Orgasm Inc., a film on female sexual dysfunction (FSD) by veteran documentarian Liz Canner, is heartbreaking in a way that no Hollywood romance could ever be.
Canner opens the film by asking three women what they feel and think about orgasms.
“I’m going to say that it’s like… a blooming flower,” says one girlish twenty-something, laughing as she strokes a purple blossom in an outdoor garden.
“It’s like coming down from the highest and the best rollercoaster ride,” says another young woman, citing the sound she makes as she hits her climax.
“War,” says a midlife woman, looking grave. “That’s what I think about, is the war in my head.”
Charletta from North Carolina, the woman with war on her mind, is the emotional heart of the film. Diagnosed with FSD, and unable to have an orgasm during sex with her husband, she enrolls in a clinical trial that embeds in her spine an electrode attached to a remote control device. Called the Orgasmatron, it promises to induce a climax with just the touch of a button. But the procedure fails—the jolt just gives Charletta tingly, kicking legs.
It’s a disappointment. "I’m in this to heal myself," she had said earlier, on her way into surgery. "Not only am I not normal, I’m diseased. And that feels real bad."
The question of what “normal” is haunts every frame of the film, which explores the emergence of FSD, a term that only entered the medical literature a decade ago. Generated by a group of experts at a panel on sexual disorders (funded, the film wants you to know, by the pharmaceutical industry), FSD became the bucket into which they threw a wide assortment of previously accepted diagnoses, including low sexual interest and arousal, inability to orgasm, sexually induced pain, sexual aversion and the always popular “not otherwise specified.” By refashioning these very common sexual experiences as dysfunctions, the group told women who didn’t enjoy sex that something was wrong with them. And that meant that there was something that could be fixed.
The announcement of a new disease was a starting shot for inventors and drug manufacturers, all of whom, Canner points out, began competing to come up with the metaphorical “pink Viagra,” a pill, potion, cream, treatment or device intended to make women as ready for action as their male counterparts are supposed to be. The film introduces Alista, an arousal pill invented by the folksy doctor Virgil Place (whose predilection for giant bow ties make him look like a refugee from an Errol Morris film), the Orgasmatron, vaginal rejuvenation (tightening of the vagina by surgery or laser treatment), and finally, Intrinsa, Procter & Gamble’s testosterone patch, meant to spike libido but shot down by the FDA over safety concerns.
As the film follows the money, it begins to ask: Do women really need to be “fixed”? Could this new medical term, sexual dysfunction, simply reflect the effects of stress, aging, a bad relationship, sexual abuse, or any of a host of other deeply personal mitigating factors that make women less interested in jumping into bed with someone, or unable to get off when they’re there?
"What is female sexual dysfunction?" asks Kim Airs, a sex expert shown advocating within the film for vibrators over Viagra. "Is it that you’re withholding sex cause your husband’s cheating on you? Is it wants and desires that are unfulfilled? It’s so complex."
The majority of scientists in the film admit there is no scientific “norm” for female arousal, no real baseline against which a woman’s excitement can be measured. And to make matters worse, there’s no real way to measure it. Men have erections, but women must fill out personal diaries and questionnaires, and even submit to a $50,000 machine called the Genito Sensory Analyzer, which assesses warmth, coolness and vibration within the vagina, to help researchers determine whether they are responding to stimuli. The fact that “fixing” arousal in women is so difficult is what makes it ripe for co-opting by manufacturers.
In the film, the numbers often used about sexual dysfunction fail to hold up under scrutiny. It’s commonly said, for example, that 43% of women suffer from FSD, but the percentage derives from a 1999 survey asking women whether they’d ever experienced anxiety, disinterest or trouble with lubrication during sex—all symptoms within the realm of normal experience. Even the survey’s author has distanced himself from claims that this represents FSD.
The film suggests that since the FDA won’t approve drugs without a disorder, Big Pharma keeps pushing to create a disease entity the proposed medicine can treat. The paradigm shift—if you’re having trouble enjoying sex, you have a disease rather than a relationship or psychological problem—worries some health experts. "The pharmaceutical industry, through a whole range of very sophisticated PR and marketing strategies, is actually changing how we all think about our bodies," says Ray Moynihan, co-author of Selling Sickness. "Essentially, [they] are turning healthy people into patients."
And that’s what Charletta realizes late in the film when she confesses that she can have orgasms—just not the “right” way, through intercourse. After the filmmaker tells her, off-camera, that most women need clitoral stimulation to climax, her face fills with relief. “I no longer know what’s normal,” she admits. “So that’s wonderful, because that’s a brand-new start.”
Orgasm Inc. premieres on May 27 at the Walter Reade Theater at Lincoln Center in New York City.
UPDATE: On June 18, an FDA panel will meet to discuss the approval of flibanserin, a new medication intended to treat low libido in women. Read WebMD’s account here.
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