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Q & A with Liz Canner, Director of Orgasm, Inc.

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by thepleasurechest

Liz Canner

Starting tonight, Los Angeles and San Francisco audiences will have a chance to see the documentary Orgasm, Inc. The film has been described by ABC News as a “a serious, but sometimes comical look at the medicalization of women’s sexuality.” We were honored to discuss the movie with its director Liz Canner, on the eve of its Hollywood premiere.

I understand you researched this subject for nine years. Could you please explain a little about the background and at what point you decided to make a movie about it?

After over a decade of producing documentaries on human rights issues such as genocide, police brutality, and world poverty, the violent images from my movies were giving me nightmares and making me depressed about the state of humanity.  In order to change the script in my head, I decided my next project would be about something that was not painful. Pleasure itself seemed like a safe topic, specifically, the history of the science of female pleasure.

Then, strangely, while I was in the middle of shooting the movie, I was offered a job editing erotic videos for a pharmaceutical company that was developing an orgasm cream for women.  The videos were to be watched by women during the clinical trial of their new drug.  I accepted the job and gained permission to film my employers for my own documentary.  I thought the experience would give me access to the secretive world of the pharmaceutical industry and insight into the latest scientific thinking about women and pleasure.

I did not set out to create an exposé, but what I uncovered at work compelled me to keep filming and investigating.  This insider perspective allows the film to scrutinize the culture within the pharmaceutical industry which has been perverted to place the drive for profit above our health. So much for pleasure…

Has there been any response to your film from the pharmaceutical industry?

There have been quite a number of responses from the pharmaceutical industry. One of the most immediate ones was when we showed Orgasm Inc. at Lincoln Center in New York. A woman who works for the pharmaceutical industry stood up and denounced the film.  The audience grew annoyed with her and booed her down. It was quite a tense moment.

Do you believe that there is such a condition as female sexual dysfunction (FSD)?

The media talks about female sexual dysfunction as if it always existed – when in fact it was a term that came about in the late 1990s. When Viagra was released it was such blockbuster drug for men that companies like Pfizer began to think that there was also a big market for women for Viagra.   The problem was, in order to clinically test a drug, the FDA required that there be a clearly defined disease. Pfizer and a number of other drug companies sponsored the first meetings on FSD.  In the end, 18 of the 19 authors of the definition of the disease had ties to 22 drug companies.  This definition is extremely broad: Almost any sexual complaint you have, whatever causes it, will fall into this disease category.

It’s a bizarre disorder because you have to self-diagnose and you have to be distressed by it. So in other words, if you never felt an iota of sexual desire in your life but it didn’t bother you, you don’t have the disease. If you never had an orgasm, but it didn’t bother you, you don’t have the disease. There are real physiological conditions that can cause sexual problems such as hysterectomies and diabetes. I think that we can’t ignore that. But for the most part,  most of women’s sexual problems are caused by socio-cultural conditions like past sexual abuse, relationship problems and stress due to over work.

What are your feelings about Viagra and its popularity? Do you see a difference between the ethics behind Viagra and the rush to market a comparable product to women?

In Orgasm Inc., I followed the pharmaceutical industry over a period of nine years as they raced to develop a female Viagra.  They kept claiming they were developing a magic bullet but most of the products did not work much better than a placebo (sugar pill).  In fact, when I filmed the hearing for Procter and Gamble’s testosterone patch Intrinsa, one of the doctors on the FDA panel suggested to P&G that they should consider developing a placebo for women instead.  He said that it worked almost as well and there were no awful side effects.  Jokes aside, unfortunately, many of the drugs under development have had potentially horrific side effects including breast cancer, and cardiovascular problems.  Many of the drugs that I began following a decade ago either were not approved or dropped out of the race because they did not work.  It’s interesting to note that the only thing that has been FDA approved for female sexual dysfunction is an over-priced sex toy that sucks and vibrates your clitoris.  You can only acquire it through a prescription from your doctor.  Or you can go to your local sex toy store and buy a similar device that costs much less and you don’t need to have a disease to get it.

What is the strangest “solution” or product you encountered to treat so-called FSD?

The Orgasmatron was the most extreme product that I encountered to cure FSD.  Unfortunately, it was not the machine from Woody Allen’s Sleeper but an electrode inserted into the spine and controlled by something that looked like a remote control.

How do you think women can best promote their own sexual health and happiness?

First of all, it is important to know that 70% of women need direct clitoral stimulation in order to have an orgasm during sex.  This speaks to the importance of using things like vibrators to enhance sexual experience.  If women feel uncomfortable with sex toys, there are sex coaches like Betty Dodson and sexperts like Kim Airs that can help them.  Also, sex therapists such as Dr. Leonore Tiefer in New York City have helped women overcome trauma from past sexual abuse and given them tools to communicate better with their partners.  There are lots of good books that provide lots of valuable information about sex such as Our Bodies Ourselves.  The key is to take the time to find out what makes you feel good.  Sexual experience is very individual and like with art or dancing – there is no “normal”.

In the press you read, “men have their Viagra, women want theirs too.” I’d love to know which PR firm came up with this slogan because it is very effective. The question is what do women need Viagra for?  As I’ve mentioned most of women’s sexual problems are not caused by a physical medical condition but are the result of socio-cultural issues.  So, I think the only way that most women will be satisfied with their sex lives will be if they can take a product that makes them feel comfortable about their bodies; that ends sexual abuse towards women; that creates equality in the workplace; that creates equality in relationships; that gives women good sex education so they can fully know about the clitoris and about how their bodies function. Why can’t we take a pill like that?

Orgasm Inc. opens tonight at the Laemmle Sunset 5 in Los Angeles and at the Roxie Cinema in San Francisco.

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