What the Critics Say About Dr. Tatiana's Sex Advice to All Creation
The Daily Telegraph (London) - Michael Shelden
How I discovered the beast within Biologist Olivia Judson has taken America by storm, thanks to her sex-obsessed alter ego and the mating habits of spoon worms.
Giving sex advice to lovesick
grasshoppers, gender-bending hyenas and
Her book provides entertaining but scholarly answers to questions posed by confused species up and down the food chain, including one from "Perplexed in Cloverhill", who writes:
"Dear Dr Tatiana, I'm a queen bee and I'm worried. All my lovers leave their genitals inside me and then drop dead. Is this normal?"
In a typically deadpan reply, the good doctor patiently explains that the male bees are simply trying to prevent the queen from mating with other fellows, concluding, "Alas, Your Majesty, your lovers explode on purpose."
The creator of this anthropomorphising agony aunt is a 33-year-old fair-haired overachiever who has a degree from Stanford University in California and a doctorate from Oxford, and who gave up a career at the Economist to do scientific research at Imperial College.For the past few weeks, she has been touring America, promoting her book on chat shows, where her good looks and plummy accent have made her an instant hit. She exudes confidence in the manner of a well-bred don who loves lecturing and always has a host of trivia at hand.
As we talk at an elegant restaurant in Chicago, she sits bolt upright and fixes me with a friendly but relentless stare. Her attention never wavers, her conversation never wanders. It's sex that she wants to talk about, and she does it with great determination and enthusiasm, her face lit with gleaming expressions.
The subject delights her. She frequently bursts into ribald laughter as she glides effortlessly from explaining a striking entry in her index ("Big balls") to detailing the case for bisexuality as a very common condition in nature.
She likes to shock. When a woman caller on a chat show recently asked her about bed bugs, she immediately launched into an exuberant account of the way in which the male of the species employs "traumatic insemination" through the use of his stiletto-like penis.
Sometimes, she goes too far. A rousing lecture about auto-eroticism left a recent audience in Massachusetts cold. "They couldn't handle masturbation in Boston," she declares.
Judson spent four years writing her book in an
effort to show humans
that they can learn a lot about sex from other creatures. "We
engaged in only a small part of the sexual behaviour on the planet.
In fact, ours is rather pedestrian when you look at other species.
wasn't for the fact that it's ours, I doubt that we'd give it much
Who can argue with her after reading her descriptions of homosexual manatees, lions who copulate 75 times a day and penis-fencing among flatworms? Her own favourite is the green spoon worm.
"The male spoon worm is 200,000 times smaller than the female," she says. "He has sex with her by making himself at home inside her reproductive tract." A girl spoon worm can "keep a score of husbands without trouble".
Reading Judson's sex guide, you soon realise that the doctor herself is more than a little eager to apply the lessons learnt from other species to ours. After her spirited discussion of penis fencing, she cheerfully concludes, "I hope I've convinced you that a bit of slap and tickle isn't necessarily sinister."
She admits that a friend discovered so many suggestions for humans in her manual that he regards it as "a sort of Kama Sutra". And she is happy to make the case that we can't know too much about sex.
"I'm astonished when people say that
they are opposed to sexual
education, or that they do approve of it and then advise abstinence
young people. It's not practical to hush it up or to tell people
about it and then say don't do it. That just goes against nature."
about her own love life? Has it changed as a result of her studies?
Perfectly dressed in a demure blouse and dark trousers, she seems much too composed and intellectual for cultivating a beast within, but the near-constant twinkle in her eye does suggest unseen depths.
Is she married?
Has she ever been?
Would she like to be?
"Maybe. But I don't remember ever imagining myself in a wedding gown. I have been very much in love, but not to the point of wanting to get married. At least, not yet."
What does seem to fascinate her is the subject
of female promiscuity.
She brings it up repeatedly, all the while insisting that she doesn't
endorse it. But it does make sense, she says, from an evolutionary
point of view. "In many species, females benefit from promiscuity.
more lovers they have, the more and better offspring they have. If
One memorable example from her book is the female yellow dung fly, who seems willing to mate with any number of chaps on the cowpat. Dr Tatiana's advice to the male is harsh: "Natural selection often smiles on strumpets. Sorry, boys."
Whether she takes such advice to heart or not, Judson seems to enjoy the teasing that often accompanies her comments on promiscuity. "There are so many ways that you can be unfaithful if you're female and it won't show," she says.
Her book makes it clear that males and females are at war, but generally she speaks of the conflict as though it were comedy instead of tragedy.
Perhaps it makes a difference that she seems to feel in control of herself as well as the facts. Her sense of scientific detachment helps her to keep things in a certain cool perspective.
"Yes, I like talking about sex and doing it. They are not mutually exclusive."
Her carefully crafted persona arises from a childhood that was steeped in science. Her father - the American scholar Horace Freeland Judson - is a professor of the History of Science at George Washington University. He is the author of a popular book on microbiology called The Eighth Day of Creation. Her mother, who died of pneumonia several years ago, was English, and Judson lived in this country until she was 11. After staying in Baltimore for a few years, she went to Stanford, and then to Oxford, where she juggled her studies with her work as a young journalist on the Economist.
"I thought that I might end up as a
foreign correspondent somewhere, but that's not what I wanted to do.
So I wrote about science for the magazine, and then I decided that
I'd be better off writing a book of my own and conducting research
in an academic environment. So I
She still remembers the first cheque that she received from the Economist. It was for an article on sex, naturally.
"It was a sign, I guess. My future was laid out for me. The cheque said Olivia Judson, pounds 150, masturbation. That was my subject for that article, but here I am, still making a living from such things."
It wasn't easy at first. Writing her book was a struggle. She had used the pseudonym of Tatiana to play a practical joke on her boss at the Economist - disguising herself in a wig and funny costume and pretending to apply for a job. But turning herself into an agony aunt for a book was no idle prank. It took years to get the tone and format right.
"I had an enormous case of writer's block at one point. So I just decided to make a big change. I discovered that it was cheaper to live in a small hotel in the south of France than in London. I moved to an eight-room hotel in a village called Sommieres." Things improved almost immediately.
"I lived like a hermit in that hotel, writing all day. But I hadsunlight and good food and the change of scene gave me the sense of freedom that I needed. I finished the book a few months later."
The book was slow to catch on. When it was published here last year, it received little attention, and the same was true in America. But then Judson began her tour to promote the paperback edition and the media in New York and Washington began to take notice. Almost overnight, the book shot into the bestseller lists and the author has now received offers to make a television series based on her sex guide.
"I'd like to do television. I don't see anything wrong with helping to popularise science. That's what I did at the Economist. And now that I work at an institution where I receive public money, I think I owe it to the public to talk about what I do."
Does she think she will ever tire of talking about sex?
"It has become more compelling as I
get older," she says, with a warm and suggestive smile. "There
is still a lot more to learn."