Q&A with Mary Roach: Revealing the science of sex

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Yesterday, the TEDBlog caught up with author Mary Roach to discuss her brand new TEDTalk and her latest book, Bonk, that captures the most interesting tidbits on the science of sex throughout history. With amazing ease, Mary frankly addressed lack of orgasms among women, her sex life, and participating in clinical sex research with her husband. It’s our sexiest Q&A yet.

So, are you excited to see your TEDTalk go up?

I’m delighted! I’m so excited about it. I just hope I don’t create moral outrage and sully the good name of TED with my little talk.

I’m sure you won’t. Jumping off, I’d like to ask at least one serious question — you had such funny facts about orgasm, but what about the less funny, large proportion of women that have difficulty achieving orgasm? Did you come across research on this?

Well, I didn’t really go into the therapy aspect of sexual dysfunction. Mainly, I was looking at lab-tested physiological research. But, there’s a chapter in Bonk about the distance between the clitoris and the vagina and if a physical difference there could play a role in orgasm. You know, asking: Is there a single physical factor? I loved that research.

Actually, the guy doing this research was re-running numbers originally gathered by Marie Bonaparte, who is Napoleon’s niece, and had great personal difficulty achieving orgasm. She even had her clitoris surgically moved closer to her vagina. Unfortunately, she later became a Freudian theorist, and of course Freud said that the clitoris was for little girls and that all pleasure really came from the vagina. That couldn’t have helped her in her quest.

But, even if that physical difference is a factor, it’s not very large. You can change positions. I think it’s much more about how comfortable you are. They say that women’s sexual peaks are in their 30s or 40s, and I think that it happens because they’re more comfortable. It’s not some hormonal change that happens at that age. Of course, it would be nice to have more physiological insight on that.

By the way, Marie Bonparte’s husband turned out to be gay. But we know that’s not why she didn’t have orgasms as she had an affair with the Prime Minister of France, who was not gay, and couldn’t climax with him either.

You’re full of fun facts! Another semi-serious question — the pig stimulation looks like a lot of work. Is a six percent increase in probability of fertilization really worth all that?

Well, I don’t have the numbers, but I’m guessing that it’s not as popular with smaller pig farmers. I can’t imagine them doing this for 12 piglets or so more a year. But, at larger farms with a big bottom line, it’s probably well worth it. Yeah, any mom and pop pig farmers would say, “Are you out of your mind?”

Now that we’re on the topic of animal orgasms, just wondering, have you come across any research of which species have orgasms? Do cockroaches have orgasms?

When researchers have bothered to look into it with different species, they’ve always found that they do have orgasms. But it’s not common that they do unless they’re trying to produce more pigs. I think it’s a big unknown.

And how do you prove it? How many iterations do you need — you know, how many cockroaches do you need to examine before you can prove the negative? And how do you know what an orgasm looks like in all these different species? The pig in the video doesn’t look to us like she’s having an orgasm. Anne Marie Hedeboe, the representative from the Danish National Committee actually said, “Speaking for myself, I hope she does. But we’re really just hoping to produce more pigs.”

So, after two years of researching and writing a book about sex, is your sex life better?

Yeah, in very subtle ways. The book’s not a how-to but you do learn lot about how bodies work.

Also, there was a period of time when I was reading Human Sexual Response by Masters and Johnson, which is very detailed — and that was hard because knowing this stuff turns you into a spectator in your own bedroom. You find yourself going,“Oh, are you having post-ejaculatory sensitivity today, honey?” So that was disturbing, particularly for my husband.

What about how other people see you? Now that you’ve written a book about sex, do people find you sexier?

You know, I was looking forward to that but it hasn’t happened. When I wrote Stiff, people thought I was this really twisted, weird person. Now, I thought they would think, “Mary’s really into sex. She’s really hot.” But, I haven’t gotten it. I’ve gotten three emails from men saying here’s my address if you want to try some new things. But that was it. Literally, three emails.

Well, there’s still time. And your TEDTalk is going up tomorrow.

That’s true. We’ll see!

READ MORE: Mary tells her story of having sex in front of a researcher, explains how she picks her topics and asks for suggestions to name her next book. So, while researching Bonk you and your husband actually participated in research on sex. What was that experience like?

It was very clinical. Not at all like sex. It was like an awkward, invasive medical procedure. At least, that’s how we both approached it.

And, Ed has a great capability for denial. He was fine with it, up to 15 minutes before we headed into the researcher’s office. I mean, all the pressure was on him. He had taken a Viagara, because otherwise there was no way … but still. We were not in an MRI, like some people thought. At least then you’d be in the tube, you’d have some privacy. It’s an ultrasound and the researcher has to hold the wand, physically, to you. It was difficult for Ed. For me, as the woman, I was just taking notes. I wasn’t engaged at all.

I just wanted to address the curiosity that I had, and readers had, about being a subject. It’s not common to use two people though. If it’s purely the physiology, you hardly need two people. But I was interested because Masters and Johnson had 200 couples come into the lab.

You went from Stiff to Spook, and nowBonk. How did you make this move from darker themes like death to sex? What’s the connection?

I don’t think either of the first books are about death. Well, maybe Stiff is a little bit about death. The second is about the paranormal, and spiritualism, and applying science to both in a totally bizarre way. To me, death is dark, pain, grief.

How do you pick your topics, then?

Picking my topics is sort of a process of elimination for me. Most things don’t work for me. I like to cover science and unexpected things happening in labs. Also, theoretical research doesn’t work for my style. I need scenes and interactions. Then, humor. I’m having the most fun when I can have fun with my work. So, there are very few things that work for me. It’s actually very difficult to find my material.

Your sense of humor really comes through in your work and your talk. How did you decide to go author rather than stand-up comic?

The choice between books and stand-up was really easy — I’m just not that funny in person. My husband is. He’s always got a witty comeback. I’m not a quick wit. I’m only funny on paper. I mean, I’m not totally humorless! It’s just that in person, I’m not quite the way I am on paper. It definitely wasn’t a conscious decision.

So, what’s next for Mary Roach?

My next book is about astronauts and all aspects of space. It’s also about trying to live in space, with no gravity, no air.

Interesting. Will it also be given a one-word, one-syllable title?

It doesn’t make for a good monosyllabic title. That was never a marketing plan, the titles. It’s a coincidence that we used. But, it just ended. Unless, you have a suggestion. If you think of something, email me.

Will do! Maybe someone in the TED community will come up with something. We could ask for suggestions.

That would be great!

I really enjoy TED. You know, you go to TED and you’re just blown away. And, when I spoke, it was after all these amazing people who are changing the world, and then here’s Mary Roach talking about pig orgasms. I thought, “I just lowered the bar for TED. Oh my God, what have I done?”

I was afraid that this would be the talk that TED doesn’t post — that they’d ensure that it was lost in some archive somewhere …

We couldn’t be happier to post it, Mary.