Orgasm, Inc.: What We Can Learn From a Documentary on the Medicalization of Female Arousal

16 Nov

In Orgasm, Inc.: The Strange Science of Female Pleasure, documentary filmmaker Liz Canner is hired by a drug company, Vivus, working on a female sexual dysfunction drug. She is hired to produce sexually explicit materials they can show to women trialling the drug who needed to become aroused for scientists to measure changes. The filmmaker ended up spending nine years documenting the medical industry’s approach to women’s orgasm and we benefit from this interesting (and occasionally scary).

What’s fascinating is how little the medical profession actually knows about the female orgasm – they readily admit they don’t know how it works, or even if clinically increased blood flow (like from the female version of Viagra) contributes to it. But in the United States, we are used to medicalizing any amorphous condition, particularly conditions that might be far more complex than a mere pill can tackle. Because you can’t invent a medical solution until there is a specific disorder, the FDA must approve the list of symptoms as a viable disorder before a pharmaceutical company can come up with a “cure”. In the 1990s, the FDA did just that for female sexual dysfunction, and the stock in pharmaceutical companies indicating they would pursue drug therapies to treat it soared.

What gets developed in response to this new diagnosis ranges from the interesting to the ludicrous. How many women would have an Orgasmatron (no, not the Sleeper movie version of one) implanted in their spinal column to be switched on at will? One older woman interviewed indicated she had never had an orgasm (and in fact is incredibly candid about her religious upbringing and internal battle with letting herself have an orgasm during intercourse) actually gets one of these devices inserted in her body.

Viagra, the little blue pill that changed many a man’s life, brought to you by Pfizer

The controversy is tremendous and not just around spinal implants. Many of the medical experts and doctors readily admit that many of the issues women experience are complex responses to environment, stress, and, um, expertise of their partner. Several news outlets covering the research on the “female Viagra” preferred to focus on the medical experts happy to speak about how this new path of drug therapy (no orgasmatrons were mentioned) would empower women to take charge of their sexuality, yet neglected to discuss these professionals’ ties to drug industries. In actuality, Viagra has been clinically proven to not work for women, so doctors prescribe women Viagra “off-label” since it can’t technically be used for increasing female arousal. But the idea of a pill to fix a frustrated woman wanting that orgasm during intercourse is tempting, particularly when you don’t want to do the harder work of figuring out other issues.

As for the video montage of the arousing images Canner produced? It turns out that even the placebo subjects experienced increased blood flow to their genitals using porn images. How. Shocking. And the lady who had the orgasmatron implanted? Her leg twitched great, but nothing near an orgasm was achieved.

But how much of “female sexual dysfunction” is a matter of partner expertise or an individual’s ignorance regarding their body? Many women can give themselves an orgasm because they know that 70% of women require clitoral stimulation for 15 to 20 minutes, yet movies don’t really show that, do they? This conversation reminded me of the TEDx Talk I tweeted a week or so ago by Cindy Gallop “Make Love, Not Porn“. Gallop, who admits to enjoying porn, discusses the disconnect she experiences in her relationship with younger men who think that the porn they’ve watched is an accurate depiction of sex.


Since most pornography is designed for male gratification, this proliferation of porn watching has the potential to be a problem for women (I’m guessing it’s not exciting watching that 15 to 20 minutes of clitoral stimulation in an hour long video). As I posed in my tweet, my question is: what happens when romance-reading women, who expect sensitive men who really know what they are doing and are happy to dedicate hours to their pleasure, fall for porn watching men who think that vigorous missionary position sex for five minutes is a surefire way to have a woman achieve orgasm? Neither view is realistic, so hopefully both parties will understand that each type of entertainment is fiction. I know that the survey data surrounding romance readers backs this up, particularly since the vast majority of them are in happy, long-term relationships, but I’ll admit to being worried about the porn watchers.

Sex education in America was also touched upon (no pun intended), particularly as it highlights our society’s contradictions. We’re developing an orgasm pill yet the majority of schools teach abstinence-only sex education? Canner interviewed one of the experts at Good Vibrations, the famous store supplying people with sexual aids since it’s brown paper wrapper days (there’s a great store in San Francisco for the brave browser). The doctor interviewed mentioned the historical treatment for “hysteria” when women would go to their doctors for a vibration treatment that would end in a paroxysm of relief, i.e. an orgasm. Yet little sexual education explores the details surrounding masturbation, which, if you’re a fumbling teenager, might very well be the only way you are going to get a reliable orgasm if you are a girl.

So much of the medicalization of the female orgasm is once again turning this conversation – which is essentially about women’s sexual pleasure – into something more clinical and “fixable” rather than dealing with more complex emotional and social issues which could inhibit women from achieving orgasm. With one out of six women having experienced sexual assault, 80% of women having body image issues, and the emotional and physical exhaustion that comes with caregiving and work, you begin to realize it’s amazing women have orgasms at all!

A tour of the Berman Center, headed by sex-expert and television personality Dr. Laura Berman, it was ludicrous the degree to which the “clinic” medicalized arousal. There was a “Patient Concierge” who escorted the “patient” to each professional who was part of the consult – a sex therapist visit to determine any emotional issues, and a nurse practitioner who puts vibrating probes around your clitoris and vaginal canal to see if you experience arousal, particularly while watching erotic videos. Then your concierge in her nice white lab coat can show you the lubricants and vibrators that the medical professionals recommend. The visit costs $1500 which is, no surprise, not covered by your insurance company. I think talking to the salesperson at Good Vibrations would probably be way more fun and a lot less expensive, even if you splurged on the Eroscillator 2.

The footage of the medical conference, complete with exhibit hall of new treatments, was chilling. Born-again virgin surgeries, laser vaginalplasty to make your labia look different (how often do women stare at that part of themselves!?) and special clitoral surgeries are all being added to some gynecological surgeon repertoires. A ton of fashion magazines have had articles about these procedures, but it’s unsurprising when you think that those same magazines are designed to make you feel bad about how you look and then tell you the solution, whether it be a diet plan, a makeup or skincare product, or labia surgery.

The Wondrous Vulva Puppet – $125 in silks and satin

My absolute favorite part of the whole documentary was when the wonderful woman who owned the sex toys store (she had helped Liz Canner chose female oriented porn to get her clips for the erotic video she was to show the research subjects at the start of the film) decides to go the International Conference on Female Sexual Health. She was not allowed by the conference promoters in the exhibit hall, so she rented a room in the hotel and did a presentation for the physicians and researchers interested enough to come take a look. The union of a playful approach to sexual education and arousal and the medial profession is nothing short of revelatory. I mean, seriously, the vulva puppet? I would have watched this documentary a lot earlier if I known this gem was nestled in here. What great way to help women learn about their anatomy! There is a terrific product to help women with Kegel exercises and the doctors seemed impressed with many of her products and their potential to help women maintain good sexual health.

I don’t think that there will be too much romance literature focusing on a woman struggling with the hero to achieve an orgasm, but many of these issues would be extremely valid for writers to bring up with heroine who has dealt with mental or emotional blocks like them in her past, and how a match with the right hero helps her overcome them. After all, fiction is fantasy, and there is nothing wrong with the complex event that is female arousal.

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