Bonk: The curious coupling of sex and science, By Mary Roach

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The Independent Culture

Mary Roach's study of how scientists have invested time and effort investigating the ways people achieve sexual gratification makes for startling reading. Even hearing the titles of the texts she read during her research is eye-opening: "I have no doubt that I'm a running joke at the interlibrary loan department of the San Francisco Public Library, where I have requested papers with titles like 'On the Function of Groaning and Hyper-ventilation During Intercourse' and 'Vacuum Cleaner Use in Auto-Erotic Death'."

This really isn't a book designed to titillate, you see. Some individual passages are arousing but, as a whole, it's impossible to get too excited about stories of doctors overseeing experiments in mass-orgasm, once you work out that nightmares such as death by vacuum cleaner are prone to follow.

People do the most extraordinary things to achieve an orgasm, but at least these days they can do it with properly designed equipment. From the beginning of the 20th century US patents began to be filed under vague rubric such as "Appliance for Assisting Anatomical Organs", but these sex-toys were generally aimed at men. It took a true pioneer like Dr Philippe Woog, the inventor of the first electric toothbrush, to begin thinking about devices for women. He started designing vibrators after it became clear that certain returned toothbrushes "seemed to have been used in that way".

In places, particularly when relating tales of freak male injuries, Roach seems a little too enraptured by sadistic glee. Also, some of her anecdotes have a very sharp edge, such as when she describes how wearing an unsuitable skirt made her fall off a desk while clambering up to peek at the experimental setup for masturbating someone with a spinal injury to orgasm. Overall, though, it's compelling stuff.