Canner started work on Orgasm Inc. when she was offered a job with the pharmaceutical company Vivus, editing erotic videos to be used in clinical trials of a new cream designed to treat what they called “Female Sexual Dysfunction”. She gained permission to film some of her work and interview Vivus employees for a film she was developing on pleasure.
Over and over she saw experts in the media claiming that 43% of American women suffer from some kind of sexual dysfunction. However, when she started asking questions about why “Female Sexual Dysfunction” seemed to have arisen only recently as a term, she found more and more evidence that the “disease” was mainly a creation of pharmaceutical companies designed to convince women that normal changes in sex drive and sexual feelings are pathological and need to be treated with medication. It turned out the 43% figure came from a drug company-funded study that included women who simply had simply had a period of experiencing pain during intercourse. And a lot of the medical experts hyping FSD as a disease were also receiving pharmaceutical company sponsorship.
In the introduction she gave at the screening, Canner stated she began to realize that pharmaceutical companies, “are not just in the business of developing drugs; they’re also in the business of developing diseases.” As her film notes, women’s bodies and sex drives have been a prime target for medicalization, from early fears about “hysteria” to the more recent labelling of “Premenstrual Dysphoric Disorder”.
In the Q&A after the film, Canner talked about how messed up it is that our culture promotes things like vaginal rejuvenation surgeries and drugs for FSD and that on average, girls start looking at porn at age 11, when meanwhile we don’t have comprehensive sex education. She talked about how many of the women who are told they have FSD are told to ignore other contributing factors like normal aging, relationship dissatisfaction, past abuse, and use of anti-depressants and oral contraceptives. Not to mention that some women still don’t realize that most women can’t have orgasms through intercourse alone but need direct clitoral stimulation.
Canner does see the marketing as a type of anti-feminist backlash, but she points out: “In a way I think this is a continuation of the neo-liberal agenda. Free markets don’t care about what gender you are.” But women’s body insecurity makes them a prime target for this kind of medicalization.
Canner’s film is a must-see: alternately hysterically funny, moving, and inspiring. Some key memorable moments are her interviews with drug company representatives who all but admit they’re more interested in marketing a product than researching its long-term effects on women’s health or whether there’s a need for it in the first place, an interview with a nurse who underwent “vaginal rejuvenation surgery” only to suffer complications that almost killed her (the surgery also didn’t have the desired result), and another interview with an older woman who agreed to have a cable implanted in her spinal cord to send electrical signals that were supposed to give her an orgasm. I won’t give the whole thing away but let’s just say the results were dubious.