Orgasm Inc. (2011): Liz Canner Docu about Troubled Female Sexuality

By Jeff Farr

More proof that we have become a deeply sick society is evident in Liz Canner’s documentary “Orgasm Inc.” While ostensibly an investigation of the new disease called Female Sexual Dysfunction– which may not be a disease at all– Canner’s film is an indictment of the pill-popping nation America has sadly become.

Some of the biggest enemies here, as in Michael Moore’s “Sicko” (2007), are the pharmaceutical companies and those doctors rolling around in bed with them. Canner has the most fun with the Berman sisters–Drs. Jennifer and Laura Berman–who rode the FSD bandwagon to great fortune and fame as Oprah Winfrey-endorsed spokeswomen of the big pharma party line.

The director had a fortuitous entry into this topic, when she was hired a decade ago by the pharmaceutical company Vivus to edit erotic videos for women. These videos were used by the company as part of its drug trial program for one of the early versions of a “female Viagra.” After the wild success of Viagra for men, finding the female version quickly became a kind of Holy Grail.

From her starting point of trying to understand what kind of pornography women might best respond to — and wondering why women are supposedly less susceptible to pornography than men–a long set of questions emerged for Canner that gradually became fundamental questions about our culture. What’s most admirable about this documentary is the many provocative questions Canner skillfully raises, for which she purposefully avoids offering any annoyingly easy answers.

The main question underlying the film—and it is a great one–is “Who will define women’s sexuality in the 21st century?” It would seem that women themselves should play the leading role in such an endeavor, but these powerful companies, eying profits in the billions, are solely focused on convincing women that there is something wrong with them if they cannot achieve the orgasm quota set by the companies themselves. Thus, the slogan, Ladies, here are your pills!

“Orgasm Inc.” is highly educational, and its potential for sparking much-needed discussion, particularly in educational settings such as colleges, should be emphasized. Although Canner is clearly working with a low budget–and the graphics (including many shots of little pills with human limbs racing on a bed toward FDA approval) are unfortunately hit-and-miss –her editing team of Sandra Christie and Jeremiah Zagar do their best to keep things moving at a highly engaging pace.

Canner deftly proves in 80 minutes that many strange things occur in the medical world right now regarding FSD, many of which are clearly unsafe for women.

One disturbing sequence follows Dr. Stuart Meloy’s development of an Orgasmatron–nothing like that fictional device of the same name in Woody Allen’s “Sleeper” (1973)–which involves surgically implanting electrodes in the woman’s spine, which when activated by a handheld console are supposed to lead to immediate orgasm,whenever and wherever the patient so desires.

The film’s most troubling scene centers on the growing trend of cosmetic vaginal surgery, including labia reduction. Canner spares the squeamish among us any graphic images of these procedures but, through the heartbreaking testimony of a patient whose surgery did not go as planned, pushes us to take a good look at the serious risks.

A key sequence at Laura Berman’s sex clinic in Chicago–like something indeed out of “Sleeper”–is the film’s wackiest: for $1,500 a pop, a patient enjoys pornography through a 3D headset in the “Sensory Testing Room,” while a physician applies a probe called the “Genito Sensory Analyzer” to the clitoris.

Canner is going for that audience reaction of “I cannot believe this is happening right now–in my own country!” A sequence on the history of and treatments for “female hysteria” in the 19th century strongly suggests that we are currently cycling back. It is unlikely that we have come as far as we may think we have in terms of understanding or even caring about women’s sexual health.

Much of “Orgasm Inc.” is devoted to the small band of experts and activists who valiantly taking a stand against all this nonsense. At the heart of the movie is Dr. Leonore Tiefer, from New York University School of Medicine, who decides to be quite vocal against the very idea of FSD, going so far as to call it a “manufactured term to create a market for a drug.”

Tiefer and her team play a crucial role in stopping the FDA approval of Intrinsa, a testosterone patch for women from Procter & Gamble, which becomes one of the film’s most moving scenes. It is a testament to what is working well in Canner’s approach that a dreary FDA hearing can become this suspenseful in “Orgasm Inc.”

One documentary can only cover so much turf, and it is sometimes frustrating that Canner did not have time to delve further into some of her material. It would have been helpful, for instance, to have seen more on how the Reagan Administration opened the way for pharmaceutical companies to advertise directly to consumers. Or how the orgasm itself–as in how many, how often–at some point became the cultural barometer for sexual success.

Despite the flaws, though, overall, “Orgasm Inc.” has many important things to say.

Credits

A First Run Features release.

Directed and Produced by Liz Canner.

Executive Producers, Julie Parker Benello, Wendy Ettinger, Judith Helfand, and Mark Weiss.

Director of Photography, Liz Canner.

Editors, Liz Canner, Sandra Christie, and Jeremiah Zagar.

Running time: 78 minutes.