Monday, August 17, 2009

How Sex Works: Why We Look, Smell, Taste, Feel, and Act the Way We Do

How Sex Works is a new book by Dr. Sharon Moalem, first released in April of this year. I should say up front that it’s pretty good. I’m putting that disclaimer at the beginning of the review, because, despite being consistently informative and entertaining, it’s the type of book that is also pretty vulnerable to dismissal and pooh-poohing by any number of people. As I read it, I tried to decide who might hate it more: humanities scholars of sexual history, or conservative cultural watchdogs? Camille Paglia, or William F. Buckley? my sister, or my father? At the same time, I had to entertain the possibility that it might offend none of them. After all, for a modern sex book, this is about as un-kinky as they come. All the content is delivered with the timbre of a doctor, not an entertainer. By which I mean, I’d feel okay if almost any of these paragraphs were spoken to me by a man readying himself to feel the lumps in my testicles. As a writer, Moalem is lucky to have a white-hot topic; his styling equilibrates everything it touches to an easygoing lukewarm.

The book begins, like most nonfiction bestsellers, with an introduction. It is worth skipping. It reads like an advertisement for the book, with question after question of exciting topics that will be answered in the following pages. A quote: “Can women, like men, ejaculate? What’s the point of having pubic hair, and what happens to pubic lice when you get a Brazilian wax? And why, unlike almost all other mammals to most other mammals, do most human women outlive their fertility by decades?” (pg. xi) Answers to these questions are not suggested until Chapters 1&2, 4, and 8, respectively. You need to buy this book to find out, is the not-so-sneaky implication.

After that, we get the biology textbook material about girl parts (Ch. 1) and boy parts (Ch. 2), along with Cosmo-level discussions of special topics, like tampon history and penile fractures. (Even Moalem can’t reduce the discomfort of the penile fracture discussion, by the way. “There can be a loud cracking or popping sound, and serious pain. […] I will never forget the first time I came across a penile fracture. The patient had tried to masturbate with a metal vacuum cleaner tube—while it was hooked up and turned on.”) In the section on Lady Bits, there were plenty of little factoids I found interesting, but when I called them over to Holly, my wife, she was usually unimpressed. I’ll assume that the astute readers of this blog already know most of that pertinent information. In the part concerning Man Bits—a topic I can more rightly claim basic competency—a similarly wide range of unknown facts were presented. Did you know that most mammals literally have a bone in their penis, the baculum? Did you know that the promiscuous queen bee mates with untold many male drones, whose penises pop off after ejaculation and are left for the next midair mounter to pull out before thrusting in? What about the UCSF study showing a 500% sperm count increase in men who stopped taking hot baths?

Well, I didn’t know these things. That’s the charm of such a book. Ch. 3 told me stuff I didn’t know about the biology of attraction (special topic: the role of scent); Ch. 4 about orgasms and ejaculation (ST: academic controversies over female ejaculation); Ch. 5 about gender development and differentiation (ST: gender identity disorder); Ch. 6 about biological theories on homosexuality (ST: homosexuality in animals—apparently rampant); Ch. 7 about sexually transmitted infections (ST: take your pick); Ch. 8 about birth control (ST: Casanova’s fancy condoms, made from rendered sheep gut); Ch. 9 about…not much (warm, fuzzy wrap-up material).

Any criticisms I might offer, then, are not for lack of content. The more pervasive problem is the lack of coherent vision. When he’s offering out facts and trivia, Moalem is in his element. He did his homework. In academic terms, he’s done a ‘literature search’—i.e., the preliminary background reading needed before he can delve into his a project of his own. But the book never adds up to any more than that. Maybe that’s for the best; when he tries to offer up some social commentary, the results are disconcerting. Look, for instance, at the passage concluding a discussion of modern plastic surgery (pg. 96):

Obviously, as with any cosmetic surgery, a well-informed adult ought to be able to opt for such a procedure in consultation with her doctor and others close to her, as she chooses. But the skyrocketing rate of cosmetic surgery does beg the question: when have we gone too far in pursuit of perceived physical ideals? Perhaps, when girls as young as ten years of age feel compelled to undergo labiaplasty to even out their labia minora.

This is an uncomfortable example of information-age rhetoric. The moral framework is firmly put in place with the first sentence—the use of the word ‘obviously’ is far from incidental. The second sentence then pretends to give a thoughtful little nugget, which is OK only for those who can’t see that this is the opposite of thoughtful; this is perhaps the most banal comment that could’ve been chosen, given the topic. But the real kicker is that last sentence. Is it ironic? An attempt at humor? It might make sense if it followed a story about such a narcissistic 10-year-old, but no such context is given. This looks instead like an attempt by a man innocent of philosophy to do simply what he has been trained to do: to give a prescription, following a diagnosis. The only problem is, there’s no paper from the medical literature to help him out on this one, so the effort to parrot thoughtfulness goes far awry. We quickly move to the next topic.

It's likely that the entire quoted text was just a throwaway attempting to make a fluid transition from one topic to the next. But I can’t help thinking that there’s something endemic of our era in this book. Science here is enshrined as the end, as the ultimate debate-settler. If you have a question, there will be an answer; it’s only a matter of time and study resources. I am reminded of Tom, the scientist from Updike’s Couples, to whom there are unknowns, but no unknowables. That’s more or less the attitude of this book, as well as of its probable target audience. After all, you only need to visit Google for quick, easy answers, with maybe a side-jaunt to Wikipedia. (The chapters of How Sex Works can be read in any order with very little strain, just like web pages.) The next day, around the water cooler, you’ll have something interesting to bring up to your colleagues. Isn’t it amazing what Science has found out now? Those honeybees are goddamn incredible!

I worry that after reading such a pretty good book, some people will be less imaginative and less curious than they were before reading it. We might be fooled into thinking that a succession of facts and trivia allows us to understand how sex works; when all the uncertainty and chaos are dismissed, the constructed world all too easily reduces to order. What you get in a scientific work on sex is necessarily a cartoon, a radically simplified caricature. This can be helpful and informative, as I claim How Sex Works is. But it’s far from the entire picture. It doesn’t fully explain “why we look, smell, taste, feel, and act the way we do,” as the book’s tagline claims. Literature hasn’t had all of its topics wrested away just yet.

No comments:

Post a Comment