Etre, faire!

Between the Covers: The Science of Sex with Mary Roach


“Once upon a time, there was a princess named Marie. She had long, thick curls and beautiful brown eyes, and her clitoris was three centimeters away from her vagina. The last bit was very depressing for the princess. She could never manage an orgasm during intercourse, and she felt certain that the far-off placement of her clitoris was the reason.”

In her latest New York Times bestselling novel, Mary Roach (one of my favorite authors) explores such questions as “Does height affect a woman’s capacity for sexual pleasure?” and “Can a person really achieve orgasm through mental concentration alone?” Bonk: The Curious Coupling of Science and Sex covers facts, myths and the weird, investigating a wide range of studies conducted around the world. I caught up with her at her book-reading event at the Bodies Exhibit and solicited her for an interview for the Dating section of Beauty News NYC. Luckily she obliged my humble requests and I was able to squeeze in a few questions during her busy book tour. Here is the relatively unabridged transcription of our conversation.[1] (FYI, I’ve highlighted the more interesting topics in purple. But if you want the very, very abridged version, visit the Dating section of Beauty News NYC.) 

H: ...Is now still a good time to talk?

M: Yeah, I’m just stuffing my face with a disgusting airport breakfast taco if that’s okay.

H: I love it. Actually, my favorite part about traveling is getting McDonald’s breakfast sandwiches.

M: Airports are notorious for particularly disgusting food offerings. I don’t know why they can’t get their act together…Anyway.

H: Well I just have, well actually I have a few questions…

(Poor Mary Roach had no idea how extensive, or exhausting I would be.)

H: So I’ve read in past interviews that your idea for this book stemmed from an article that you stumbled across in a medical journal about penis cameras…

M: And my overactive imagination. I just thought OK, if there are scientists building penis cameras to do their work there must be an incredibly rich fascinating and surreal and weird scene and I figured that there were other weird and fascinating things that people were doing. It just sort of triggered a thought in my head. Sex is, you know, a private thing but it’s physiology and you need to bring people in to a lab to study it. But how weird and awkward is that?


H: Your research process must have been interesting, to say the least. How long did it take?

M: It took a couple of years. You know a lot of the time I was waiting for some study to get going and they wouldn’t get funding, or they’d get delayed. So the whole process got stretched out because I’m dependent on the researchers’ schedules and things tend to move very slowly in the academic world. It took at least two years. I started more or less when I finished writing Spook. And there’s a year of production time so it was 2005.


H: And you worked with W.W. Norton & Company, one of my favorite publishing companies. Aren’t they great?

M: They’re fantastic. I’ve done all three books with them they’ve done everything right and they’re such nice people. You know you hear all kinds of horror stories about the publishing world but I’ve been very lucky.[2] 


H: So when you started, did you have any burning questions that drove your research and interviews?

M: No, I didn’t really. When I start a book I don’t really have driving questions that are leading me to do the research. It’s more about a process of correcting what I think is the most surprising, unusual, funny, quirky, grabby stuff. So it’s just a process of hunting. I’m always looking to find answers to the questions that everybody has. They’re not really my own questions. I kinda don’t work that way; I know that a lot of people have that one quest that they’re trying to achieve but I have a totally different approach.


H: What was the research processes like? Did you hit any speed bumps along the way?

M: I spent a lot of time sending out emails to people and getting them to tell me what was going on in their labs and then getting permission to go to their labs. [I did] a lot of hunting and going through back issues of journals and looking for fun stuff. It’s a very similar process [to Stiff and Spook]. This one, of course, had different challenges but [the process is] always about access and finding the stuff that will make a good chapter. The problem was usually that researchers weren’t doing something in the labs that was interesting to describe or they were already done with the project or they were only doing survey work. But once I found somebody that had a project that was interesting to me, the researchers were all very cooperative.


H: A problem that you did encounter at least once was that there was a lack of willing participants who would sign up for such studies as the three-dimensional imaging project.[3] In this particular case, you volunteered yourself (and Ed, your very dedicated husband) for the study. How was the experience?

M: Oh awkward and happily brief. It seems like some awkward procedure that you’re going to have happen at some hospital or doctor’s office and you know it’ll be over in 20 minutes and you’ll get through it. It kind of seems like that. It’s pretty awkward with somebody right there a foot away from you. It doesn’t feel a whole lot like sex. This was a biomechanics, “lets see what we can see” study.


H: During the course of your research, you traveled to Taiwan, Cairo and London. Did you notice any cultural differences in the way researchers approached the study of sex?

M: Certainly, Professor Shafik [of Cairo] had to. He couldn’t publish in his own country. I didn’t notice other cultural research differences partly because I think that one of the biggest differences is just that there are just whole areas of the globe where no one will do this kind of research. Especially in any kind of conservative Islamic or Muslim nation, it would be a point for criticism. Unfortunately, Dr. Shafik died of a heart attack shortly after the book came out so he never got to see it. He funded his own work, so he’s one of a kind. I don’t know that there would be too many people like him and certainly not in Egypt. He’s a bit of the controversial figure. 


Dr. Shafik's infamous underpants study on the libido.

H: I’m sorry to hear that; he was a real maverick. I was especially interested in his implications when he said, “In all Arab countries, I don’t know why and how, conservative people are coming up greatly. Greatly!” Similarly, you mention on separate occasion that 1950s America was much more conservative than America in the 1920s. In terms of sexual liberation, are societies progressing or regressing…or what?

M: I think that we took a couple steps backwards during the Bush administration because there was such a rise in support of conservative family values. Christian groups would target researchers who did sex research. They would target them for criticism or put them in the spotlight for “wasting funds.” Hopefully, with the Obama administration things are back on track. In general, though, sex is a lower priority for research than, lets say, cancer or cardiac issues or mental health. It tends to be considered a lifestyle issue so it doesn’t get priority for funding as much. For the study of sex to grow, the country also has to have a pretty healthy research budget.


H: It almost seems as though sex research is more of a priority in the private sector than the academic world.

M: They have a strong profit motive. A lot of the private industries are funding academic work. Like in looking for any sort of pharmaceutical solutions you’ll get academic funding from private industries. They need to do studies to test drugs, usually through an independent party


H: In your opinion, is research, either publicly or privately funded, shifting its focus more to women’s sexual needs?

M: The focus has shifted toward women these days just because Viagra and all the related drugs have taken care of [men]. Men are pretty simple. They just want to be able to get it up. They don’t tend to have libido issues or desire issues. I’m speaking generally, but they tend to have pretty straightforward mechanical problems and Viagra took care of that so now the pharmaceutical companies are just really focused on trying to find something women will want to buy, something that makes them feel sexier more often, a pill that makes them more responsive when their husbands are in the mood.


H: Well maybe if sex was given more scientific priority we could more quickly expel common misconceptions. My favorite comes from the Middle Ages (and page 143 in the paperback version of Bonk) explaining male impotence: “…the common assumption was that impotent men had been cursed…[Witches] made the man’s penis disappear.”[4] Of course, some hundred years later, we know this to be untrue. If you had to guess, what common belief of contemporary society would you predict we’d look back upon 200 hundred years from now and think “Wow, we had it all wrong, didn’t we?”

M: I’m hoping people would look back with utter surprise and incredulity at the opinions of people who don’t accept homosexuality, who think that it is something to be punished for or ashamed of or discriminated against. I think that seems pretty backwards, so hopefully in 200 years that will be just really puzzling to that people who were persecuted or beaten up or murdered or denied the ability to legally adopt a child because of their sexual preferences. If everything goes as it should, that will seem very surprising. We should be there by now and we are in urban areas, but we’re not in the rest of the world, or even the rest of the country. 


H: One of the fun tidbits in your book cites that some bulls exhibit homosexual arousal while others may exhibit the desire for multiple cows. If cows don’t seem to mind homosexuality (or threesomes for that matter) why should we? I mean, er, do you think that the existence of homosexuality and “aberrant” behavior in other species supports the “nature over nurture” theory about sexual orientation and practice?[5]

M: Well, actually there is a book called Biological Exuberance, which has about 600 pages and contains all kinds of quote unquote aberrant behavior in animals. I wouldn’t draw any conclusions but I think it is so prevalent across the animal kingdom – I think you could certainly point to that as an indicator… that it’s not surprising that it occurs in humans too. I’m sure conservatives would have a different interpretation of it.


H: Love and sex have been portrayed inextricably in so many instances. And yet, you consciously isolate the two and focus solely on the mechanics of sex. Was that an intentional choice? Would you write a book on love?

M: I’m always interested in surprising and peculiar things going on in laboratories. I love the intersection of laboratory and science with things like the soul, or sex, which is such a personal thing, or with death as in the first book. I’m interested in the behind-the-scenes stuff where science happens. Love is particularly ill-fitted because it’s very hard to define it and make sure that somebody feels “love.” Qualitatively and quantifiably, how do you know if you have a population of people that really are in love and how do you define it and what does it mean? It’s almost impossible to bring love into a laboratory situation because you have to trust people on their word that what they’re feeling and what they say. It’s not something that can be objectively defined. So, it doesn’t work as something you can study quantitatively very well and for that same reason… I wouldn’t do a book about it. People write about it in terms of evolution and biology but that’s theory and speculation and it’s not my bag.

Cupid and Psyche, mythological icons of love

Cupid and Psyche, mythological icons of love

H: Most people can’t even figure out if they’re in love.

M: …Or they thought they were and then 10 years later they meet someone and they really fall in love and then they go “Oh back then, 10 years ago, that wasn’t love. I thought it was but it wasn’t.” You go through life and you eventually do figure out what it is and it’s very obvious to you but when you’re younger [it’s hard to tell] the difference between love and infatuation, lust, a crush and emotional dependency. You know, there’s all kinds of stuff that people mistake as love.[6]


H: If not love, then, what is your next venture?

M: My next book is about the early days of aerospace medicine and current day space simulations. It covers all the weird physiological and psychological things that happen to human beings when you put them in an environment for which they are utterly un-adapted. It’s another quirky science. Outer space is interesting because there’s no gravity and no air, which is really freaky and is the source of all the difficulties space travel has to deal with.


H: Does aerospace sex make a guest appearance in the book?

M: Oh yeah, certainly. There’s a chapter about zero gravity sex, absolutely! I’ve already written it.


H: Oh, tell me about it!

M: No! You’re going to have to wait.


H: Ah, OK. What was your favorite part of the whole process then?

M: I think I had the most fun with the footnotes. Particularly in this book, I had two-and-a-half times as many of them [than in others] just because there was so much just great, weird, fun, fabulous material. …Err, my plane is boarding now… So, I have to go.


H: OK thanks so much again for taking the time to speak with me!

M: Sure, it was fun!


Mary Roach has been published in Outside, National Geographic, New Scientist, Wired and The New York Times Magazine. She has published three books including Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers, Spook: Science Tackles the Afterlife and most recently, Bonk: The Curious Coupling of Science and Sex. She holds a bachelor’s degree in psychology from Wesleyan University.


[1] Roach was obligingly kind to agree to speak with me via phone while she was at the airport en route to her next book appearance. I, meanwhile, was situated in the only corner of my office job where cheesy pop music wouldn’t drown out any semblance of an intelligent conversation, attempting to simultaneously hunch over my phone and type. Between the airport announcements and my technological failures, we had some interesting miscommunications…

[2] I interned with W.W. Norton & Company in 2002, and she’s right. They are, by all measures, some of the kindest and free-spirited thinkers I have met in my career thus far.

[3] In this study, subjects were scanned with a sonogram wand during sex in order to determine how reproductive organs fit together. In Bonk, Roach details how she and Ed underwent the “procedure.” Mid-coitus, she scribbles down notes while Ed engages in typical banter with the doctor until the doctor says, “You may ejaculate now.”

[4] Other favorite misassumptions include masturbation-induced facial pustules and the medicinal use of animal testicle implants for male virility. Really, read the book.

[5] Here is where the beauty of airport/speakerphone conversation comes in. In attempts to appear academic and sophisticated, I painstakingly outlined the bit about homoerotic bulls prior to the interview, careful not to inject any hint of juvenile humor about the topic into my question. Of, course, by the time I had finished asking it, the phone connection had broken and she replied, “What? I’m sorry, I didn’t catch that!” Losing all my intellectual mojo, I responded, “Why…are cows having…orgies?!” I later relayed this conversation to my mother, expecting her to react with the same mortification as I. After listening to the story with wide eyes, she simply shook her finger at me and said, “Hannah, don’t get any ideas about orgies. They’re just cows,” and left the room. Hmmm. Mothers.

[6] As Bonk cites, there is a long list of items that people have made love to, the most popular being a toothbrush. And if you thought that a toothbrush couldn’t fit into a man’s urethra, you are wrong.


American Apparel
January 8, 2009, 11:24 am
Filed under: for fun, thoughts | Tags: , , ,


As a friend once told me, after every industrial wave a handicraft movement emerges. (Check her out at; her lamps are awesome.) Meaning, that amidst the technology-globalization-cheap import-explosion, there has emerged a generation of individuals who feel the detriment of it all. These are the folks who buy and sell locally, who value handmade things, support local artists, and try not to consume mass-produced well, stuff. (Here is an article I wrote on defining authenticity as it applies to interior design. If you ignore the interior design frills, some of the things that the designers said are pretty deep.) 

While I can’t bring myself to ditch my cellphone/minicomputer, I did say I was going to start making my own dresses in the spirit of domestic production. The last time I made a dress, I think I was in middle school. But I can be pretty crafty sometimes! …Uh, yeah. So here it goes. 

Wish me luck guys!

XO Hannah


Some cool links to vintage dress patterns for sale:

Where the West was Wan



Last year, when I was a reporter for the interior design and textile industry, I can’t say that every article I wrote was a winner. In fact, when you’re writing about fabric companies, a lot of what you cover sucks. But one article did manage to stay on my mind, and that’s one that I started over this last spring/summer about the plight of domestic production. I would say (I’d have to do some double checking) that a few months before I began working at the magazine, my colleagues started reporting on the consolidation of textile mills. Small mills – and then the big ones – were being absorbed into each other, or just disappearing completely. (Hmm, sound familiar? God love Chase bank, I hope it doesn’t get owned.) And while you’re probably wondering why you should care, I would argue that as one of the America’s economic vertebrae the outsourcing of the textile industry might have more of an effect on our economy than you might first think.

Now that we’re officially declared recession, and oil prices have proven to be dangerously unpredictable, it might be worth it to look at where our economy has gone, and where our money is going: China.

Here are some fun facts brought to you by the Business for Social Responsibility (BSR):

  • In 2005, China’s textile and apparel exports amounted to a U.S. dollar amount of 117.5 billion with a reported annual growth rate of 17.3 percent.
  • An April 2008 report states that the Guangdong Province in China accounts for about 23 percent of China’s total textile and apparel export and 12 percent of the national GDP.
  • The textile industry, specifically its dyeing processes, is one of the largest contributors to water pollution in China, and today Guangdong Province has growing rates of disease and chronic health problems that are related to this pollution.

While we have long benefited from the financial advantages of foreign manufacturing, recent events have brought to our attention the true cost of doing unsupervised business in China. If you know how much harm a toy painted with lead can cause to a child, can you imagine what kind of health problems formaldehyde-laden drinking water has caused entire provinces? And what about the people working in the factories?

Well, China Labor Watch – an NGO dedicated to bettering the conditions of Chinese factories by working with their U.S. distributors such as Wal-Mart, Nike and other large corporations – confirms what most of us already know. It’s pretty bad in there.


More fun facts brought to you by China Labor Watch (CLW):

  • The Adidas factory, which is comparable to many factories in China, houses 10 workers per dorm room, with one restroom to share.
  • These workers work an average of six days a week, 10 to 12 hours a day and are not paid overtime or given pension or unemployment insurance.
  • Being tardy by five minutes results in the loss of two hours’ wages.
  • Facemasks and gloves were only supplied to the workers in the presence of external auditors. (I honestly don’t even want to know what kinds of fumes these workers are breathing, if the factories won’t supply facemasks, much less adequate ventilation systems.)
  • The Chinese minimum wage is $43 a month in Guangzhou. The price of meals is automatically deducted from wages.

Believe it or not, this is an improvement since China did not institute a minimum wage until 2004. Before that, as one domestic textile manufacturer put it during our August interview, “You could employ somebody for a bowl of rice and a bed.” According to Linda Hwang, manager in Environmental Research & Development at BSR, the institution of a minimum wage, in addition to increasingly stringent environmental and pollution laws, indicates an emerging middle class due to the booming, export-driven economy.

“We’re generally seeing China become more of a consumer-oriented culture where consumers have increasing access to information as people do in more developed countries,” she said. “They’re seeing the impact on their own health due to environmental pollutants. Laborers in China are demanding better working environments.” 

So it seems as if China is going through what the U.S. went through (remember learning about The Triangle Shirtwaist Fire of 1911?) but on a much larger scale, and with the whole world watching. This has so far been detrimental to the progress of China’s working class, since large international distributors pressure factories to maintain impossibly low prices. But, with the help from NGOs and Not-for-Profits such as China Labor Watch, as well as the stricter enforcement of China and International Labor Law, we’ll soon see the conditions of Chinese factories improve drastically.

And where do we stand? As our money has funded the creation of a middle class in China, ours has all but disappeared. We’re broke, and probably not in the best financial condition to spend more money on foreign product. We’ve become a service-driven society, and now that both the lowest industries (like textiles) and highest industries (like banks) have all but collapsed, what will we do?

Well according to Hwang (and attested to by at least 50 textile manufacturers and wholesalers – trust me, I have the trade show badges, the Delta tickets and the calluses to prove it) we’ll move our manufacturing to less developed countries like Cambodia and Vietnam. Hwang told me that there, “Civil society isn’t as actively engaged.”

As for us, well I think we’ll have to consume a little less. Definitely in our homes, since layoffs and oil prices have left many wallets high and dry, but also as a country. The U.S. is like living in New York City – we can’t even move a pinky without spending a pretty penny. And if you look at current foreclosure rates in the U.S. and the national debt, we’re spending pennies that we don’t have.

I guess there isn’t much of a conclusion to this verbose rant, but these thoughts have been tumbling around in my mind for a while now, and I thought I better get them out before I explode. Who knows, I could be wrong about everything I didn’t directly quote from somebody else. I also wish there were more I could do to stop this whole process, because I’m not sure we’ll make it out of this alive. I’ve been lucky enough to start doing some pro bono work with CLW, and learning more about what they do. Other than that, there’s not much I can attest to as a personal contribution to the alleviation of the world’s problems. But my next venture is to make a dress (maybe two or three if I’m good at it). You can’t consume any more locally than your house!

So this guy and girl are talking at a bar…
January 5, 2009, 2:07 pm
Filed under: career, thoughts | Tags: , , , , ,



1 faire Verb, transitive (a) (=create in a general way) 

(b) more specific verbs sometimes used in English to build; to prepare a meal
(c) to do a deed, workqu’est-ce que tu fais? what are you doing?
(d) (Sport) to play tennis, rugby, a match
(e) to play a role; to play, act innocent, stupid
(f) (School) to do, take a subject, an exam
(g) (Med) to have, suffer from stress, come down with an illness
(h) to pay a visit, compliments; to sell, deal in produce, grow, produce crops

“What do you do?” It’s one of the first real questions anyone ever asks another person. And it says so much about our stats, doesn’t it? By the answer you can probably gage what kind of person someone is, his basic interests and skill set, his tax bracket, and whether you’d be able to stand a full conversation with him or if you’d be saving yourself a painful 20 minutes by dropping to the floor and playing dead until he gets the point. You get my point? But if I were to step outside myself and ask me what I do, I’d probably play dead too. Writer/editor? Who says that anymore? Sure there’s a romantic je ne sais quoi about the age-old profession, but for most, it sure doesn’t pay for life in New York. 

So following the path of the many liberal arts junkies that have come before me, I double-sided tape my profession to extra-curriculars, like art, or volunteering, plans for graduate school, etc. Like the a phone company trying to rip you off, I have found the need to package my minutes into an amorphous (but somewhat desirable) bundle. 

But don’t underestimate the bundle! Sure, it’s a mouthful. And probably not the best approach at a crowded bar. But, in getting in the habit of describing myself as more than my job, I have begun to also think of myself as, well, more than a job.

I say, let’s all start toying with the “What do you do” obsessors. While standing in line outside a venue, a friend of mine (I hope you don’t mind B) was posed with the question. And he hung his head and replied with a funny sigh of feigned defeat, “real estate.” But this friend has also been an actor, a screenwriter and much more. So next time someone asks you what you do, don’t tell them your profession. Tell them what you love to do (hopefully they overlap a little). Throw them off a bit. Maybe we’ll all start thinking differently – about each other, and about ourselves.

What do you think?

et tu?


More celebrity profiles!

NY Resolution #1: More celebrity profiles!

Happy 2009 everyone! So this is my official new year, new blog effort. Keeping it short and sweet, stay tuned! There will be lots to come. In the meantime, find out what classically-trained actor Liev Schreiber had to say about politics in our November interview:

“I always think it’s bad for actors to comment on politics. The amount of influence that celebrities sway in our country is disproportionate and I think the last thing they should be doing is commenting on politics. It’s plain old awkward,” says Liev Schreiber during our October interview. Awkward – what an interesting choice of words, I muse on my end of the phone…  

Story continued at