'Orgasm Inc': Will You Love or Hate This Documentary About the Search for a Female Viagra?
Director Liz Canner, who spent nine years researching and filming, wasn't always obsessed with sex pills. After working on films about genocide, police brutality and poverty, she thought a project with a sex theme would alleviate her stress. But Canner, a natural born investigator, couldn't help it: "Orgasm Inc" is a merciless exposé of the search for a "female Viagra."
That's a catch-all term for various pills, patches, creams and procedures aimed at your unpredictable female libido. Viagra itself has been tested on ladies, but it's not the only candidate. For two decades competition has been intense, with drug companies doing what they must to stay in the game. Should we ladies be flattered by all this attention?
In "Orgasm Inc", Vivus, a California-based drug-development company, gets singled out for trying to seduce women with sloppy seconds. Alprostadil (also called MUSE) was designed to facilitate male erection. The delivery method -- suppository or injection -- was awkward. When I worked as a call girl, I knew some intrepid men who injected alprostadil into their lower parts and didn't envy them.
Still, the drug was popular and profitable. Vivus CEO Leland Wilson "watched the stock price go up every day," until Pfizer (in 1998) introduced Viagra to the public.
Apparently, one Vivus shareholder, a secretary in the company who sold her shares just before the price fell, made "a million dollars" and retired at 34. This Cinderella tale, told by a Vivus executive, offers a clue as to what happened next. Yesterday's awkward erection drug, eclipsed by Viagra, was repackaged as Alista for women. As a corporate survival strategy, it's kind of brilliant. Alista, we're told, was then touted as a cure for female sexual dysfunction, or FSD.
"Orgasm Inc" argues that FSD was invented by drug companies to sell new products, and that lack of desire among womankind isn't truly a modern disease. It's actually a symptom of multiple factors that can't be cured by popping a one-size-fits-all pill.
Another trend examined in the documentary: labioplasty, or cosmetic surgery to reduce the vaginal lips. Canner, for one, sees this as America's version of FGM. But wait -- I'm not quite sure about this. When older American men get penile implants in order to have intercourse, we don't see them as victims. How are they different from American women who indulge in labioplasty?
While "Orgasm Inc" doesn't answer that question, it's easy to conclude that labioplasty is dodgy and dangerous. Many women are too inexperienced and self-conscious to realize their intimate parts are both normal and arousing. Also, removing parts of your labia is more likely to interfere with pleasure than enhance it.
But this isn't life imitating art. Woody's Orgasmatron was more elegant and less costly.
Meloy wants to open clinics from Portland, Oregon to Sydney, Australia where the procedure will be as demystified as a Botox injection or a pedicure. A hedonist could, in theory, walk around with her remote control inducing low level erotic pleasure while doing errands. (It would really come in handy at the post office!) But the women who volunteered for Meloy's formal study weren't just gadget freaks or Frankenstein fans intent on becoming human vibrators. They were unhappy because they weren't having orgasms.
Meloy's procedure isn't a walk in the park though. According to Canner, the risks include paralysis, epidural hemorrhage and cerebrospinal fluid leakage. Any, um, benefits? While Canner follows the progress of Charletta who gets no satisfaction from the Orgasmatron, she doesn't tell us whether any effort was made to interview the women who enjoyed the device. You might want to hear Meloy's side of the story. (He maintains that one woman had multiple orgasms.)
When Canner visits Carol Queen, curator of an antique vibrator collection, we learn about a now-forgotten Victorian ailment called "hysteria" and how it was routinely "cured." Well-to-do women would visit their doctors to get therapeutically massaged -- guess where -- by a vibrator. Like men who visit other kinds of professionals, these women had their needs met for a fee, and returned to their normal lives, smiling and relaxed. (Think about that next time you call someone a hysteric.)
Victorians weren't so different from us. They would have been right at home with Dr Meloy's Orgasmatron.
But you can't watch "Orgasm Inc" without considering the director's particular bias. When it comes to sexual pleasure, we still have double standards. We're often paranoid about drug companies and doctors such as Melroy selling orgasms to women, yet we don't assume there's a conspiracy when the guys are being offered Viagra. Is that because we still think satisfaction is optional for women and necessary for men?
Since we already include lubricants, condoms, and other useful items in our sex lives, adding a few options to the menu doesn't seem automatically ominous -- even if drug companies are involved.
In "Orgasm Inc", many opponents of female Viagra look grim and militant, while the villains (doctors in the pay of big pharma, marketing experts, CEOs) tend to look sexy and beddable. Ray Moynihan, a male critic of the FSD myth, describes sexual unhappiness as "common." Well-intentioned he may be, but his grating manner makes it hard for me to warm to his arguments. (Hey, buddy, do you realize we're talking about sexual pleasure? Do you even care?)
Another expert in the film, debunking FSD, points out that a woman may be unable to enjoy sex because she knows her husband is cheating. Sure. But why are we still replaying that old script? Women also need to cheat, and affairs don't just cause sexual problems. An affair is often the down-to-earth cure for what ails us – better than the Orgasmatron.
"Orgasm Inc's" dire warnings about big pharma's dishonorable intentions -- and the side effects of all those potions -- left me wondering if we weren't better off when alcohol was the most common treatment for sexual inhibition. The next morning, we could blame everything on the rakish guy who plied us with drinks. With big pharma, it's more complicated and less personal.
As for Dr Orgasmatron, if you're too shy to check him out on the big screen, you can wait for a Netflix date. But if you see "Orgasm Inc" while it's fresh, you can, at your very next dinner party, sound off on the pros and cons of the Remotely Induced Implant Orgasm. Guaranteed to make all your friends feel like sexual Luddites.
Tracy Quan is a frequent contributor to The Daily Beast and author of the bestselling novel "Diary of a Manhattan Call Girl." Her most recent novel is "Diary of a Jetsetting Call Girl." She lives in New York. On Twitter, she's @TracyQuanNYC
Will you like "Orgasm Inc"? Watch the trailer and see for yourself:
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