Dir: Liz Canner
First Run Features
Titillating title aside, Orgasm Inc. is a serious film. Though funny at times and liberally peppered with kitschy “Real Sex” fare — think giggling interviewees, ridiculous animated sequences and a brief history of the vibrator — Liz Canner’s documentary-cum-exposé (pun!) is a product far more thought-provoking than it is sexy or sly. This is laudable, considering Canner’s focus on the pharmaceutical industry’s medicalization of female sexual desire, but it is also frustrating. Indecisive in tone and overly inclusive in scope, Canner’s film fails to achieve the sharpness and quality warranted by its ultimate activist stance.
Perhaps this is simply a product of Orgasm, Inc.’s accidental inception. What began as a documentary investigation of female pleasure took a detour when Canner was offered a job editing erotic videos for use during clinical trials of an experimental orgasm cream for women. With permission from Vivus, the pharmaceutical company testing the cream, Canner brought her camera on the job; and while filming her experience working with Vivus employees she became intrigued and disturbed by what she depicts in the film as a “follow the money” approach to the development of treatments for Female Sexual Dysfunction (FSD) – a “disease” defined by doctors sponsored by the very companies who stood to gain financially from its acceptance into the medical lexicon. Canner decides to investigate the science, history and straight-up marketing strategy involved in defining FSD, and her interviews provide plenty of evidence to suggest that the “alarming” statistics concerning female vaginal orgasm have much more to do with misleading media, incomplete data analysis, misconception and miscommunication than they do with any illness or disorder.
Canner’s hungry mind does her credit, and female audiences will undoubtedly thank her for publicizing the myths and moneymaking schemes surrounding FSD. But even the most interesting and important topics suffer if subjected to content overload. Grabbing to include every facet of the FSD controversy she can get her hands on – women convinced that they are “abnormal” because they cannot achieve vaginal orgasm, questionable clinical trials, drug side-effects, costly sex therapy clinics, dramatic and dangerous procedures including “vaginal rejuvenation” surgery and even electrode implants in conjunction with a device called “the Orgasmatron” (ugh – where was Don Draper when that name hit the table?) – Canner spreads herself too thin to do them all justice. Some moments are moving, and a few (look out for the poor woman promoting vaginal surgery at a medical convention) hit the perfectly awkward note that spells exposé gold. But by the film’s end we are left with vague impressions of good information — of facts diluted with useless cartoon imagery and visions of candy-colored vibrators dancing in our heads.
The educational value at the root of Orgasm, Inc.— for women, men, pharmaceutical reps and even teenagers — cannot be stressed enough, regardless of how obvious it might seem to some. But because of the need to reach diverse audiences, the necessity to make an impression on skeptics, sexual novices, older women and young people, the medium by which that message reaches us could really use a makeover. Extended to allow for adequate details, distilled into a sharper, less funky film feature or even split into several different films – a funny and frank sex-ed short, say, or a separate piece on activist efforts to keep risky FSD drugs off the market – Orgasm, Inc. would stand a better chance at changing minds and affecting policy makers.
In the meantime, watch it anyway. Whether you laugh, roll your eyes, or realize once and for all (ahem, gents) that nothing kills a woman’s sexy mood faster than stress, work and too many dirty dishes, you’ll at least be reminded that, when it comes to orgasms, there is no such thing as a “normal” experience. Despite its flaws, Orgasm, Inc. provides a wonderfully tolerant, individually-determined view of sexual pleasure. Everyone grooves to different moves — and anything that encourages us to celebrate that has accomplished something marvelous for humanity in my book.
by Lauren Westerfield