Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Sharon Moalem/HOW S*X WORKS

(Disclaimer: this review won't use any "naughty words." Not to be coy, but to keep this page from becoming a flystrip for the unsavory, I'll make use of asterisks here and there. But I can do nothing about the subject matter itself. If you're liable to take offense at exposure to information and opinions about human s*xual nature, please don't let yourself be exposed to it in the first place.)

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
These pop-culture-driven chapter titles said to me -- especially considering all the sure-fire gimmicks cataloged in the first paragraph of this review -- that the book would romp playfully through its subject matter. I'd probably encounter a lot of sly jokes and puns, and a certain amount of the old Monty-Python wink-wink-nudge-nudge sort of provocation.

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.


fairyhedgehog said...

The book sounds reasonably interesting especially if it's based on current research.

I'm very unclear why I had to cope with all those asterisks which made the review harder to read than it needed to be. Other reviews on this blog have been less coy.

JES said...

Thanks, fairyhedgehog.

About the asterisks: just reviewer's choice. I didn't ask anybody in advance about using them, and I didn't check to see what the common practice here was.

As the disclaimer said, I didn't mean to be coy; if this were a printed review rather than an online one, the asterisks wouldn't have been there at all. I meant only to discourage attention to The Book Book from readers (and commenters, and spammers) primarily interested in entertainment from sex, as opposed to information about it. Until a blogger has had to fend off that kind of attention, it always seems like no big deal; I just didn't want to bring that administrative problem down on the head of someone else.

I apologize if they got in the way, though.

fairyhedgehog said...

I must admit I haven't faced that problem so maybe I underestimate it.

It didn't stop me reading the review to the end!

moonrat said...

Fascinating. I actually knew the thing about immune system compatibility (or, more like, diversity, incompatibility, cross-compatibility, whatever)--SO interesting. Makes perfect sense why soemtimes chemical "attraction" seems totally inexplicable. "But he doesn't even have a job! How good a kisser can he be?!" etc. The correct answer is "But Mommy, our babies would be more resistant to swine flu!"

The thing about that has always confused me--why is it that people so often end up with partners who resemble them physically? You'd think that physical, visible diversities would be hallmarks of having been drawn from different gene/mating pools, and thereby of greater immune system diversity as well.

I guess I should read the book...

Thanks for the thoughtful review!

Froog said...

I'm very sceptical about that t-shirt experiment. It rather looks as if they were seeking to find support for a pre-conceived hypothesis about that species of immune system diversity - which is very bad form, for a start. What scent markers do those immune system elements produce, and are they actually perceptible? Was this established by previous research? And were they adequately able to exclude other smells - is 48hrs really enough to remove all trace of strong scented cosmetics etc that have been regularly used previously? And what about alcohol, tobacco, food, and so on? What about subsequent contamination of the smells - not least from the sniff-testers (presumably women, with strong smells of their own; presumably large numbers of them testing each t-shirt)? And how do you exclude the possible effect of other bodily substances, such as testosterone? Much of behavioural psychology is dogged by such problems of dubious methodology, small sample sizes, and single-minded attempts to prove prior hypotheses rather than to test and exclude multiple alternatives. This sounds like a load of hogwash to me.

Hogwash, of course, is extremely effective in attracting human females.

On Moonrat's point about people with similar appearance being attracted to each other - I think it's a fairly common, but by no means a universal phenomenon. Darwinian imperatives in the gene pool often have dissimilar or even conflicting aims and characteristics: there are some advantages in diversity, but also in more 'selfish' strategies of propagating one's existing gene-set at all costs.

And 'attractiveness' itself is a survival advantage. People who are attracted to others very similar in appearance to themselves may simpler have a narrower conception of what constitutes this sort of genetically-based 'attractiveness'.

moonrat said...

But Froog--imagining that at least some (if not most) people do not think in genetic/Darwinian terms about the mate they have whimsically selected... do you not think it's true that people stick to their own genetic pools more often than they (in theory) "genetically" should? That maybe social pressure/instinct and ideas about what one "should" want override things as fundamentally motivating as species survival/evolution sometimes? Maybe even MOST of the time?

Froog said...

Moonie, I don't think ANYBODY thinks about mate selection in genetic/Darwinian terms! But, as you suggest, most people don't think about it much or at all; they are guided unconsciously by 'instinct' and/or 'social pressure' - both of which could be genetically generated.

The evolution/survival imperative of a gene set leads people to seek 'attractive' mates. Some people, it seems, have gene sets that make them believe (or behave as though they believe, even if they don't actually think this of themselves) that they represent the ideal paradigm of 'attractiveness'.

moonrat said...

Ha! Nicely put.

Jane Steen said...

Reading your excellent review I found myself wondering what the publishers were up to when they let this one out onto the shelves. It sounds like they didn't even read it themselves, let alone edit it (and I understand from some of the publishing blogs I follow that editing by publishers is becoming rarer.) Did they think that it would just sell anyway because it had a (pun intended) sexy title?

I will be sure to browse Chapter 3 when I see this one in the library (and will totally look up the penis measuring bit.) Thanks for letting us know about the good bits!