Film Review: Orgasm Inc.

Hardly the recent lame finger-wagging that gooey rom-com <i>Love and Other Drugs</i> gave naughty drug giants, Liz Canner&#8217;s documentary gives the finger as she exposes certain billion-dollar pharmaceutical firms and other opportunists in their embra

Contrary to some publicity material for Liz Canner’s important documentary Orgasm Inc., this filmmaker’s first feature documentary does not “explore the strange science of female pleasure.” In fact, there’s no significant exploration of cause, effect or map to that mysterious pleasure plateau or to the impact sexual orientation surely has. (Childhood abuse does get a cursory mention.)

What her entertaining film does do is, uh, penetrate the exploitative, money-driven worlds of certain corporate giants (e.g., Pfizer, Procter & Gamble), their dubious sexologist, psychologist, plastic surgery and academic boosters (notably Chicago-based sex therapist/celeb/franchise builder Dr. Laura Berman) and sex product start-ups (Vivus and founder Virgil Place, who invited doctors on a luxury Utah ski trip to push their product), inventors (like those behind the failed Orgasmatron gizmo), academics (Harvard Medical School’s wishy-washy Susan Bennett), and sales staffers (like the self-doubting Lisa, who guiltily promotes genital surgery but covets a new job).

These proselytizers all toy with the notion of Female Sexual Dysfunction (FSD), a catchy if possibly spurious label to a freshly minted “disease.” And then there’s that Holy Grail (i.e., money tree) to grab onto—a Viagra for women.

The disorder, arguably more controversial and suspect than CFS (Chronic Fatigue Syndrome), is how this greedy, orgasm-for-all gang brand women who have trouble reaching climax with a sex partner. Like sexual orientation, masturbation is another sidelined issue, as is the role of fantasy and porn. (Heck, even the Kids Are All Right ladies hopped with delight on the fantasy/male porn bandwagon to stimulate arousal.)

While pleasure has little to do with things here, the doc does, in an Inside Job kind of way, make the phalanx of opportunistic FSD proponents look downright embarrassing and mercenary. The not-so-faint aroma of charlatanism evokes Frank Morgan’s snake oil salesman in The Wizard of Oz.

Orgasm Inc., whose animation segments of drugs racing to FDA approval amuse, also has its way with the orgasm-challenged themselves, most prominent of whom is the generously forthcoming Charlotta, a soldiering Southern lady of a certain age who’s downright determined to get her mojo up and running. Alas, one of more highly touted new products just doesn’t cut it.

There are hints that blood flow or lack thereof is central to the female orgasm, but this too is left unaddressed. Canner leaves the mystery of orgasm intact but makes those pushing FSD and its seemingly bogus “cures” appear silly. On the side of sanity and intelligence are New York University psychology professor/sex therapist Leonore Tiefer and Australian activist Ray Moynihan, who believes the FSD movement is “turning healthy people into patients.”

The film kicks off with Canner hired to edit erotic videos to be used in a drug trial for Vivus, a pharmaceutical company hoping to get FDA approval for its "Viagra" drug for women afflicted with this new FSD disease. No dummy, she soon suspects that her employer, along with other medical and pharmaceutical companies, might be trying to take advantage of women (and potentially endanger their health) in pursuit of profit. The company’s Boston-based female expert on pornography does not instill confidence.

Canner’s access, of course, pays off. Over nine years she follows pharmaceutical companies and medical device manufacturers who are racing to be the first to win FDA approval for their products, whether pill, patch, nose spray, gizmo, whatever (even something digital can’t solve the problem). Billions of dollars are at stake, as is a concept of “normal sexual function” and orgasm, neither of which the doc tries to define.

Rather, Canner’s doc, uh, climaxes with a triumphant FDA hearing that derails yet another of corporate America’s wet dreams for a female Viagra. Her exposé of what big business and hungry wannabes and hangers-on do best—exploit fears, insecurities and myths at the expense of others and to their own enrichment—is familiar except for its ingenious exploitation of the female orgasm.