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How the Pharmaceutical Industry is Monetizing the Female Orgasm

The documentary 'Orgasm, Inc' delves into the big business of women's pleasure... and the myth of female sexual dysfunction.

Director Liz Canner (Deadly Embrace: Nicaragua, The World Bank and International Monetary Fund) spent almost ten years working on Orgasm, Inc.: The Strange Science Of Female Pleasure. A synopsis of the film from her website:

“In the shocking and hilarious documentary ORGASM INC., filmmaker Liz Canner takes a job editing erotic videos for a drug trial for a pharmaceutical company. Her employer is developing what they hope will be the first Viagra drug for women that wins FDA approval to treat a new disease: Female Sexual Dysfunction (FSD). Liz gains permission to film the company for her own documentary. Initially, she plans to create a movie about science and pleasure but she soon begins to suspect that her employer, along with a cadre of other medical companies, might be trying to take advantage of women (and potentially endanger their health) in pursuit of billion dollar profits. ORGASM INC. is a powerful look inside the medical industry and the marketing campaigns that are literally and figuratively reshaping our everyday lives around health, illness, desire — and that ultimate moment: orgasm.”

Canner’s original goals of creating a film about science and pleasure led her to the creation to a documentary about the the medicalization of pleasure. What I found interesting, although sadly I was not surprised about, is that many doctors, researchers, and pharmaceutical companies see the big “prize” in women’s sexual health being billions of dollars in income... NOT the fact of women experiencing or increasing sexual pleasure. In the film, Canner shares her thought process with viewers and we discover with her how the “medical profession is attempting to change the meaning of health, illness, desire and orgasm.” If that quote doesn’t frighten you I don’t know what will!

Canner asks several important questions: Where did the term “female sexual dysfunction" (FSD) come from? What is female sexual dysfunction? And what does the research tell us? Canner starts at the pharmaceutical company that initially employed her 10 years ago to create erotic videos for clients, Vivus. She asks the founder, CEO, and senior staff about the origins of the term “female sexual dysfunction” and their role in the creation of the term. The founder admits that he does not know. We learn later from another staff member that during a television interview there seemed to have been a “slip” by the CEO about the work they were doing on male erectile dysfunction and mentioned they are working on a cream for women. It seems viewers interpreted this as being a feminized version of a sexual dysfunction... and thus the interest and profit of such a product was produced.

Canner then asks her gynecologist, Dr. Susan Bennett at the Harvard Medical School: what is female sexual dysfunction? Dr. Bennett’s response is that there is no new medical discoveries regarding women’s sexual dysfunction that have been reported in literature (i.e. medical, peer-reviewed journal). This leads us to a conversation with Ray Moynihan of The British Medical Journal, and author of Selling Sickness, who shares the one article that was published in 1999 in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) that discussed female sexual dysfunction. Authors Edward O Laumann, Anthony Paik, and Raymond C. Rosen co-wrote Sexual Dysfunction In The United States: Prevalence and Predictors. It is from this article that the statistic of 43 percent of women experience female sexual dysfunction.

Moynihan states that the article was based on a survey from the early 1990s which asked women about common sexual difficulties they experience. Of the handful of questions, if any respondent answered yes at any time, they were classified as having FSD. Here are the questions asked that respondents could only choose a response of Yes or No: