Rating - 3: worth reading once (borrow it from a library)
I am terrified to see what ads and search terms will be associated with this post.
This is a book on sex research for a popular audience. It covers the history of sexual research, some less academic explorations, and plain-language explanations of results often hidden behind physiological jargon.
The writing is very approachable. It embraces both curiosity and nervous hesitancy, the expected reaction of the audience. You want to know more, both practically and voyeuristically, but you are reluctant to do so visibly. Don't worry about what the neighbors will think: the cover is tasteful, cute even, and the tone is not lurid. You will find yourself casting off your hesitancy as the writing itself does.
Anyway, the book begins and ends with a lesson from Masters and Johnson that you already learned from Easton and Liszt: communication is vital. Knowing more and having a more satisfying performance involves talking more, openly and comfortably. You are among friends here.
The author mixes the scientific and popular perspectives. You can see the serious researcher, reading the journals and seeking new information beyond the literature. Then you see the snarky journalist, quipping about the new mother and her closeted husband who are both "suckling Peter." She is there to give asides where you might forget to. Feel free to steal them for cocktail parties.
The footnotes are a highlight. This is where much of the snark appears, or the excessive or digressive detail. She has all this research and trivia that does not quite fit in the narrative, but you will want it once she places it in context. They let her toss in comments about internet clown fetishists, Millard Fillmore's electoral history, online dictionaries, and Victorian worries about the links between sewing machines and self-abuse. They are a great place for quoting the exquisitely artful phrasing from researchers or translating those phrasings as coarsely as possible.
I compliment the style for keeping the cleverness subordinate to the subject matter. I worried that it might slip into low-budget checkout aisle magazine-quality writing, but no, the research takes precedence over anecdotes. There are many anecdotes, but they further the narrative. It flows well.
The presentation of the subject matter is good. I cannot speak to its accuracy or adequacy, because I am years from my own academic sex coursework, but it seems fine. The level of detail is what a popular audience would demand. There is real research and a bibliography. I expect a few things to have been sacrificed for narrative clarity, but I actually trust her to convey accurate information. I will cite things from this book without worrying that Snopes will make me look like an idiot.
What sorts of things can we cite? A chapter-by-chapter list could be fun, but let us stick to highlights. A lengthy opening chapter outlines the history of sex research, a mix of scientific detachment and squicky obsession. We go on to learn that short, small-breasted women have better sex; the details of several surgical procedures that will make men uncomfortable; that masturbation has valuable health benefits; that the male reaction to pornography is more discriminating then the female; and far more than you will likely need to know about artificially inseminating pigs. Stops along the way include vibrators, similarly intrusive measuring devices, sex research in Muslim countries, and how you go about recruiting participants for research.
A trend you may notice is that some chapters are about settled science and others are about pursuing elusive answers. I find Ms. Roach at her best presenting research with a gentle wink. If the chapter is dominated by the search for an answer, it will probably not end with an answer; a narrative that visits two sex researchers and a pornographer leads to, "No one is going to fund a study like that, assuming we could get it past the human subjects review board." On the other hand, those research trips read like Candyfreak with sex toys instead of chocolate bars, and I loved Candyfreak.
Mary Roach is a great writer with an eye for the extraneous detail that makes the story more interesting. I recommend the book for everyone who will not flip out about the idea that such a book exists.
I can almost hear Chuck Palahniuk thinking, "Man, I could have used this."
Added: Mary Roach at TED Talks (not work safe, unless your work is okay with a clip from a pig insemination training video)