“I am not easily repulsed”: interview with Mary Roach

Mary Roach writes books on weird scientific research about subjects we’ve all wondered about. She is the author of Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers, Spook: Science Tackles the Afterlife, and – her latest and my favorite – Bonk: The Curious Coupling of Science and Sex. I’ve long enjoyed Roach’s quirky style that often has me chortling as I read. Reading a whole book about my favorite topic (sex, not cadavers) was delicious.

In a separate blog post, I’ve reviewed Bonk and quoted delightful tidbits that will send you running to read the book and give it to all your friends. Here with my interview with the author, Mary Roach:

JP: As cool-headed and sharp-witted as you are, some parts of your research must have embarrassed or repulsed you. What do you wish you had never done or learned, and why? Tell the truth!

MR: As readers of Stiff have probably figured out, I am not easily repulsed. At least not by the physical. I am repulsed by close-mindedness, petty hatred, greed, intolerance, ignorance. But not penises or vaginas or sex. But bear in mind, I was hanging out in sex labs, not fringe sex clubs South of Market. Honestly, it’s pretty tame stuff. Embarrassment-wise, well, there was the Dr. Deng scenario. Ed and I were scanned in 4-D ultrasound in the act. That was awkward, for sure, but I knew how much fun it was going to be to write it up, and so it hardly bothered me. Mostly, I felt guilty for dragging my husband into the fray.

JP: What have you seen or learned since you finished the book that you wish you could have included?

MR: Oh, people are always emailing me or coming up to me at talks and dropping all manner of irresistible tidbits that I wish I’d known about while working on the book. One man raised his hand and said, “Are you aware of the phenomenon of surfing sperm?” Apparently they surf the secretions on the vaginal walls. Another man, a gynecologist now in his seventies, emailed to tell me a story that William Masters had told him about meeting a bishop or cardinal, I forget which. His Holiness had asked to hear about the research Masters and Johnson were doing. He listened quite intently, and when Masters had finished speaking, he said, “Very good. Your work might serve to prevent a lot of divorces. Of course, if I am asked about it in public, I will condemn you.” Would have loved to include those!

JP: My blog is directed at older readers (most are 60-80) who are interested in sex. What did you learn specific to elder sex, aside from Viagra? If little or nothing, can you talk about why you think scientific research is NOT being done on elder sex, other than taking surveys? Is it the “ick factor,” as I call it?

MR: There was a large survey that was published not long ago about frequency of sex and satisfaction levels among people over 75, I think it was. The problem, as I recall it, was that so many of the women at that age were widows. I didn’t cover this because as you know it’s a book about laboratory-based sex research — the physiological stuff: arousal and orgasm and such. Rather than the behavioral issues. I cover the two physiological old-age biggies — erectile dysfunction in men and libido issues in women. I had wanted to include a chapter specifically on sex in the upper reaches of old age, but physiologically speaking, it seemed to be a matter of degree, rather than unique issues. In other words, more ED and lower libido… I don’t think of sex researchers as people who easily succumb to the ick factor — my god, look at Marcalee Sipski and her orgasm work with quadriplegics. If they were, they wouldn’t have gotten into arousal and orgasm research in the first place. Then again, I think old age is actually more of a taboo than sex these days, so perhaps it is the ick factor that keeps researchers away.

JP: What’s the most unusual experience you had while promoting this book? I imagine people came up to you and told you all sorts of things you’d rather not know.

MR: Call-in radio shows are always entertaining. The DJs will often bill me as a therapist or a researcher, and then open up the lines and say, “We’ll be taking ALL your questions on sex!” And I’m in the studio with this panicked look, mouthing NOOOOOO! Because I’m a writer — I only know about what I wrote about in the book. I don’t know, say, whether it’s a myth that the Hoo-ha tribe in the Amazon has blue testicles or what the best natural alternative to Viagra is. People do come up after readings and confide all manner of intimate things. It doesn’t bother me. I guess I’m used to it. I just wish I had better answers for them.

JP: What’s the next book (if you’ve decided)?

MR: Yes, I’m writing about the fabulous insanity of space travel, of staying alive in a world for which we are utterly ill-equipped. Lots of fun aeromedical history stuff, field trips to Moscow and the Japanese Space Agency, etc.

[Read my review of Mary Roach’s Bonk here.]


  1. SageHealth Network on November 20, 2008 at 3:16 am

    Hi Joan,

    I was so interested to see an interview with Mary Roach. I love her work and can’t wait to pick up the latest one on science and sex.
    Thanks very much and hope you are doing well.

    Michele Cauch
    SageHealth Network
    Toronto, Canada

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