Orgasm Inc.: Search for the Female Viagra

Orgasm Inc.

Liz Canner , a 42-year-old filmmaker from Vermont, was emotionally exhausted from making the wrenching documentaries that had so far defined her career: police brutality, world poverty and genocide.

"I was getting depressed about the human condition," she said. 'I watched the same violent footage over and over again and started to have nightmares. I thought, 'I've got to do something on pleasure.'"

So in 2002, Canner took a job with the California-based pharmaceutical company Vivus, helping to edit a series of erotic videos that were to be shown to women in early clinical trials of a new "orgasm cream" called Alista.

The timing couldn't have been better:Pfizer had come out with Viagra for men in the late 1990s, and Vivus was scrambling to find the female equivalent. As Canner intercut ocean scenes with descriptions of the clitoris, she began to wonder if company executives were testing a female sex drug, but they didn't yet have a disease.

Soon, she realized her employer -- and perhaps the pharmaceutical industry at large -- might be selling women a potentially dangerous product in pursuit of profits. So Canner switched gears, and with the permission of Vivus, began her own project.

Now, in her first feature documentary, " Orgasm Inc.," Canner explores the creation of female sexual dysfunction and the billions of dollars the pharmaceutical companies have poured into promoting drugs to healthy women. Winning a Visionary Art Award from Dartmouth College, the film has been shown in several countries and premieres in New York City on May 27.

"I didn't intend to make an expose, I was tired of making these kinds of films," Canner said in a telephone interview from Scotland. "I expected one thing and I found something else. I could keep to my original idea or be honest."

Instead, director and producer Canner took a serious, but sometimes comical look at the medicalization of women's sexuality -- from the invention of the Dr. Stuart Meloy's " orgasmatron" for on-demand climax to cosmetic vaginal reconstruction -- all in the name of some new kind of normalcy.

As the film opens, Canner introduces Charletta, a middle-aged woman who, incredibly, has agreed to have electrode wires inserted in her spine to help her achieve an orgasm. She hopes Meloy's orgasmatron device will help her end the "the war inside my head."

"Not only am I not normal, I am diseased," says Charletta.

Going under the knife in her elusive quest for sexual satisfaction underscores Canner's mantra that the medical world is tampering with women's health, creating a culture of pill-popping without regard to side effects, all the while contributing to higher health care costs.

Canner argues that most of women's sex problems arise from bad relationships, sex abuse, lack of sex education and working too much. Who says, she asks, that there is a normal number of times a week a woman should have sexual thoughts or an orgasm?

"There is very little physiologically that affects a woman's sex drive," she said. "They are making a culture where women feel discontent and think they have a disorder when they don't."

Who Says 42 Percent of Women Have Sexual Dysfunction

Meanwhile, Vivus executives turned their attention to women's physiology and an untapped market in need of a cure.

"We are on a race to see who can be first to market," Darby Stephens, their manager of clinical research, tells Canner. "We've come up with the drug, now we have to come up with the disease."

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