes.
Chip August: Yeah. Just for the record actually, I've interviewed a number of sexologists on this show, medical guys who specialize in sex, and there's a lot of evidence that in addition to the G-spot and the clitoris that there are women who have what they call cervical orgasms, that the pressure against the cervix, and of course...
Mary Roach: Barry Komisaruk, you must have had Barry Komisaruk on the show.
Chip August: And of course there are many many many women who will tell you, just as you said, they're orgasmic because somebody touched their nipples they're orgasmic, some when we're younger we get orgasmic when we're kissing. You know, we're just, there's no rubbing going on, it's just the sexual excitement in the moment and so I find, I think it's a male pursuit to try to just understand, we want a map, you know? Which part do I have to touch to get the result I want?
Mary Roach: Exactly, yeah.
Chip August: It gets confusing.
Mary Roach: I know, it is. One researcher had this wonderful way, I think it was Barry Komisaruk who it sounds like you may have spoken to, who compared orgasm in general to scotch. He said "single malt" which would be your clitoral stimulation, and then there's "blended scotch" which would be a little bit of nipple, a little bit of imagery, a little bit of vagina, and any combination of any of those things, and many more.
Chip August: I usually think of my wife as a fine wine, it's kind of nice to think of her as a blended scotch. You have a whole thing about orgasm and fertility.
Mary Roach: Yes, there's a whole chapter on upsuck, which is a... this goes back centuries, it was also called insuck, but I actually prefer the term upsuck, just because I like to say "upsuck." It's fun to say, upsuck. Upsuck was this phenomenon, this was going all the way back like the Hapsburg Empire, there was this woman who was, anyway I'll get back to her. There was a belief that when a woman has an orgasm that the contractions, the uterine contractions pull the semen up through the cervix and into the uterus and that would cause, that would bring them in closer contact with the egg and that that would boost the likelihood of conception. And this is something that's been shown in numerous animal species including pigs. In Denmark, farmers are instructed to sexually stimulate sows when they are artificially stimulating them because they found it causes a six-percent increase in the number of piglets that are born. So the farmer will mimic some of the techniques that the boar has, which are not very much like our techniques, they mostly involve the snout and sort of lifting the pig up and pushing on her vulva with his nose. So I don't know, some men may do that, but I don't know any of them. So the question is, you know, does that actually happen in people? And Masters and Johnson actually, they were very skeptical about upsuck. They were upsuck skeptics, which is also fun to say. They did this remarkable experiment where they had a cervical cap that they filled with simulated semen, same density, same surface tension. And in that simulated semen they put a radiopaque substance so that it would show up in X-rays. And then they put the women under an X-ray machine and had them masturbate, so they could take an X-ray at the time of orgasm and see if anything was being sucked up, this was an extraordinary experiment. Where they found the women, I don't know, but they didn't see any upsuck. They were not able to document any upsuck. So you know there are things, there are yeas and nays in the debate, but I don't know that it's been completely determined one way or the other.
Chip August: This is, you are just a wealth of things that I would never have thought to ask about, and things that I want to know more about, it's just terrific. And I also want to take a break here. So you're listening to Sex, Love, and Intimacy, I'm talking to Mary Roach. We are talking about sex, and mostly the physiological aspects of sex. She's written a wonderful book, Bonk: The Curious Coupling of Science and Sex and we're going to take a break and give an opportunity to show some support for our sponsors. By the way, I just want you to know as you listen to our ads that you can get a free book from Audible and you can save twenty percent on ice.com jewelry and more as you listen to these ads, or just go to the personallifemedia.com website and check out the links on my episode pages, where it asks for a promo code just use the word "love", L-O-V-E. We'll take a break, we'll be right back.
Chip August: Welcome back. You're listening to Sex, Love, and Intimacy. I'm your host, Chip August. We're talking to Mary Roach, we've been talking about the physiology of sex. It's just been a lot of fun here. You had some stuff about how long actual human sex lasts. Like how long an orgasm lasts, and how many strokes, can you talk a little bit about all that?
Mary Roach: Yeah, I don't have the exact figures in front of me so if you have them there, correct me if I'm wrong here. The most interesting statistic about orgasm was specifically that women... okay, there were women who came into a lab, I think it was Roy Levin's lab, and they were told to masturbate and indicate when they were starting their orgasm and when it had ended. By pushing a button, I think it was. Then later they were asked to estimate how long that orgasm had lasted, and they were about twelve seconds off. They were underestimating. In other words, they seemed to have lost track of time to the tune of ten or twelve seconds. It seems to be sort of an altered state, where you kind of lose all... how much time is passing.
Chip August: One hopes. One hopes you wouldn't want to be so focused on the clock while you're coming, you know, that would be... I think that's good.
Mary Roach: No, somebody else had the stopwatch in the other room, they weren't having to time it, they were just estimating later. That would be quite distracting, to have to be operating... but they did have to press the button before and after which would be actually a fairly distracting thing, I think.
Chip August: I know in the book you said their orgasms were averaging about twenty seconds. Twenty-six seconds.
Mary Roach: Yes, that's correct. There are, of course, women who've practiced techniques to extend orgasm to up to an hour, I guess, is what I've heard people say. Masters and Johnson tried to... something like the status orgasmis, so there are much much longer duration orgasms and there are much shorter, you know. Like everything in sex there's just huge differences from person to person.
Chip August: And there are these Tantric and Daoist practices about sort of living... there's an organization that has a wonderful podcast on our network, on the Personal Life Media network called "One Taste" and they have as a goal teaching people how to live in orgasm, how to just be 24/7 living in orgasm. It's very cool, it's very cool.
Mary Roach: How do they get anything done?
Chip August: They don't actually, what they get done is living in orgasm, it's pretty cool.
Mary Roach: Is there a monastery somewhere where people are just doing nothing but having orgasm? Wow.
Chip August: Yeah, they become urban monks. It's very interesting, I'll give you the link and I'll give our listeners the link if you just actually go to the personallifemedia.com website and look for the two or three programs I think that are offered by the One Taste organization, where you'll get a link to them and learn more about orgasmic meditation and living in orgasm. Some researcher actually counted how many thrusts a man might make to have, for successful intercourse.
Mary Roach: There was somebody who put out there an average figure, what was it, 250 thrusts.
Chip August: He said about one to five hundred, averaging at two fifty.
Mary Roach: Yeah. That's what I love about the science of sex, just imagining other people, there's been a person out there who had a little counter thing, he was actually watching and clicking every time, I guess that's how they did it. Just a scene that it tickles me to imagine.
Chip August: Last question here, and then there's a couple more things we want to do, but you seem to be implying that regular orgasms, either masturbatory or with a partner, are actually both good for our fertility and our health, yeah?
Mary Roach: Yes. There's a chapter, actually... there's this book called The Science of Orgasm by Barry Komisaruk and Beverly Whipple, and in that chapter, they listed a stunning list of conditions, physical conditions that are helped or prevented by regular orgasm. Like certain cancers, obviously stress reduction is a no-brainer, but I don't have the list in front of me. It appears to me that orgasm, that regular orgasm, is good for you. Also, they think it increases longevity. They looked at celibate priests versus non-celibate ministers, and somebody actually did a comparison although of course there's other factors that would determine longevity. But found that an earlier age of death. That's assuming they were sticking to the..
Chip August: That's the kind of thought I had, we're trusting that the reporting of the celibacy was accurate, yeah.
Mary Roach: Yeah.
Chip August: We're just about out of time, and first I just want to thank you for being a guest here. If people wanted to get your book or they want to see your website or just know more about you, how could they get in touch with you?
Mary Roach: Oh, sure, I have a website: www.maryroach.net which has excerpts from the book, readings schedule, you can order the book there. The book is out, it's all over the place. Amazon, not just Amazon, but independent bookstores, Borders, and Barnes and Noble and the whole shebang.
Chip August: And just to help you listeners, Mary Roach. Maryroach.net. We like to give our listeners an exercise. Something they can do at home, something that they could take from the show and bring into their life that might help their own sex, love, or intimacy, and you had some ideas on that subject, yeah?
Mary Roach: Yeah. I mean, if I were really self-serving I'd say "Go out and buy Bonk. Read it in bed."
Chip August: Step one, buy the book and read it.
Mary Roach: I do think actually, because it's a funny book, that I think that laughter is underestimated. I don't mean laughter because it boosts any kind of physiological response, it does actually have an arousing effect, laughter. But more just I think that laughter in the bedroom is a good thing. Say somebody occasionally has what Masters and Johnson would call "failure of erective performance." I mean, if you get all anxious about it, "Oh my god! I have an erectile dysfunction! I'm impotent! Dah dah dah," or the woman gets upset then it creates this cycle of anxiety. Whereas if you laugh about it, like "Oh no, I have ED!" It's not like it's a funny thing, but if you can keep it light, then anxiety out of the bedroom, because anxiety is the enemy of good sex.
Chip August: Yeah. They say that angels fly because they take themselves so lightly.
Mary Roach: Exactly.
Chip August: So, I got it. The exercise, find something to laugh about. Find something to laugh together about.
Mary Roach: Yes. That doesn't have to be Bonk, it could be a Mr. Bean movie, I don't know, anything.
Chip August: I actually encourage people to do, like, penis and vagina tricks. To get a mirror and see if you can make your penis or vagina look like an animal, or...
Mary Roach: Or Charles De Gaulle or something.
Chip August: Or talk, and all those things, sort of lighten up the moment. Nice idea, thank you, it's a terrific idea.
Mary Roach: You're very welcome.
Chip August: We're coming to the end of the show. I want to say, listeners, if you would like transcripts, text or transcripts, we transcribe every episode of Sex, Love, and Intimacy so if you want to print or read or cut or forward-copy, you can always find it on my episode pages at personallifemedia.com. Also, my audience is continuing to grow and grow and grow month over month, so if you think of someone who might like the show, please please please send them a link, send the show. Forward Sex, Love, and Intimacy to a friend. We got a lot of good things to say here and I think there's a lot of people who would love to listen. You have comments, or show ideas, send me an email, email@example.com, or call 206-350-5333. Leave your name, leave the name of my show, Sex, Love, and Intimacy, and your question or your comment. And I do read all my e-mail and I do listen to the comments that are left and I'm always looking for show ideas. Mary Roach, thank you very much for being on the show.
Mary Roach: Thank you for having me on the show, it was a pleasure.
Chip August: I can't quite imagine what your next book will be, given that we've done... let's see, we've done the afterlife, the lives of cadavers, and sex and science. I am anxiously looking forward to what you come up with next.
Mary Roach: Thank you. I don't know yet what it will be, but it's always a challenge. If people have any suggestions I'm always open to suggestions.
Chip August: Well, there you go. There you go. And thank you, listeners, for listening. We've come to the end of another show. Thanks for listening to Sex, Love, and Intimacy, and hope you tune in again.