Mary Roach
Author, "Grunt: The Curious Science of Humans at War"

Mary Roach Considers Visual Erotic Stimulation

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The author talks about the role of porn in sex research.

Mary Roach

Mary Roach grew up in a small house in Etna, New Hampshire. She graduated from Wesleyan in 1981, and then moved out to San Francisco. She spent a few years working as a freelance copy editor before landing a half-time PR job at the SF Zoo. During that time she wrote freelance articles for the local newspaper's Sunday magazine.

Though she mostly focuses on writing books, she writes the occasional magazine piece. These have run in Outside, National Geographic, New Scientist, Wired, and The New York Times Magazine, as well as many others. A 1995 article of herse called "How to Win at Germ Warfare" was a National Magazine Award Finalist, and in 1996, her article on earthquake-proof bamboo houses took the Engineering Journalism Award in the general interest magazine category. Mary Roach also reviews books for The New York Times.

Her first book, Stiff, was an offshoot of a column she wrote for Her other books include Spook: Science Tackles the Afterlife, Bonk: The Curious Coupling of Science and Sex, Packing for Mars: The Curious Science of Life in the Void, and Grunt: The Curious Science of Humans at War.



Question: What roll does pornography play in the lab?

Mary Roach: Well, pornography does because when you're studying human sexual arousal in a laboratory setting, the most efficient and cheapest way to achieve it is to show pornography. Although it isn't called pornography, it's called Visual Erotic Stimulation, VES.

But that makes it difficult for a researcher. Sometimes, when they're trying... they're submitting their grant proposal and they mention, you know, any sort of erotic imagery and it turns out that what they're doing is showing pornographic clips, then the people... you know, the universities get a little skittish and people start asking questions and I did encounter researchers who were turned down or the universities sort of called them aside and said, "look, what's going on here?" because they thought there was some sort of weird voyeuristic thing going on... Anyway, I don't know if that was really what you were getting out of pornography. But pornography...

You know, it was funny. I asked one of the researchers because I was a subject on one of these studies and they had this clip... It was rather... I mean, pornography is pretty badly edited anyway but this is really, like, they're trying to get every possible kind of like penetration, an oral, an... you know, everything in this clip so they just sort of spliced a bunch from different movies and then it follows the neutral stimulus, which is, you know, a plane taking off or a ship in a harbor. It is the most... It was the most surreal thing to be sitting there watching it. Anyway, I don't know where I was going with this but... I said to the researcher, "well, is there a special company that you order these films... these film clips for because it's, you know, scientific research. You can't just order them... can't go down to the local porn shop." And they said, are you nuts? Of course we do, we go... That's where we get them, you know. And then, we turn in our expenses and get reimbursed. 

And the other thing that's happening with pornography that is... I was just actually interviewing a pornographer in--this is for something entirely different--in Spain and... over in Europe. Now, the pornography producers are very much connected with the telephone companies because it's all coming in on cellphones and iPhones and things and it's little tiny clips has totally changed the industry. They're, now, not doing whole movies with, you know, known stars. It's just, you know, three-minute shots of... There's no plot. The industry is totally different. And the amazing thing was that the telephone companies in Europe... not here, it hasn't started happening here. Telephone companies are a little wary of, you know, censure from conservative groups. But it's really changed in Europe. And certainly would make it easier for the scientists who are doing arousal studies because just sort of download A, B, C, D and you got your four little clips.

Recorded on: April 6, 2009