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In 'Bonk,' Mary Roach Explores Science of Sex

Eliminating polyester from your wardrobe may be a smart move if you're looking to attract a mate.

That is just one of the many curious findings Mary Roach writes about in her new book, Bonk: The Curious Couple of Science and Sex, which examines the history of research on copulation.

Her previous works include Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers, on the science of death, and Spook: Science Tackles the Afterlife, a look at what happens after we die.

In a conversation with Robert Siegel, Roach describes the evolution of sex research: from studies by Alfred Kinsey and the lesser-known Robert Latou Dickenson, to the Egyptian doctor Ahmed Shafik, who dressed rats in polyester pants. Shafik's conclusion? Rodents in leisure suits don't get much play.

Roach says the 1920s were a surprisingly racy decade for sex research. During that era, the aforementioned Dickenson, a Brooklyn-based gynecologist, became the first to take a laboratory-based approach to examining what happens physiologically when people have sex.

"There were sex manuals at the time that were encouraging women to try being on top," Roach says. "The 1920s were almost like the '60s in a way — and then we swung back to a more conservative era."

Dickenson later inspired Kinsey to conduct his famous studies of American sexual habits, she says.

Roach says that despite numerous studies on sex conducted over the years, much remains to be learned about coital mechanics.

"I'm left with a lingering sense of surprise that there are still a good number of mysteries in the realm of sexual physiology."

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