ISBN 978-0-393-33479-1

Mary Roach (Author)


The Curious Coupling of Science and Sex

Overview | Formats | Inside the Book


1: The Sausage, the Porcupine, and the Agreeable Mrs. G.

Highlights from the Pioneers of Human Sexual Response

ALBERT R. SHADLE WAS THE WORLD'S foremost expert on the sexuality of small woodland creatures. If you visit the library at the Kinsey Institute for Research in Sex, Gender, and Reproduction, in Bloomington, Indiana, you will find six reels of audio recordings Shadle made of "skunk and raccoon copulation and post-coitus behavior reactions." (Nearby you will also find a 1959 recording of "Sounds during heterosexual coitus" and a tape of the "masturbatory sessions" of Subject 127253, which possibly explains why no one ever gets around to listening to the raccoons.)

Shadle was a biologist at the University of Buffalo in the 1940s and '50s, back before biology had figured out most of the basics of life on earth. While today's biologist spends the days peering through a scanning microscope at protein receptors or sequencing genomes, the biologist of the fifties could put some animals in a pen and watch them have sex. Said Shadle in a 1948 Journal of Mammalogy article on the mating habits of porcupines, "Many facts about these interesting animals await discovery." It was Shadle who dispelled the myth that porcupines have to have sex face-to-face; the female protects the male from her spines by flipping her tail up over her back as a shield.

Here is another fact Shadle discovered by watching Prickles, Johnnie, Pinkie, Maudie, Nightie, and Old Dad in the University of Buffalo porcupine enclosure: One of the males, when sexually aroused, would "rear upon his hind legs and tail and walk erect towards the female . . . with his penis fully erected." (Why do I think it was Old Dad?) This was followed by what Shadle describes as an unusual "urinary shower," the particulars of which I'll spare you. Additionally, an amorous porcupine may hop about "on one front leg and the hind legs, while he holds the other front paw on his genitals."

My point is that if you want to understand human sexual response, then studying animals is probably not the most productive way to go about it. However, for many years this was in fact the way scientists—wary of social censure and career demerits—studied sex. As always, before science gets its nerve up to try something out on a human being, it turns first to animals. And it took science a very long time to get its nerve up to put sexually aroused human beings under scientific scrutiny. Even the fearless Alfred Kinsey logged weeks on the road filming animal sex for study. One particularly productive field trip to Oregon State Agricultural College yielded 4,000 feet of stag film featuring cattle, sheep, and rabbits, though no actual stags. Given the brevity of most animal liaisons, the lessons learned were rudimentary. Basically, what it came down to was that, regarding sex, humans are just another mammal. "Every kind of sexual behavior we had observed or known about in humans could be found in animals," wrote Kinsey colleague Wardell Pomeroy, who obviously never dropped in to the Yahoo Clown Fetish Group.

Quite a few scientists in the forties and fifties drove the animal bus way past simple observation and on into the laboratory. I don't want to delve into these experiments because (a) they don't tell us much about people, and (b) they're ghastly. A study that concludes that "removal of the eyes and the olfactory bulbs and deconstruction of the cochlea fails to abolish copulatory responses in the female cat or rabbit" may tell us something about sadism in human beings but not a whole lot about human copulation.

Many people think that the first to dip a toe in the potentially scalding waters of research into human sexual response was William Masters (aided by his associate—and, later, wife&madash;Virginia Johnson). But long before Masters and Johnson and Kinsey became household names, Robert Latou Dickinson was undertaking the unthinkable, in his sunny, cheerfully appointed gynecology practice in Brooklyn Heights, New York. Beginning in 1890, as part of each patient's initial examination, Dickinson would take a detailed sexual history. His patients ran the gamut of turn-of-the-century womanhood; though plenty were well-to-do, he carried a caseload of charity patients as well. Some of these histories were astoundingly intimate.

Subject 177

1897-. . . At 16 . . . slept with another girl—they masturbated each other—suction on her nipples. . . . Coitus first at 17 and ever since—masturbation was vulvar, vaginal, cervical, mammary. . . . Friction against clitoris gives strong pleasure—best is from friction on clitoris to start, then friction against cervix with index finger of other hand. . . . Clitoris not very large but erectile—she has used a clothespin and sausage. . . .

Dickinson writes in the introduction to one of his books that he was inspired and emboldened by "the frank speech" of some of his tenement house patients. Not only were these women at ease talking about their sexuality, but a few eventually allowed him to make observations (with a nurse in the room, always).

Subject 315

1929: Week after period demonstrated climax: legs crossed—her 2 fingers making about inch stroke about 1 to 2 a second—not hard pressure but sway of pelvis and contraction of levator and thigh adduction—rhythmically once in 2 sec or less. Second orgasm, no levator throb—most of desire and feeling outside but "I like inside too."

It might be tempting to dismiss Dickinson as an iconoclastic pervert, but nothing could be further from the truth. He simply believed that lame sex destroyed more marriages than did anything else, and that "considering the inveterate marriage habit of the race," something ought to be done. It was Dickinson who ushered the clitoris into the spotlight. He was an early proponent of the more clitoris-friendly woman-on-top position. Through measurements and interviews he debunked some persistent clitoral myths. For instance, that the bigger ones are more sensitive, and that good girls don't play with them. (Masturbation, he wrote, was "a normal sex experience.")

It was Dickinson's work that inspired Alfred Kinsey to pursue sex research. Kinsey had been, at the time, applying his bottomless research energies to gall wasp speciation. According to Kinsey biographer James Jones, Dickinson—then in his eighties—gave Kinsey his first contacts in the gay and lesbian communities and turned over dozens of case files of "unorthodox" patients he'd come across through the years.

Last but, okay, least, we have Dickinson to thank for the innovation of the relaxing picture on the gynecological exam room ceiling. The courtesy was inspired by a grueling afternoon spent staring at the blank ceiling above Dickinson's dentist's chair. I may be dating myself (a turn of phrase that now hits my ears as a euphemism for masturbation), but back in the early eighties, no women's health center was complete without the ceiling poster of a ring of redwood trees shot from below. So ubiquitous was this image that I cannot, to this day, look at a redwood and not feel as though I should scoot down a little lower and relax.


THE FIRST RESEARCH SCIENTISTS to make the case for bringing sexual arousal and orgasm into the formal confines of a laboratory was the psychologist John B. Watson. Watson is best known for founding, in 1913, the psychological movement called behaviorism. It held that human behavior, like animal behavior, was essentially a series of reactions to outside events, an entity easily shaped by reward and punishment. Watson's fame, in no small part, derives from his willingness to study human behavior in a laboratory setting. Most of his subjects were children, most notably Little Albert (no relation to Fat), the elevenmonth-old boy in whom he conditioned a fear of white rats. But Watson saw no reason not to bring adults into the lab as well.

Watson chafed at science's reluctance to study human sexuality as it studies human nutrition or planets or porcupine sexuality. "It is admittedly the most important subject in life," he wrote. "It is admittedly the thing that causes the most shipwrecks in the happiness of men and women. And yet our scientific information is so meager. . . . [We should have our questions] answered not by our mothers and grandmothers, not by priests and clergymen in the interest of middle-class mores, nor by general practitioners, not even by Freudians; we . . . want them answered by scientifically trained students of sex. . . ."

Watson's original scientifically trained student of sex may or may not have been Rosalie Rayner, a nineteen year-old student of his at Johns Hopkins University, with whom he was carrying on an affair. A friend of Watson's, Deke Coleman, says Watson and Rayner "took readings" and "made records" of Rayner's physical responses while they had sex, which would make the pair America's first experimenters (and first subjects) in the laboratory study of human arousal and orgasm. Coleman further claimed that Watson's wife found the notes and data from the experiments, and that these were used as evidence in the ensuing divorce trial.

Watson's biographer Kerry Buckley dismisses the story about the trial as innuendo. Watson was indeed having an affair with Rayner, and the affair did, to use Watson's phrasing, shipwreck his life: When he refused to stop seeing Rayner, he was asked to leave the university and never again managed to work in academia. But Buckley says there is no evidence to support the rumor of the arousal studies making an appearance in the trial. (Mrs. Watson's lawyer did, however, introduce as evidence a cache of love letters, quoted in a different biography of Watson, by David Cohen. Watson expresses his feelings as only the father of behaviorism could do: "My total reactions are positive and towards you. So, likewise, each and every heart reaction.") Buckley is also dubious of the allegation that Rayner and Watson studied their own sexual responses.

Though it would appear that Watson did study somebody's. In 1936, a box with John Watson's name on it was discovered in a basement on the Johns Hopkins campus. Inside the box were four scientific instruments. One was a speculum; the other three were a mystery. In the late 1970s, yet another historian, working on a Journal of Sex Research article about Watson, heard about the box and contacted its keeper, stating that he wanted to get an expert opinion on the instruments. A photo was taken and mailed to a team of sex researchers in California. "The bent tube with a cage-like end certainly was [an] instrument to insert into the vagina . . . ," began the researchers. I believe them, though I got the sense that an egg beater might have produced the same reply.

The amazing thing about Watson is that, offered a choice between, on the one hand, holding onto respect, prestige, financial security, and tenure at Johns Hopkins and, on the other hand, holding onto the source of his heart reactions, Watson went with the girl. Human behavior isn't quite as predictable as the behaviorists made it out to be.