Orgasm Inc. (Director: Liz Canner): Nine years ago, director Liz Canner was hired to curate some “erotic footage” for drug company Vivus, who were conducting trials for their competitor to Viagra. The hook was that they were testing it on women. Canner has been following the story of the quest for a female Viagra ever since. Although it’s not surprising to hear that the pharmaceutical industry is always pursuing new markets for their products, Canner has done a great job of tracing this particularly disturbing campaign.
In order to receive FDA approval in the US, drug companies must prove that their product is treating a definable disease. Hence, impotence was rebranded as “erectile dysfunction.” Similarly, women’s sexual difficulties, no matter what the cause, were gathered under the dubious moniker of “Female Sexual Dysfunction,” despite the fact that there was no new medical evidence that any such thing existed. And these difficulties included a wide range of issues, from low sex drive to discomfort during sex to inability to achieve orgasm during intercourse (even though 70% of women report that they can’t achieve orgasm without direct clitoral stimulation, something that intercourse rarely provides). That was enough to get the drug companies off and running.
Canner’s film doesn’t stop with the drug companies. The latest craze is cosmetic surgery to make women feel better about their labia. Despite the health risks involved in any kind of surgery, women are being encouraged to undergo this completely unnecessary procedure, just to try to make their genitalia conform to some standard which actually doesn’t exist.
The key message of the film is that women are being preyed upon due to a lack of proper sex education and the greed of a health care system that is supposed to be encouraging healthy sexuality. Instead, as a tool of Big Pharma, it is giving women the message that there is something wrong with them, and that a pill or some surgery can fix it.
Many women have difficulty with sex (achieving orgasm or just low drive) for completely non-physical reasons. The biggest factor is likely stress and overwork. Body image issues and past abuse may also be factors, not to mention a bad relationship or a clumsy lover. The good news is that the “cure” can be completely natural. Sex therapists like Leonore Tiefer of the New View Campaign are fighting what they call the “medicalization of sex” with good old-fashioned education. Women need to know how their bodies work, and how to figure out what works for them individually. Toronto sex shop Come As You Are handed out mini-flashlight keychain vibrators to everyone on the way into the screening. On the way in, I found that amusing. On the way out, I was grateful.
Canner has made an important film that should be required viewing for all students. That being said, I did have some issues with the filmmaking itself. I found the animations cheesy, and didn’t enjoy the music. In general, the production values were rough, and although it covered a lot of important ground, I felt the project probably grew a bit out of control over the years. The title isn’t particularly accurate, either, since the drug companies’ quest isn’t to provide a pill that gives women orgasms, merely one that increases their sex drive. Despite these weaknesses, I am grateful that the film alerted me to some important voices on this issue like Leonore Tiefer, as well as Ray Moynihan, co-author of Selling Sickness: How the Pharmaceutical Companies Are Turning Us All Into Patients.
Here is the Q&A with director Liz Canner from after the screening: