Mary Roach Makes Sex Research Discoveries

Science Journalist and Author

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 Salon.com. 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.

 

  • Transcript

TRANSCRIPT

Question: What new is being discovered in sex research?

Mary Roach: Well, what's going on now...Sex research today is we're in a phase where it has... A lot of the funding is going toward finding pharmaceutical solutions to sexual dysfunction. Sex research... You know, in the fifties when it really got going...fifties, sixties, and seventies, was sort of the heyday of bringing people into the lab and, for the first time, figuring out what happens when someone's aroused, what is orgasm, what the heck's going on. So a lot of that stuff was... it has been done. There are some pockets that are still going on, which I, you know, assiduously sought out and visited. But the bulk of the research today is moving toward testing drugs for coming up with products that will, then, you know, make somebody very wealthy. You know, there was Viagra ans now, the holy grail is finding something for low libido in post-menopausal women, that's kind of where a lot of the work is. So AIDS...sex research went from the Masters and Johnson era then moved into--when AIDS hit the scene--a lot of the money went toward, you know, transmission of AIDS, risk-taking behavior, getting a handle on that. And then, since then, has moved towards dysfunction, helping people who have sexual dysfunction and looking at solutions, not just pharmaceutical but other approaches. 

Question: What research is most under reported?

Mary Roach: Someone was looking into the statistic...There's a statistic out there, that seventy percent of women don't have orgasm from sexual intercourse alone. Now that right there is problematic. Because when you say sex, sexual intercourse, you're talking about, the foreplay involved, are you just talking...I mean, what...was there, like, a central massage, do we watch porn beforehand. You know, it's...Right there, it's problematic, that statistic. But it was the researcher who is looking at... you know, why is that figure so low and what makes the difference between the seventy percent who don't and the thirty percent who do. And he was looking at the distance between the clitoris and the vagina, which I thought was interesting work, and trying to see, you know, was...is there a correlation. And there does seem to be a correlation.

So that kind of basic anatomical... not basic, but that sort of anatomical, physiological exploration... I'd like to see more of that going on. I understand why people don't do those studies. They tend to make your colleagues sort of raise their eyebrows and it's hard, sometimes, hard to get subjects for them. But that kind of work.  Another area was the role of female organism in conception, in fertility. And, you know, there's this whole theory--it's called upsuck--around the turn of the last century. It was very commonly believed that the contractions of orgasm would sort of pull the semen up through the cervix and they rapidly deliver it and therefore, you're more likely to conceive.

Even going way back to Hippocrates, physicians use to counsel men... like, "it's very important. You must titillate your wife prior to the intercourse because, you know, her pleasure is necessary for conception." I mean, now, we know it isn't... it isn't necessary but does it play a role? There's... There are arguments on both sides of that. And that's really an interesting area. I love to see more people...There is actually a researcher who was doing some work in that area. So that... that kind of work I find fascinating.

Question: What sort of disorders were you unfamiliar with?

Mary Roach: There's premature ejaculation. People are familiar with that. But then, there's actually something called, well, used to be called retarded ejaculation, but I think that sounded wrong. So now, I think its delayed ejaculation. So there's all these... Male sexual dysfunction tends to just... If it's not erectile... It's like, that's all there is. But there's a whole kind of array of erectile difficulties that are interesting because some people will say, you know, like premature ejaculation is one where there's been papers written. It's like why is this a disorder? You know, this actually evolved as a way... You know, in the animal kingdom, the quicker you're done and the quicker you leave, the less likely are you to get attacked by a competing male. So it was actually evolutionarily advantageous, to be a speedy ejaculator. And now, it's being called a, you know, a syndrome or a dysfunction. So there's always debate, you know, in the sexual research communities about that. That was sort of interesting.

There's one in women, persistent sexual arousal disorder, which is just this constant sense of being very aroused and not able to kind of conclude or, you know, not able to get relief. And that... You know, people make jokes about "I wish I had that." But, you know, it's actually a very troubling condition. There're all kinds of interesting orgasmic disorders that people don't know about.  There are spontaneous orgasm. We're talking 30 times a day, there was a case study of a woman, somewhere in the Middle East, who... I mean, destroyed her social life. They made a note that she could no longer go to shrines and practice religious rituals. I mean, your life will be sort of destroyed by something that the rest of us... You know, orgasm is a lovely thing but, you know, you can have too much of anything. So there's interesting sort of wiring problems that people were... Like, there was a man who... every time he defecated, he would have an orgasm.

Question: Will sex research improve under Obama?

Mary Roach: I think what happens is it tends to spiral one way or the other. I think that in a conservative administration, people... they have a sense that this is going to be... this is going to be a Pandora's box. I don't want to... My life will be easier if I don't do this study. Why don't I just take a big grant for a fertility study? Everybody can get behind fertility and improving fertility. So I'll do that to get the money I need and then I'll sort of on the side do a little bit of this other very interesting work. But I think that once... you know, when you do have a sense that there is more open-minded, political element out there that you'll be... They'll be a little bit more... People will feel more... a little safer and a little more encouraged, hopefully. But again, you know, the funding is so far down in all of the sciences and it's so competitive that just to survive, just to get by, people are doing work that they don't have to wonder, are they going to be funded next year or how will they pay for it.

Recorded on: April 6, 2009

 


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