Before we get too smug about the past century of scientific progress, note that scientists developed the theory of special relativity before developing a consensus on the existence of the female orgasm.
Scientific inquiry into sex didn’t begin until the 20th century, and until the 1950s remained at the extreme fringes of biology, medicine, and psychology. Participants were nearly impossible to recruit. Many researchers completed their studies with prostitutes, research assistants, spouses, and, when necessary, themselves:
“Rather than risk being fired or ostracized by explaining their unconventional project to other people and trying to press those other people into service, researchers would simply, quietly, do it themselves.”
Mary Roach, Bonk
Measurement instruments were even more difficult to acquire. Mid-20th century researchers like William Masters and Virginia Johnson built their own makeshift penis cameras to get a better look at the action:
“The dildo camera unmasked, among other things, the source of vaginal lubrication: not glandular secretions but plasma seeping through the capillary walls in the vagina.”
Mary Roach, Bonk
Here’s the thing: The Hubble telescope recently photographed a galaxy 13.8 billion light years away, literally looking back in time to the formation of the universe. It is very likely that we will develop 3D-printed human kidneys for transplant before we develop a complete model of the mechanics of human insemination.
We are taught to view technology as the bottleneck for understanding the world around us. If only we had more engineers and data scientists to build the gadgets and crunch the numbers, we’d usher in our age of abundance.
We could build a machine to perfectly record and analyze every detail of human sexuality, and we’d still be screwed without thousands of people willing to strip down and jump in, without governments and universities willing to fund the studies, without teachers and parents ready to broach the subject. Until we de-stigmatize human bodies and everything we like to do with them, we’ll never fully understand or heal them.
For our most important human problems, technology is not the bottleneck.
The bottleneck is people willing to talk frankly, to act shamelessly, to share generously.
The bottleneck is culture.
Bonk, by Mary Roach, is a frank, generous, and hilarious look at history and science of sex. Check it out here.