Sex In The Machine: Our First Romp With Bonk

By Sheril Kirshenbaum | April 23, 2009 11:46 am

373829312.JPGToday we kick off our Bonk book club!  As I explained already, everyone is invited to contribute to the conversation–even if you’re not reading along. My hope is that readers will offer ideas and insights on each topic or suggest a different direction about something else you find particularly fascinating. Eventually, we’ll develop an ongoing conversation that will evolve over several threads.

And now we explore what’s going on between the jacket… What better way to dive right in than explore the subject most discussed when Bonk comes up in conversation: ‘Is that the book where she has sex with her husband in the machine?’  Yes, it most certainly is.  So we turn to Chapter 5: What’s Going On In There? The diverting world of coital imaging

As Roach describes, it is a simple and noble goal: To reveal more information on how various body parts work during sexual intercourse.  She goes on to review the work of several artists and doctors who have attempted to document the deed starting with Leonardo da Vinci in 1493. Attempts range from intriguing to what-were-they-thinking?

Eventually Mary successfully recruits [coaxes] her husband Jupp into a trip to Europe to participate in an experiment involving coitus in Dr. Jing Deng’s MRI machine.  She describes the experience in clinical detail and explains that other than the parts involved, the experience bears very little resemblance to what actually goes on between the couple. ‘Sex is far more than the sum of its moving parts.’  But it was particularly interesting to read where Roach marvels at the beautiful images produced:

Not so much a passport photo for daily use, but surely a shot that shows so much that it makes me speechless.  There, it’s my womb and surely, on that place is Jupp, naturally in a way as I know from my own sensation: below the cervix.  Two days later I’m feeling a kind of pride: we tried and succeeded!

With that, I’m very interested to hear other’s reactions to the topic–even if you haven’t read the book.  Would you volunteer for the experiment (let alone document it?) And furthermore, could you convince your partner to join in?

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Books, Culture, Education
MORE ABOUT: bonk, book club, sex

Comments (16)

  1. Amos Zeeberg (Discover Web Editor)

    I would definitely do that. And then watch them delete the image files. All of them.

    Actually, I bet you could get a much more naturalistic view by using a 3-D scanner. We just this morning published an article from the magazine on using such a scanner to find the weak points in Michelangelo’s David [right ankle], and we’ve got a photo gallery and related article on the technology coming up soon.

  2. I think it would be interesting to couple this book with Elisabeth Lloyd’s “The Case of the Female Orgasm” where Lloyd has some definitive words on stimulation of the vagina vs that of the clitoris.

    I would volunteer for such an experiment, but in this cases I always have the Bohrian question; how do we know the experiment and its observation are not perturbing reality?

  3. I think it would be interesting to couple this book with Elisabeth Lloyd’s “The Case of the Female Orgasm”

    In researching my next book, I’m concurrently reading Sharon Moalem’s How Sex Works: Why We Look, Smell, Taste, Feel, and Act the Way We Do. It’s a far more clinical description of sex and anatomy, but also a nice companion to Roach.

  4. Sheril,
    Thanks for the book recommends. Add to that list the 2006 The Science of Orgasm by Whipple, Beyer-Flores & Komisaruk (Whipple of the first G-spot book).
    Is just os happens that Mary Roach is speaking in a town close to my home tonight (Petaluma, CA). I’m going to see her.
    We’re in fascinating times with the advent of better fMRIs, brain studies, neurobiology & women’s sexuality studies finally making the grade. My hope is that with all of this information coming out we can use it to actually realize the immense possibilities our mind/bodies have to help us heal and live up to our full capacity as human beings.
    I want to volunteer too and I want to help guide some of his studies! I have a huge list of questions that would probably only get longer once I started asking the questions!
    Thanks for this discussion.

  5. Sheril, I must ask you to take Sharon Moalem’s words with several grains of salt. I have read his previous book and while there are some potentially very interesting ideas in there, there is some extremely valid criticism of them; for instance see PZ here.

    It seems that people like Moalem often fall for the common fallacy of mistaking correlation for causation (we all do at various times). The problem is that a lot of authors including Molaem want to find some kind of adaptive purpose in everything from the female orgasm to nose-scratching. It’s relatively hard to accept that some things are just side products of evolution that do not (yet) seem to have a purpose. But it is very easy to indulge in armchair speculation about possible adaptive purposes and find connections between disparate phenomena, and it’s especially easy and tempting to fall into this trap when thinking about human behavior and sexual behavior. The reason I mentioned Lloyd’s book is that she takes on all these theories to explain the supposed purpose of the female orgasm and demolishes all of them; she thus concludes that unlike the male orgasm, the female orgasm is really purposeless and a side-product of evolution.

    On the other hand, Moalem and Paul Ewald’s theories sparked off a speculative idea that I have had about the connection between infection and Alzheimer’s disease about which you can read here. But in any case, I would strongly urge you to take a look at Lloyd’s book.

  6. First person:

    In ‘Bonk,’ Mary Roach Explores Science of Sex

    And if you happen to be really curious about the scientific “results”, I could possibly suggest trying a Google search with the three keywords “MRI”, “intercourse”, and “video”. It might produce an interesting, ahem, link.

  7. My husband and I would totally do it. It would be fun to see our insides together! Or his outsides…you know what I mean! 😉 He’s not as generally fascinated with biology as I am, but he’s generally fascinated with gadgets. This is a great mixing of both biology and gadgets. There are some other hypotheses that would be tested if you could get close enough pictures, like the Sperm Scoop theory.

  8. It would be really strange to see a cross section, or image if you will, of yourself having sex. It is something you don’t see everyday, so it would definitely give you a new appreciation for the “fun” act.

  9. I wonder if Roach poses the famous “condom problem”.

    Two open-minded heterosexual couples, just two condoms. How will you umm…satisfy all four possible combinations?
    Conditions: The inner and outer surface of every condom should touch the surface of a given penis or vagina just once. That is, nothing prevents a condom’s surface from touching the same human surface more than once, as long as it has touched no other. So as long as these conditions are satisfied, one condom can certainly be used more than once.
    Hint: Condoms can be worn one on top of another.

    Now go! Have fun and keep STDs at bay using clever combinatorial optimization.

  10. Catharine Zivkovic

    Interesting thought experiment but methinks there are more than four possible combinations.

  11. I like the topology math problem that Ashutosh posed – I remember a surgeon/gloves/deadly-patients version from when I was in high school.

    BTW, the sex in the MRI paper was blogged by SciCurious and by PZ before (I think that post of PZ’s is the second most visited post in the history of

  12. There are four heterosexual combinations; Man A-Woman A, Man A-Woman B, Man B-Woman A, Man B-Woman B

  13. OK, I may be dating myself (and that would mean the dinner conversation would be really boring), but I remembered watching a documentary series back in the early 1990s that was authored by Desmond Morris (“The Naked Ape”) called “The Human Animal”. In one chapter of this documentary, “The Biology of Love”, this documentary showed video actually obtained within the woman during the act of sexual intercourse, enabled by fiber optics and strategically deployed tape. I wondered for years after that, given the advances in medical imaging, when there would be something like the “sex in the tube” MRI experiment and Roach’s more recent experience. And imaging technology has advanced considerably — as an example, the Pillcam, a miniature camera in a pill that is swallowed to provide internal “live” video images of the esophagus, stomach, and intestines — so I would expect that at some point this advanced technology would be focused on intercourse. I haven’t seen that happen yet, and I don’t know if “Bonk” mentions this possibility. Certainly the question would be what could be learned to inform us scientifically from such an investigation, and therefore it would be interesting to read a funding proposal. For the sake of science, of course.

    According to what can be gleaned from the WWW, the couple which participated in “The Biology of Love” were sex therapists, and had to participate with a very high (almost superhuman, or is it inhumane?) frequency in order to capture the footage — that was used in the documentary. The documentary also shows the cervical response to female orgasm, so if anyone wonders if the response does actually happen, there is documentary evidence of this particular aspect.

    And by the way — when researching for this post to make sure I remembered the name of the chapter correctly, for a lark I clicked on the “Video” search, too. It turns out that it is no longer necessary to go to the local university library to check out “The Biology of Love”.

    There is actually more to this story; according to Web articles, the couple that were the objects of attention for the documentary supposedly coached Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman to improve the heat content of their scenes together in Kubrick’s “Eyes Wide Shut”. And there is even more to the story than that, but this has diverged from the science into the realm of gossip — not that there’s anything wrong with that — so I’ll finish my posting here.

  14. I don’t know who may have read the following article, but according to it, there was (or is) some scientific justification to examine human genitalia conjoined in the act of coitus, beyond the mere “let’s see what it looks like with our new technology” curiousity.

    Secrets of the Phallus: Why Is the Penis Shaped Like That?

    It would seem that more in-depth research is required.


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About Sheril Kirshenbaum

Sheril Kirshenbaum is a research scientist with the Webber Energy Group at the University of Texas at Austin's Center for International Energy and Environmental Policy where she works on projects to enhance public understanding of energy issues as they relate to food, oceans, and culture. She is involved in conservation initiatives across levels of government, working to improve communication between scientists, policymakers, and the public. Sheril is the author of The Science of Kissing, which explores one of humanity's fondest pastimes. She also co-authored Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens Our Future with Chris Mooney, chosen by Library Journal as one of the Best Sci-Tech Books of 2009 and named by President Obama's science advisor John Holdren as his top recommended read. Sheril contributes to popular publications including Newsweek, The Washington Post, Discover Magazine, and The Nation, frequently covering topics that bridge science and society from climate change to genetically modified foods. Her writing is featured in the anthology The Best American Science Writing 2010. In 2006 Sheril served as a legislative Knauss science fellow on Capitol Hill with Senator Bill Nelson (D-FL) where she was involved in energy, climate, and ocean policy. She also has experience working on pop radio and her work has been published in Science, Fisheries Bulletin, Oecologia, and Issues in Science and Technology. In 2007, she helped to found Science Debate; an initiative encouraging candidates to debate science research and innovation issues on the campaign trail. Previously, Sheril was a research associate at Duke University's Nicholas School of the Environment and has served as a Fellow with the Center for Biodiversity and Conservation at the American Museum of Natural History and as a Howard Hughes Research Fellow. She has contributed reports to The Nature Conservancy and provided assistance on international protected area projects. Sheril serves as a science advisor to NPR's Science Friday and its nonprofit partner, Science Friday Initiative. She also serves on the program committee for the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). She speaks regularly around the country to audiences at universities, federal agencies, and museums and has been a guest on such programs as The Today Show and The Daily Rundown on MSNBC. Sheril is a graduate of Tufts University and holds two masters of science degrees in marine biology and marine policy from the University of Maine. She co-hosts The Intersection on Discover blogs with Chris Mooney and has contributed to DeSmogBlog, Talking Science, Wired Science and Seed. She was born in Suffern, New York and is also a musician. Sheril lives in Austin, Texas with her husband David Lowry. Interested in booking Sheril Kirshenbaum to speak at your next event? Contact Hachette Speakers Bureau 866.376.6591 For more information, visit her website or email Sheril at


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