Viagra made male erectile disorder into a multi-billion dollar industry. On the heals of that profit-making boon, one pharmaceutical company, Vivus Corporation, began testing on a new drug to cure a disease the company called “female sexual dysfunction,” a disease that previously did not exist in the public mind. Is this a real disease? Or, is it just another drug industry attempt to create a brand new multi-billion dollar money-maker? Filmmaker Elizabeth Canner delves into the business that could be called “Orgasm Inc.”
Canner spent nine years investigating the growing search for the drug that would cure what was once called “female hysteria.” In that time, she discovered more than the search for the cure what may be a mythical “disease,” which is the centerpiece of “Orgasm Inc.” The filmmaker also chronicles the history of female sex disorder. The funny thing is, all the claims to cure the feminine problem – the inability to achieve orgasm – have come from men or corporations run by men.
The documentary exposes a number of “solutions” to the femme problem, from self-stimulation devices to inserting an electric wire down the patient’s spinal column to, most shocking, genital plastic surgery. In all cases, there are many risks, such as paralysis and mutilation, with no obvious, definable benefit. Think of the femme orgasm treatments as a modern form of selling snake oil. It is disturbing that women are sought to receive these “treatments” without any reliable data that they actually work.
“Orgasm Inc.” may seem targeted at female audiences, but the film has a universal appeal with its slap at big pharmaceutical corporations that, to paraphrase one of those interviewed, turn healthy people into patients just to sell their drugs. I give it a B.
A decade ago, documentary filmmaker Liz Canner was contacted by Vivus, a pharmaceutical company looking to get FDA approval for an orgasm cream that would 'cure' Female Sexual Dysfunction. She was hired to create erotic videos for the company's clinical trials, but with unprecedented access to the inner workings of Vivus, Canner started to see the forest beyond the trees and realized that Big Pharma wasn't just creating drugs to fight a disease - they were trying to create the disease as well in "Orgasm, Inc."
Canner's documentary doesn't push any filmmaking boundaries - it is comprised of all the standard documentary elements - but she builds her case with equal doses of humor and outrage and in so doing, not only does she expose the myth of FSD, she uncovers the unethical practices of drug companies driven by nothing but greed. Unfortunately, after seeing the food industry bashed a couple of years ago with little in the way of legislative repercussions, it is disheartening to think just how long the medical industry will continue to support Big Pharma's bottom line. Canner gives us all the subtext that was missing from "Love and Other Drugs."
Vivus created Muse, a drug to treat erectile dysfunction 14 months before Viagra, but Viagra stole their thunder. Desperate to catch up, Vivus wants to be first on the market again, but they are not the only ones. Meanwhile, medical journalists like Britain's Ray Moynihan begin to question the FSD phenomenon, noting that all medical conferences on the subject are funded by pharmaceutical companies and seeing statistics that indicate anywhere from 43 to 80% of women are impacted by the condition. In no time, these numbers are being bandied about the media and featured on The Oprah Winfrey Show. A great many more level headed researchers and physicians believe that women's sexual problems are the normal results of daily stress and fatigue, not a disease to be treated.
Canner follows some pretty disturbing leads. Charletta has a wire inserted into her spine as a test subject for the Orgasmatron. A trade show rep uneasily shares photographs of gynecological plastic surgery. Viagra fails to get FDA approval to treat FSD, but is legally prescribed 'off label' by such proponents as Dr. Laura Berman who is featured on Winfrey's OWN channel as the leading expert on female sexual health but who, we learn, receives big payoffs from drug companies. (Canner is guilty of occasionally making her statistics sound as alarming as her subjects', saying Berman receives 'up to' $75,000 a day or telling us that the U.S. makes up 5% of the world's population but buys 42% of pharmaceuticals without taking into account global economics and health care.)
Canner's access to Vivus's product and clinical trial managers gives her some amazingly candid admissions. The test questions don't support the desired result? Slant the questions so that they will! Eventually she loses permission to shoot within the company, but not before she has them stumbling over their words.
One of Canner's creepiest moments involves herself as a test subject where a nurse practitioner tells her her clitoral responses will be measured with a wand like device. 'Can I hold that?' asks Canner? No, she's told, as the device is so expensive. What is unsaid is that a woman is being sexually stimulated by another in a medical setting, disturbing to say the least. Another chilling moment comes when we learn that Charletta, whose wire must be removed, believed she was dysfunctional because she could not climax during intercourse. Then she learns that her experience is the same as 80% of the female population. And yet a medical doctor inserted a wire into her spine instead of delivering some basic sex education.
Canner still finds the humor in her subject, especially in the trial results which prove nothing other than the fact that porn works as an aid to arrousal. A Brookline, MA female erotic video expert surreptiously crashes an FSD conference and runs her own seminar in a hotel room. It's booked to overflowing and doctors are thrilled to hear about female sex aids. Sex has always sold, but drugs aren't always the answer in this over-medicated world.
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