Big Think Interview With 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.
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.
Question: What inspired Bonk?
Mary Roach: I came across a reference to a technique that... Masters and Johnson essentially...They were the first to document the whole sexual response cycle from arousal through orgasm. And they want to document, like, what happens in the human body, male and female. And with women, a lot of that's going on inside so they're like, "we got to figure out a way to see what's going on." Actually, they built a penis camera in essence and women would come into their lab and essentially have sex with this penis camera, which will document their responses from the inside. And I just remember, thinking, "sex research, next book." Just because that is such a, you know, a technological challenge or logistical, ethical, weird challenge to how, you know, to figure out how do you... how do you study something like that in a scientific setting. So that was actually just a reference in Film Quarterly of all places to the colposcopic films of Masters and Johnson. I remember... Colposcopic, that means, like, cervical... And looking it up and doing all the research and finding out about that whole project, which is... And this was the 1950s too, which is incredible, that they were, you know, bringing...finding people who would come into a lab and be willing to be documented in that way. So that's what got me rolling.
Question: What does Viagra do for women?
Mary Roach: The Viagra is...You know, it affects the vascular system so that...And that... They try...They were very eager to test that out on women, hoping that they could, you know, sell the drug to the other half of the planet. And it... it doesn't work. It does actually increase genital blood flow in women but it doesn't create a change that the women, then, interpret as I'm really aroused, I want to have sex, I feel really sexy. It doesn't... It doesn't do that. They don't even notice. It's a small enough change that it's not... it's not something that they would pay for. It's not really doing anything. So they then looked at...
Well, there's the other approach to libido in women is hormonal. And there was... There actually is a patch, testosterone patch, which was all set to go, called Intrinsa. And the FDA, then, wanted longer term safety data, I think, because of hormone replacement therapy. Remember there was a big... You know, we thought that hormone replacement therapy was the next greatest thing since whatever, sliced bread. Then, they came up with this, you know, long-term findings, sort of saying that, you know, they were actually increasing risk of stroke. There was that big study that scared everyone off so the FDA kind of backed off hormones.
So now, the only thing left is central nervous system, you know, affecting the brain. And I think that that's going to be tricky because I think that the FDA... The FDA considers sex a lifestyle issue, not really a medical issue. So in order to pass something for what is considered... a pass to get a drug approved for something as considered a lifestyle issue, it's... you know, they're going to be pretty squeamish about affecting your, you know, your brain for that purpose. So they may have, maybe, a bit of a long road to get something approved.
Question: Do herbal medications work?
Mary Roach: Well, for the most part, it's the placebo effect. One researcher told me about... She actually took a few of these... bought a few of these just to see what was going on. And there was... They were for... There was one for women. And she said, it had in it sort of... like a topical, almost like a capsicum, like a red hot pepper substance. And she said, you know, it did generate a little heat. But she said, in the directions, there was this line that says, you know, apply to vulva. Rub really well. Rub really, really, really well.
And they're like... So they got people that go, "hey, that really works." So I... My sense is that there's not... other than the placebo effect. I don't mean to knock the placebo effect because it's really... it works, you know. You tell somebody something works and they make it work. And if it works, it works, I don't care how it works so I don't want to dismiss everything. You know, I don't want to tell people don't even try it because if it's harmless and it's a harmless placebo and it works, then more power to it. But I don't know. You know, the safety of... I wouldn't feel comfortable purchasing a drug online, from a supplier that I didn't know. I don't know. Whether they're coming out of China, a lot of these things...
Question: What about aphrodisiacs?
Mary Roach: I was in Taiwan with a researcher. And he took me to a traditional pharmacy. And there's just... The guy kept coming out from the back with these boxes. It was like, you know, shoe salesman guy when I was young, with these big stack of boxes. Here, will be old dinosaur bones. And that was supposed to be, you know... And the researcher would go, "just because they're hard," You know, and anything shape like a penis, that was a treatment for erectile dysfunction. Just one after another, bringing out all of these herbal and other sort of natural things from the natural world that were supposedly cures for... But as for something, being... Things that work well, testosterone, small amounts of testosterone for women are pretty reliably effective and you don't have to... the patch, which is sold in Europe, isn't sold here but you can go to any compounder and say, look, you know... or just get a prescription for your... from your physician, saying I want a very low dose of testosterone for libido. And people... doctors prescribed that all the time and it's fairly effective, from what I understand. But outside of that, I think it's, again, a question if you... if you think it'll work, maybe it'll work, so give it a try.
Question: How are Americans having sex?
Mary Roach: I think what was interesting to me is just the split in this country. I think... Like, I frequently get questions often, you know, from Europeans or Americans. Americans seems so prudish when it comes to sex. Wait, wait, wait, wait. Which Americans are you talking about, red state or blue state, you know, urban or rural? Because we have nothing in common. And that holds true for sex, I think.
Although, you know, there are some... there are some conservative religious groups that are... that are very pro-sex. I mean, I interviewed a guy who... he had this product... It was basically vaginal weightlifting and it was the strength in the kegel muscles. And it's this... Looks like sort of a two-sided doorknob and you would insert it and kind of squeeze it and pull it up and down and... I was interviewing this guy and as it turns out, he's a Christian. It's a Christian company. They had this sort of Christian symbol. I thought... I said to him, "Wow, that's... I wasn't expecting that." He said, "Why?" And I said, "I don't really associate sexual pleasure with Christians." I'm sorry, that... which... that sounds really ridiculous but conservative Christians. And he said, "No. Sexuality is a gift that God wants us to enjoy." And the guy was so open, he was talking about men can kegel too, you know, you just hang a wash cloth of it and lift, lift, lift. And I'm like... Look at the logo on the screen, which is sort of this flowing water and it was just...Anyway, so you have to be careful when you make these assumptions about religious conservatives and sexuality. But anyway, as a general statement, there is a real schism, there's a split in this country. And it seems to have...Both sides of it have gone further...They've gone further apart, you know what I mean? Like, there seems to be more and more openness and tolerance in the, you know, the urban and liberal community and less and less in the other side of the fence. So that's really just... I mean, I... Again, because I was looking at the physiology, I didn't really... I didn't really focus too much on cultural issues.
Question: Where is the most progressive sex research?
Mary Roach: The most cutting-edge work...You know, there's a really great lab...University of Texas in Austin, that's a great lab. There's good stuff being done...You know, so much of it now is testing drugs, and that's going on I mean, that's really where the cutting edge is. That was... I wasn't as interested in that because for my perspective as a writer and researcher, it's boring, it's... you know, if somebody's taking a pill and writing a journal about whether they felt horny on Tuesdays as opposed to Monday or whatever.
So there's not... There's just very little of it going on outside of the pharmaceutical area, which was sad to me because, you know, the stuff that I was focused on and I was so interested in was explorations of sex just for the sake of figuring it out and understanding it. Like, there was this guy, Roy Levin, who's now retired. He's a UK sexologist. And he was doing the stuff... He's the kind of scientist who thinks, all right, so homosexuals like anal sex, the prostate, what role does it play? What does the prostate...You know, what's going on there?
So he was... You know, he wanted to leave, he was retiring so he never got around to doing that. But that kind of stuff where you're willing to...you're willing to say, you know, I'm curious, nobody studied this, let's just do it. That kind of work was...Those guys are all retiring or they've died. There's just... There's so few of them out there. Giles Brinley was another one... The British did a lot of that... a lot of that pioneer work. And Masters and Johnson, of course, in 1950s. That was extraordinary, what they were doing at the time that they were doing it. So the big names have kind of... We've entered an era of lots of people doing a little less exciting work, you know.
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.
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.
Question: What surprised you most about the clitoris?
Mary Roach: I was surprised with alarming frequency. Okay, I didn't know. I didn't know that women have nocturnal erections. That was a surprise to me. The whole... You know, clitoris as tiny penis. Sorry, penis is a huge clitoris, for our feminists in the audience. Apparently, you know, the erectile chambers, a little foreskin, little tiny smegma. I mean, it's this little analog, which, I guess I knew, but didn't really realize the extent of it and the fact that women on the same sort of cycle as men have these little erections, that was interesting. Male multiple orgasm, didn't realize that it was common as it is, not that it's common but it's not terribly uncommon. That was interesting to me. Just... And, I guess, also, you know, surprise... A lot of times the surprise was that somebody actually study that, you know, the female erection studies. Somebody actually took out a little tiny strain gauge and attached it to a clitoris, a bunch of women and actually went to the trouble of doing a well-controlled scientific study of that. And you got to love science, you know, that people are actually... inquiring minds want to know.
Question: Why are fetishes more common with men than with women?
Mary Roach: Fetishes... I did talk to a researcher who had... who got interested... Fetishes are something like ten times more prevalent than males and females. Somebody did actually tried--this was at UT Austin--tried to create a fetish by showing sexually stimulating images while the voice of the head of the psychology department was playing in the background. It was like... I think it was sort of an in-joke on campus. Like, they want to get the students also sexually aroused by the voice of the head, of the chairman. So they really tried... They did a study with, like, pictures of boots and shoes and they were, yes, able to create an arousal response to a boot. You can create fetishes pretty easily. It's much easier with men than with women for some reason. Anyway, but they try to get the...It was like, "hello, welcome to the psychology department" in this guy's voice. And they try very hard to get the situation... All the students, like, would follow him around, just sort of moonily.
Question: When are women at their peak?
Mary Roach: I wondered about that too because, you know, you hear about... Actually, you hear middle age women now. Middle age women, they're like... They are at their sexual prime. I think, personally, that I didn't find any... anybody who specifically studied, you know, women longitudinally, like tracking them... because you need to follow a group of women overtime and sort of, you know, see how they've changed from their twenties to forties.
I think what's going on, a lot of the time, is that, you know, by the time you get to your mid-thirties or forties as a woman, you know what you like and you know how to make it happen or ask for it or talk about it. The other thing going on is that you're... you know what... You've got your birth control situation under control. You're not anxious about am I going to get pregnant?
So you're just a lot more confident and use to your body and how it works and you feel more comfortable talking about sex, you've known your partner longer, maybe. There's all kinds of things, I think, that contribute to a woman feeling more comfortable with sex, more comfortable making it happen the way it works for her, and being relaxed about it as opposed to somebody who sort of just stepping out into the world of sex. I don't know, hormonally, why that would be the case. I think, you know, your hormones...tends to have a decline in middle age, in libido, in hormone so I don't know why that would... I don't know why physically a woman in middle age would be... have a better sex life than in her twenties.
Question: Do homosexuals have better sex?
Mary Roach: There was a really great... There was a study that Masters and Johnson did in the seventies. It doesn't get a lot of publicity. Everybody's familiar with their big project in human sexual response in the fifties. Everybody... I mean, people know that they did that.
But they did this interesting study where they looked at gay and straight couples, some short... some, actually, not just short-term but they paired them up. So it was people having sex for the first time. And then, it was long-term committed partners, both gay and straight. This was the only study I came across. t was really a qualitative look at sex, like, who's having... who's having better sex and why? And, in fact, the best sex was being had by long-term committed homosexual partners.
Two things going on. One was that something called gender empathy, which is if you have the same equipment, you kind of know intuitively what feels good. And in the seventies... This was done in the seventies, the heterosexual couples were tending to do things to their partner that they would want done to themselves, which didn't always play well. And there was also sort of a mechanical element of... well, if I twiddle this for about ten minutes that should be good for her, you know. And they weren't really getting into the moment and they weren't really sort of watching their partner and sort of just not losing themselves in the experience and being turned on by their partners responses, a lot of stuff that goes on in good... really great sex that makes it very different from efficient sex. And so, the straight partners... And this was the seventies. You know, I think things have come away since then.
But the hetero partners tended to be a little more mechanical and a little more just like, well, yes, we've both had an orgasm so that was good sex. Whereas the long-term partners were... particularly the gay ones but also among the straight partners. They were, you know, that's where you found the really amazing... where somebody would sort of, you know, draw it out and be aware of exactly what stage their partner was at in their arousal and that kind of thing. But to answer your question, yes, there's your... that's the only study that I came across that actually did... draw that conclusion.
Question: Do sex tips help?
Mary Roach: I think that the women's magazines and a lot of those quick tips for better sex, I think that they do people a disservice, sometimes, because they become very focused on; they're thinking, "Okay, I read that I should do this and am I doing it right?"
There's a certain amount of anxiety that comes from thinking, "I don't know if I'm suppose to do it this way and I don't know if he's responding and I don't know; am I doing this right?"
Rather than just letting it go where it takes you and losing yourself in it instead of trying this sort of menu things you read in a women's magazine.
And there's a certain amount of pressure, I think, also, among very young girls to do what's expected of them. I don't know what they're getting out of; I just don't think that's the way to have good sex.
In terms of practical how-to; the one study I found; the one sexual therapy technique that worked well for women and seem to be pretty simple was, like, mindfulness training.
It's just all about not spectating, not watching yourself, just being in the moment and not being anxious about what's expected of you; are you reacting right or is your partner reacting right. That's easier said than done. It's like somebody telling you, "Relax!" You're relaxed if you're relaxed.
Question: Can masturbation keep you sexually healthy?
Mary Roach: People have, actually, looked at... The whole issue of "use it or lose it" in the way... meaning that if you don't have a partner and you're not having sex, there's research to suggest that you... that it becomes harder and harder... This is in women, I don't know about... I don't know if it's ever hard for men to have an orgasm.
But for women, there's some data to suggest that the more frequently you have arousal and orgasm, the easier it is to achieve. And if you don't for years and years... First of all, you get some atrophy going on, particularly in your later years.
Masturbation is actually a... It's kind of a... I don't know the word I want for it. But anyway, masturbation is a useful strategy for somebody who seems to be having trouble getting aroused and having orgasm. So, you know... Yeah. You know, who's going to get... who's going to fund that study, you know? I ask somebody because I ask... There's these people who were... There's a product called the EROS Clitoral Therapy Device. And it's essentially a suction vibrator that cost 400 dollars. And I said, well, why don't we just use your finger? I mean, why? I mean, if the idea is to bring more blood to the genitals, why do you need this 400 dollar device, what masturbation will bring blood to the genitals. That's what happens when you're aroused. And I said, well, you know, has anybody ever done a study? Like, looking at the... how beneficial it is for women with sexual arousal disorder to regularly masturbate.
And this woman said, "are you nuts? Look what happen to Joycelyn Elders. We can't...We couldn't possibly try to get funded." She had this great line, she said, "masturbation is a very touchy subject."
Question: What was the impact of Freudian thought on sex?
Mary Roach: Freud was,well, in terms of female sexuality, Freud was not the lady's friend because Freud...Freud's view was that... that clitoris was a... you know, focusing on the clitoris was a childish thing. And for women who had not been fully feminized, that once you became fully feminized and a fully realized woman, that the pleasure will transfer to the vagina. So... which is no help to anybody. I don't hear... You know, I don't think I heard anybody refer to Freud. I stumbled on to Freud when I was looking into Marie Bonaparte because she actually, ironically, went on to become a Freudian therapist and had to renounce everything that she'd said about the importance of the clitoris. She did a complete about-face. But other than that whole chapter, I... nobody... nobody even mentions Freud, you know. Nobody mentions Freud. But again, Freud was...You know, Freud was all about the... in the ego and not so much about the genitalia specifically.
Recorded on: April 6, 2009
A conservation with author Mary Roach.