The orgasm. Feminists laud it, good lovers work hard to give it, pharmaceutical companies make it a business model. The inability to experience an orgasm is thought to be as devastating as the inability to delight in the joy of wine, sunrise, spring flowers, and other wonderment. But this is hardly an overstatement. Last week in London, I had the sheer privilege of attending a hugely popular talk by a doyenne of second wave feminism, Shere Hite. Her most well-known publication, The Hite Report, was a groundbreaking feminist version of the Kinsey report, a comprehensive study on female sexuality in ’70s America that overturned all taboos of its day.
Hite contends that the traditional model of sexual intercourse privileges male pleasure and disregards any sense of pleasuring women to the point of orgasm. Not climaxing is tantamount to self-abnegating one self’s right to wholeness, and women have long been denying their selfhood by committing to the patriarchal rituals of sex, argues Hite. She does have a point of course about the significance of pleasure, but her assertion that the “lack of sexual satisfaction is another sign of oppression of women” poses serious implications on how women must rethink sex. Woe betide the women who feel inadequate when they have difficulty getting sexually aroused, much less with orgasm during intercourse.
And so the many women who were once frustrated, frigid and unfulfilled are now medically certified as casualties of a new epidemic—female sexual dysfunction (FSD). But in a pill-popping culture such as the U.S., help is at hand and pharmaceutical companies are quick to exploit cultural expectations and women’s most intimate insecurities. In Orgasm Inc., by first-time documentary film-maker Liz Canner, we are treated to the dizzying unravelling of pharmaceutical businesses devoted to the “female Viagra” and its role in creating, as it were, female sexual dysfunction (FSD). Canner is initiated into the shams and often shambolic world of drug companies through an invitation to edit an erotic video used during a clinical trial conducted by Vivus, a company dedicated to developing a cream for sexual arousal.
But when Canner delves deeper into Vivus’s business plan, some things are amiss. Women on both active drug and placebo appear to be equally aroused when subjected to erotic videos, but Vivus goes ahead anyway pushing to get themselves on the market. Not that Vivus’s drug was initially designed to treat male impotence really mattered, as the researchers placed their bets on a hunch that it can turn women on as well. It appears that the business of discovering a cure for the purported female sexual dysfunction is masculinist and penis-centred at best, one that is isolated as a problem related to the sexual organ and a matter of hormonal imbalance. There is little reference to how women get on with their partners in the bedroom, the happiness or lack of it in relationships, history of abuse, and lack of self-esteem. Furthermore, cultural expectations which are mistaken as “universal” sexual norms prescribe that sex without orgasm is a sign of abnormality.
Canner interviews other pharmaceutical companies that have also been founded on dubious science and run by “research” consultants who aren’t able to explain in definitive terms what FSD is and react as if they are assailed by trick questions. When promoted by drug company-backed doctors and scientists who frame sexual inadequacies in often obtuse and intimidating language, lay persons beset with perceived medical disorders are like putty in their hands. The stage is thus set for a no-nonsense competition—a race—to win FDA approval and multiple million-dollar glory.
Soon companies dropped one-by-one off the race like flies due to unconvincing science, including a strong contender, Intrinsa, a trans-dermal testosterone patch. It did not, however, stop Instrinsa from being sold in the European Union. Fallacies poised to eternally discredit FSD notwithstanding, very few could stand in the way of the monstrously indomitable spirit of pharmaceutical companies. Like Hite’s grand manifesto, much of drug research posit that desire and pleasure are like a switch within an autonomous body. I raised my hand to ask Dr. Hite about women who were unable to experience orgasm yet live happy and fulfilled lives, to which she struggled to offer a coherent answer other than there are no two ways about how important sexual satisfaction through an orgasm is.
Suffice to say, I felt equally dejected by her response and the outcome in Canner’s thought-provoking film as the mystery of female sexuality is thrown further into abyss. How helpful is the medicalisation of perfect sexuality when desire, pleasure, and fantasy are made to fit a disease model, a model designed to reinforce crude normal/abnormal typologies? Yet we are besotted by medical science but unaware of its cultural and moral underpinnings that are adept at demonising “bad” bodies. Canner’s film peels away much of the objectivity purported by pharmaceutical science, sexology, and medicine, and invites us to reassess the social values of health and happiness in radically new ways.