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Best of the East Bay - People

Vince Neil, Ledisi, Mary Roach, Amani Toomer, Wall-e, Robert Hass...


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The Sex Files - Mary Roach

Mary Roach; Photograph by David Paul MorrisThe weather at Mary Roach’s house in Oakland’s Glenview district is brilliantly clear but too cool to sit outside as we talk about her latest book. It’s a shame because Bonk: the Curious Coupling of Science and Sex would best be discussed in the garden while watching the birds and bees. No matter. “Sex is all around us,” declares Roach, whose book reached number one on the San Francisco Chronicle nonfiction list after publication this spring.

Instead, we sit on a long leather couch in a spacious art-filled living room that includes works by her husband, artist-designer Ed Rachles, and her stepdaughter Lily, a senior at California College of the Arts.

“I got the idea for the book,” Roach says, “when I came across a reference to Masters and Johnson’s sex films.” These were internal films, using a thrusting, mechanical penis-camera, a light source, and an artificial coition machine. “When I read this, I went, ‘Whoa! Sex research! Next book!’ ” What made it the perfect Mary Roach project, she says, is that, “It’s surreal, and it’s bringing into the laboratory something that’s usually not thought of as being studied in a lab.” Her previous books, Stiff (about corpses) and Spook (about the afterlife), were also about subjects that people don’t usually think of as being part of science.

For Bonk, Roach was forced to be her own research subject, most notably when she and her husband—“wonderful, saintly Ed,” she says—agreed to a 4-D sonogram study of sexual intercourse when no one else volunteered. “If you write a book about sex,” says Roach, “you have to be ready for anything.”

What were your most interesting discoveries in researching Bonk?
Oh, so many. There were some little surprises—for instance, that men could have multiple orgasms. I didn’t realize that. That women have nocturnal clitoral erections while they sleep. In a broader sense, there are a number of things that are not yet answered that are worth still looking into. For instance, the notion of “upsuck”—that the uterine contractions caused by stimulation and/or orgasm draw up the sperm and boost the odds of conception. There have been several studies saying no and some saying maybe. It seems like something worth investigating.

Because of infertility problems ...?
Well, sure. In animal research, they’ve shown that stimulation produces bigger litters again and again. It used to be that when women were inseminated using a sperm donor, the doctor would wait until the woman had an orgasm and then rush in and inject the sperm. Physicians used to counsel couples. … There was that great quote from the court physician to the Hapsburg Empress Maria Theresa, “I am of the opinion that the vulva of Her Most Sacred Majesty should be titillated for some length of time before intercourse.”

It was interesting to me that certain questions seem to have been resolved—for instance, the existence of the G-spot, which once seemed to be as mythical as the Loch Ness monster.
There are 400 papers on the G-spot. I was going to do a chapter on it, but nobody was doing a study at that time. What’s accepted is that there’s a sensitive area on the front wall of the vagina. But there are people who say there’s no specific differentiation of the tissue; it’s an area, not a discrete anatomical structure, a vestigial prostate, or something else. That’s still debated.

And, your book goes way beyond the old controversy about whether clitoral or vaginal stimulation leads to orgasm.

When someone says vaginal, are they talking about the G-spot or no involvement of the G-spot, because straight-on missionary intercourse isn’t a particularly effective way to stimulate the G-spot. There are not only vaginal orgasms, there are nipple orgasms. Paraplegics have them in the area right over where their injury is. There’s the hands-free orgasm; some women can have them through fantasy and breathing.

On a different subject, there was the quote from the researcher who said that women on birth control pills are essentially in a menopausal state. That was quite a shock.
Yes, this controlled flat dosage so you don’t have the cyclical ups and downs that you get from your own natural hormones. There are a lot of complaints of low libido with the pill because it messes with the testosterone levels. It’s an estrogen pill, but estrogen is tied in with testosterone. But, for some women, just not having to worry about getting pregnant is freeing, and they’re having more sex than they were before.

But, isn’t lack of desire the number one sexual problem?
Yes, that is the number one complaint with women. And, there was a study that came out when I was working on the book that said that even when women go off the pill, their hormone levels don’t recover. You don’t see low libido listed in the side effects of the pill. That’s not one of the things that the FDA is concerned about; it’s considered a lifestyle thing and not a health risk.

It was fascinating to read that after five years of studying couples, Masters and Johnson found that committed homosexual couples were having better sex than heterosexuals.
That was interesting—that whole concept of gender empathy. If it feels good for me, it must feel good for my partner. That doesn’t hold true if your partner is the other gender. If you’re both men, you know intuitively what feels good.

That came up along with their observation that people who were more involved with one another, teased their partners, and took their time had better sex.
Yes, they were very much in the moment; they weren’t goal directed. It wasn’t, “If I do this to her for 25 seconds, that should do it”—the mechanical versus losing yourself in the moment and in the other person’s responses. That was the one study where I thought, “Now you’re talking about how to have great sex.” It’s not about press here, turn there, twiddle this. It’s more about focus and really just being swept away in it, and not watching, not judging yourself—what Masters and Johnson called “spectatoring.”

What effect did writing the book have on your own sex life?
When I was reading Masters and Johnson’s books, there are so many fascinating things that happen to males and females all along the way that it made me a little bit of a spectator in my own bedroom. Like, “Oh, is that the flush that happens?” But it was illuminating just to learn all this stuff, and we spent a lot of time just sharing tidbits. The more you talk about [sex], the freer you feel about it. —Susan Edmiston

En Vogue - Erin Fetherston

Erin Fetherston; Photograph by Ellen Von UnwerthSeen in glossy magazines, on Hollywood red carpets, and on discount store racks, the fashion designer of Erin Fetherston are getting noticed.
The Piedmont-raised designer’s clothes have been a hit in such heavyweight fashion publications as Vogue, Elle, and Harper’s Bazaar. Fetherston also counts Hollywood “it” actresses Zooey Deschanel, Anne Hathaway, and Rosario Dawson as friends and clients. Deschanel can be seen modeling Fetherston’s 2008–09 fall and winter lines in a short film, Dreamy Wander, on www.erinfetherston.com. The film was directed by renowned multimedia artist Ellen von Unwerth, who collaborated on a similar project with Fetherston and Spider-Man star Kirsten Dunst two years ago.

Meanwhile, Fetherston has made a splash in the mainstream. Last winter, she designed a Go International line of coats, blouses, dresses, and accessories for Target.“Fashion should be relevant and accessible, and Target is such a great vehicle for that,” says Fetherston, 28, who was approached by the retail giant the night of her first runway show in New York City. She is thrilled with the response to her Target line. “I see people wearing those clothes every day. I’ve had a few days where I’ve walked past the coat I designed six times.”

Fetherston recently moved her business from Paris to New York after working and living in the City of Light for four years. In Paris, she studied at an affiliate of Parsons the New School for Design and met her fiancé, French multimedia artist Hedi Ferjani. Ferjani’s mother, Doña Isabel Gonzalez Llamazares de Borbon, worked for icons Yves Saint Laurent, Lanvin, and Guy Laroche, and has imparted to Fetherston invaluable lessons on the history of French fashion, lessons that the designer didn’t get at her alma mater, UC Berkeley, which doesn’t offer a fashion major.While creating her fall lines for 2008, Fetherston wanted to explore the idea of a classic romantic spirit in today’s world. She looked to Shakespeare for a muse.

“I love Romeo and Juliet. Juliet is my favorite heroine,” says Fetherston. “As I was designing, I would think of Juliet and try to make her make sense in the modern world.”Fetherston’s fall lines combine vivid colors with darker ones, finding a balance of moodiness and prettiness. “I enjoy hyper-pretty clothes that also protect you and cloak you,” she says. “My clothes make sense for a girl in a modern context—we all need a layer that kind of shields us from the world. —Angela Sasse

Killer Giant - Amani Toomer

Amani Toomer; Photograph courtesy of New York GiantsFootball fans are still buzzing about this year’s Super Bowl, when the New York Giants shocked the New England Patriots, cutting short the Patriots’ quest to become the second team in NFL history to win the championship game after an undefeated season. A key player in the David versus Goliath upset was Giants wide receiver Amani Toomer: The Berkeley native and De La Salle High alum caught six passes for 84 yards in the Super Bowl.

As Toomer celebrated with his Giants teammates, he had to have some idea how the Patriots felt. Toomer’s final high school game was De La Salle’s 1991 loss to Pittsburg High, which snapped the Spartans’ then-record 72-game winning streak. After graduating from De La Salle, Toomer went on to star at the University of Michigan and later became the Giants’ all-time leader in pass receptions. Meanwhile, De La Salle went on a 12-season winning streak, lasting 151 games. —Peter Crooks

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