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Sex, Science—and Sadism

What Mary Roach doesn't want to talk about in Bonk.

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Bonk: The Curious Coupling of Science and Sex Mary Roach (W.W. Norton)

In her new book, Bonk: The Curious Coupling of Science and Sex, Mary Roach rushes breezily hither and yon to learn about that wacky biological fact we call intercourse. In Denmark she interviews pig inseminators and discovers that they smell bad; in Thailand she finds out about the ancient martial art of hauling trucks with your penis. In Egypt she meets a doctor who when asked what he does for a living replies, "I am Ahmad Sharik!" These disparate, quirky anecdotes are drawn together by Roach's firm belief that science is good for sex: the more science you've got, the more knowledge you have, the less guilt you'll experience and the better your sex will be.

But can science actually build a better, more guiltless eroticism? Roach's evidence seems to be mixed. On the one hand there are vibrators and Viagra. But on the other there's the Penile Pricking Ring, designed in the 1800s to shove metal spikes into the penis to prevent nocturnal emissions. And there's Marie Bonaparte, a Freudian psychoanalyst who believed she couldn't orgasm because her clitoris was too far away from her vagina. So she had it surgically moved—twice—with no noticeable improvement. And let's not even discuss the animal experiments of the 40s and 50s, in which scientists removed cats' eyes to see if they would still copulate.

Roach, in fact, doesn't want to discuss those experiments, at least not at any length. In the first place, she notes, they are "ghastly," hardly in keeping with her sunny, sex-positive tone. But she also believes they "may tell us something about sadism in human beings but not a whole lot about copulation."

That might seem like a fair point—except that sadism is inherently sexual. The term was coined in the early 1900s by psychiatrist Richard Freiherr von Krafft-Ebing, who, inspired by the writings of de Sade, used it to describe the derivation of sexual pleasure from the infliction of pain. Freud popularized it by making it central to psychoanalysis; he called sadism and masochism "the most common and important of all perversions." In popular usage, sadism can mean deriving any sort of pleasure from pain, but the suggestion of sex still hovers in the background—is it an accident that torture at Abu Ghraib slipped toward specifically sexual forms? Roach wants to say the sex researchers who practiced vivisection were sadists. All right—but then, to paraphrase Nietzsche, as those researchers were staring into sex, sex was staring back into them. Is it too much of a leap to suggest that scientists who are interested in sex might have some sexual motivations?

Roach herself turns this idea over at various points, but each time she firmly rejects it. For her, science is always on top, penetrating sexuality, but never itself being penetrated. She acknowledges, for example, that some have accused Alfred Kinsey of voyeurism as he watched friends and acquaintances copulate in his attic. But she maintains that he was "simply a biologist studying sex as obsessively as he had studied gall wasps." He wanted to know, not to know.

But how can you tell the difference? In Erotism: Death and Sensuality, Georges Bataille points out that de Sade himself was fascinated with measuring and cataloging—as he was having himself whipped, he'd pause to obsessively write down the number of strokes. "For the sake of greater satisfaction," Bataille notes, "de Sade strove to infuse violence with the orderly calm of awareness." Surely, though, this is what scientists do as well: they isolate a slice of the violently disordered chaos of reality and infuse it with calm awareness in the interest of "greater satisfaction," for humanity and for themselves. In Bataille, the chapter on Sade is preceded by a chapter on Kinsey. Both were interested in the control of pleasure, and, inevitably, in the obverse—the pleasure of control.

My point here is not that all scientists are perverts. It's that Sade's project and the project of science bear a familial resemblance. Both are children of the age of reason, and both treat animals and even people as things, to be manipulated in the service of someone else's desires. For Bataille, the difference between the two is all in Sade's favor. Bataille argues that humanity comes into existence with taboo. Proscribing certain kinds of sexual acts creates guilt and therefore an eroticism distinct from the mechanical acts of animals. Without taboo, and the resulting possibility of transgression, he argues, we might as well be amoebas.

Sadism recognizes taboo and guilt and shame; the transgression is the point. But for science, and for Roach, taboo is simply superstition, a roadblock the repressed throw up between sex and pleasure, and between research and its funding. But as Bataille notes, "We reject the truths implicit in our erotic life if we only regard it as a natural function.... By exonerating our sexual life from every trace of guilt, science has no chance of seeing it for what it is."

On one of her research trips, Roach and her husband have sex in a clinic. While they perform, a researcher stands beside them and waves an ultrasound wand over their bodies to get an image of what's happening to all the nonvisible bits. This isn't very romantic, Roach points out, observing that "sex is far more than the sum of its moving parts." But, she adds, "if the parts don't work properly, the sum is moot." This sounds eminently rational—which is the problem. For Roach, the irrational part of sex and the part that can be measured by science can exist more or less happily together. You figure out how everything works, fix it all up, and then add the special ingredient that makes it go, like gas in a car.

Which brings us back to the Penile Pricking Ring. If sexual repression is what corrupted science, then the ring, an instrument of repression, is the opposite of the ultrasound wand, a tool that helps us better understand the human body and so can teach doctors to help patients have better sex.

But what if the ultrasound wand is not the antithesis of the Penile Pricking Ring but its apotheosis? Science tries to evacuate taboo, so doctors in the 19th century turned masturbation from a sin into a medical condition that would cause degeneration and ill health. But the transformation wasn't complete—at the very least, anyone wearing a pricking ring is still going to be painfully aware of the taboo involved. The ultrasound wand, on the other hand, is much more successful in eradicating every trace of taboo from the sexual act. In the clinic sex becomes just a series of movements, done for informational purposes. You could just as well wave the wand over monkeys. Sex in the presence of science is guilt-free. But as Bataille argues, it's the recognition of the sacred and of the possibility of defiling it that makes human beings human. If something cannot be defiled, it's not sacred.

While observing erectile dysfunction surgery in Thailand Roach finds herself thinking of the organs (which are visible) as the patients, rather than the men attached to them (whose faces are hidden behind a curtain). At the conclusion of one such operation, she asks the doctor if she can squeeze the penis. The surgeon assents, and why shouldn't he? It's just another whimsical moment on the path to knowledge. Nothing is sacred, and no one has been violated because there's no one there to violate.v

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