An author can't go wrong, I'd guess, by including the word "s*x" in his or her book's title. It helps if said author's bio mentions appearances on CNN and The Daily Show. It helps if some of the blurbs on the cover are by the authors of books whose own titles include The G Spot and The Technology of Org*sm.
Still and all, by the time you finish How S*x Works: Why We Look, Smell, Taste, Feel, and Act the Way We Do, you may be left wondering: what the heck kind of book did I just read?
Consider the chapter titles, which include such as these:
- Girls Just Want to Have Fun
- I'm So Excited and I Just Can't Hide It
- Let It Be
- Jagged Little Pill
- Good Vibrations
Er, well, no.
From the Introduction:
We're here to explore human s*xuality from beginning to end – what we like and why we like it; how it makes us feel; how it can go wrong; and how human intervention, through cultural traditions, scientific discovery, or both, can divert nature's path – across history, geography, culture, gender, and orientation... how s*x works.What Dr. Sharon Moalem (yes, he's a doctor: a neurogeneticist (!) and evolutionary biologist) says in that paragraph sounds encouraging. He's going to cover it all, isn't he? In less than 300 pages, at that. It's gonna be concentrated. All right, you think.
But then there's the small matter of how he says it. A single 300+-word sentence, multiple independent clauses, and not a whole heck lot of Anglo-Saxonisms. The whole thing fraught with em dashes, semicolons, and even an ellipsis to boot.
And -- I can't help noticing this sort of thing -- this is his opening sentence. The grabber. The sentence that he and his editors sweated over more than any other.
The problem plagues How S*x Works for most of the remainder of the book. Although this is far from an academic treatise of the topic, it's not a book whose contents you might find excerpted in (say) Esquire or Cosmo. Carrie Bradshaw will not be citing it aloud, musingly, in Sex and the City II. So if that's what you're hoping for, keep hoping.
Still, the book's content is interesting -- here and there, very interesting.
The first couple of chapters cover the physiological basics, for women and men, such as how our bodies change with puberty, the mysteries of pubic hair, and bre*st and p*nis sizes. (Bet you didn't know how the latter is typically measured, in studies of such things, to ensure consistency. Let's just say the combination of relaxation and stretching sounds positively yogic.) Moalem discusses the hydraulic stuff here, too: fluids (where they come from, where they go, why they go there instead of someplace else), how things fit together (or don't), the basic propulsive mechanics.
For me, the best chapter in the book -- and not just because I won't have to use asterisks to write about it -- was the third, "I'm So Excited and I Just Can't Hide It." This chapter deals with the rules of attraction: how our bodies tell us just who, exactly, will turn our heads.
When Mom or our good friends counsel us that opposites attract, they mean psychological and/or emotional opposites. Intellectual types may hang out with intellectuals, but they can't help being diverted by the scatterbrains. Artists lie down with logicians, social butterflies with wallflowers, the strong-willed with the wimps. Yes, that may (or may not) be true in the long run. But what catches our eye in the short?
It might be more accurate to ask, What catches our nose?
Moalem reports on several varieties of what he refers to as "the T-shirt test": studies which neutralize, as much as possible, the effects of odors other than an individual's own, and test the responses of people exposed to the resulting "pure" odor.
The first of these studies asked a group of men to go without using any normal deodorants, aftershave lotions, colognes, or other such products for forty-eight hours. (The researchers gave them odorless soap and aftershave; this wasn't going to be a "B.O. test," after all!) During that time, the men were to wear T-shirts for two nights in a row. Afterward, about the same number of women were asked to rate the attractiveness of each T-shirt.
The result wasn't what might be obvious. Women didn't consistently choose T-shirts which smelled "good" in any conventional way, or even those which simply didn't smell "as bad." Rather (emphasis added):
Time and again, volunteers were more attracted to the smell of shirts worn by men who had immune systems that were somewhat different from their own... especially a group of very important genes that make up a key part of our immune system: human leukocyte antigen system, or HLA.Got that? What drew the women to one T-shirt or another turned out to be something that most of us didn't even know existed. ("'HLA'? Que?")
Moalem doesn't cite a study of a directly analogous T-shirt test in the opposite direction. Instead, he discusses one in which women (likewise "deodorized") slept in one T-shirt during the most fertile part of their menstrual cycles (days 14-15), and in a different one on days 21-22, when they weren't actively fertile:
Sure enough, when men were asked to sniff the shirts and pick their preference, they picked the smells from the fertile phases again and again... [So] women may be wired to sniff out men who will provide the right traits to give them the healthiest babies. And men in turn may be wired to sniff out women who are ready to make babies.It's tempting to quote at greater length from Chapter 3, which delves into matters like whether gender preference as well as gender itself determines attractiveness, what babies find attractive in a human face, the role of symmetry in attractiveness, and what goes on between our ears neurochemically when we're shown a picture of someone attractive. (Did you know "what researchers have long known about faces -- when you blend the features of hundreds of random faces, the resulting 'average' face is inevitably beautiful"? I sure didn't.)
But in my view, good though that chapter is, the book loses steam thereafter:
There's another chapter about hydraulics. There's a lot of information about things which can go wrong, either with s*x itself or with the reproductive processes resulting from it. X and Y chromosomes, hermaphrodism, s*x hormones all take the stage. STDs come in for their share of attention, as does contraception (natural and otherwise).
For me, the problem with these later chapters was that none matched -- probably could match -- the sheer human interest of Chapter 3. (Neither could Chapters 1 and 2, but when I read them I didn't know what was coming next.) The tone and general feel too often trailed off into the dry and clinical, even when the information was (a) very current (as it often was), (b) based on the latest research, and/or (c) unfamiliar to me.
It's hard to care about molecules, lubrication, viruses, and genes when you've just wandered through more than 30 pages with your head in an aromatic cloud, y'know? Maybe those Chapter 3 pages just (ha ha) mysteriously smelled better to me.
But I don't think the answer is that simple, or that mysterious.