In one of the most surreal scenes in Orgasm, Inc., which opens today in New York City and Chicago, a happily married baby boomer named Charletta goes under the knife to have an experimental electrode threaded up near her spinal cord. The remote-control Orgasmatron is a real trademarked device that takes its name from a fictional contraption in Woody Allen's 1973 Sleeper. But the device doesn't offer her much more than comic relief: instead of triggering triple toe-curling orgasms, the most it does is stimulate her left knee reflex.
At the time of her surgery, Charletta has been diagnosed with Female Sexual Dysfunction (FSD). Millions of women suffer from it, we are told by sexual-health pundits, and drug companies are racing to find a cure.
Vermont-based filmmaker Liz Canner found herself in the middle of this race when she was hired a decade ago by drug company Vivus to edit erotic video to be used in clinical trials of an orgasm cream for women. Back then, a dozen companies were vying for the potential bonanza of a "pink Viagra." Canner recognized the narrative potential in their quest and began filming interviews with pharmaceutical executives as well as physicians, erotica retailers, medical reps and regular women.
The resulting documentary lays bare the fact that pharmaceutical companies are not only trying to sell a drug they're trying to sell a disorder. "For us to develop drugs, we need to better and more clearly define what the disease is," a Vivus exec tells Canner in the film.
Canner cites a 2003 British Medical Journal article titled "The Making of a Disease: Female Sexual Dysfunction," which charts how multinational pharmaceutical corporations began sponsoring meetings in the late 1990s that ended up naming and (broadly) defining FSD as almost any sex-related anxiety, indifference or unfulfillment a woman experiences in a 12-month period. A 1999 article in the Journal of the American Medical Association reported that 43% of women suffer from FSD. The publication later ran a correction, however, disclosing the authors' financial ties to Pfizer and other drug companies. Yet no such disclosures were made on air by sexperts like the Drs. Berman (Laura, PhD, and Jennifer, MD) who made the media rounds asserting the prevalence of FSD.
The film calls Laura Berman (and her sister Jennifer) "the face of FSD" because of her cable and radio shows, including a new one on Oprah's network called "In the Bedroom." On camera, Berman admits to being involved with "just about all" the drug companies working on FSD. The Los Angeles Times reported that these companies paid her as much as $75,000 per day for media campaigns and appearances.
When asked about her portrayal in Orgasm, Inc., Berman downplayed any conflicts of interest. "I've never felt an ounce of pressure to create specific results or frame things in a certain way," she says. "I really see the pharmaceutical companies as an ally."
The FDA has yet to approve a drug to treat FSD, but the effects of disease promotion are already accruing. One college student in the film talks about electing to have vaginal "rejuvenation" surgery to help her achieve orgasm during intercourse. It not only doesn't work, but sends her to the emergency room post-op with a major hemorrhage.
Orgasm, Inc. challenges the over-medicalization of female sex drives, with moments both poignant and hilarious. The film's big takeaway is that if there is a panacea, education is looking like the front runner. After Charletta has her Orgasmatron removed, it is Canner who cures her by informing her that the majority of women don't climax with intercourse alone. As one vibrator expert jokes in the film, a drug for FSD might only help a lot of women "if it has a map of the clitoris on the box."