Orgasm Inc., which opened nationwide last month, is documentary filmmaker Liz Canner’s first-hand, nine-year account of a would-be medical breakthrough shooting itself in the foot. In 2000, she took a job for Vivus—the medical company claiming to have developed the Viagra equivalent for women—editing provocative videos for test subjects supposedly stricken with the “disease” of Female Sexual Dysfunction (FSD). Discovering that certain Vivus employees themselves weren’t all that knowledgeable about FSD, she dug deeper, interviewing other drug, patch and device makers (including the inventor of the now-notorious “Orgasmatron”), as well as their proponents, subjects and detractors. The result is a probing, illuminating documentary that could protect scores of healthy women from misdiagnosis and in turn damaging side effects. Screen Comment talked with Liz Canner about making “Orgasm Inc.”
Screen Comment – How did you develop the idea for Orgasm, Inc? Was it something you always wanted to make a film about or did the idea come about gradually after working for Vivus?
Liz Canner – I had been shooting documentaries on human rights issues for about a decade, and I was burnt out from looking at footage of genocide and police brutality. Images from my films started to give me nightmares, so I decided that my next film would be on something more upbeat. And then I started having pleasurable dreams.
I decided to work on a film on the history of what medics and scientists had said about women, conception, sexual response and pleasure. I was in the middle of working on that when I got offered the editing job at Vivus, and I realized this would be a great way to look at what the contemporary notions are about women and pleasure. So I asked [the people at Vivus] if I could film them and they said OK.
Did your initial thesis reflect the skepticism that comes through in the movie about Female Sexual Dysfunction? Or were you hoping the company would actually come up with some magical drug?
I didn’t even know about FSD when I took the job. I was hoping they were going to have more insight into women and sexual pleasure. I learned about the whole disease element because I was writing text screens at the beginning of the videos I was editing for them that said, “Because you are part of this study, you suffer from Female Sexual Dysfunction and 42% of women have this condition.” It made me really curious. I wanted to learn more about why women suffer from it.
When did your own skepticism about it begin to surface?
It was the questions I was getting from the people at Vivus. You can see in the interviews that the responses are so unsure, and there’s a lot of laughter and discomfort with my questions, which were very basic. Like, “Why did you start developing this drug? Where did this disease come from?” People didn’t have very clear answers.
Since the movie has come out, has anyone in the drug development industry reacted negatively to the film?
There hasn’t been any major serious controversy, I think in part because a lot of the major players [trying to treat FSD] haven’t been playing. They were not able to come up with something good enough, that didn’t harm women. The big money behind it isn’t there in the way it was. Although I read that [BioSante Pharmaceuticals] is coming out with a testosterone patch [for FSD] like Intrinsa’s. I read that it used to be a gel and BioSante changed it to a patch, and it’s going before the FDA this summer.
How did you come up with the visual technique of videotaping a TV playing an interview with one subject, and having a different subject watch it on the TV?
I was trying to shoot the news reports and ads about these drugs [being broadcast on a TV] in the bedroom. I wanted to show how our sex lives were being transformed by this information, how there was a cultural shift around the meaning of sexual response, how the media was having an effect. I actually filmed [Australian medical journalist] Ray Moynihan watching the videotape I’d done of Darby [Stephens, Vivus’ manager of clinical research], because I was really curious to get his read on it. He had written about Vivus but never heard anyone admit to him their involvement with the creation of FSD. I wanted to show that this wasn’t the way it should be, and to have him say that.
Did the company doing cosmetic genital surgery react to the scene where the female employee openly admits on camera that she wants to quit her job?
No, they didn’t. I had releases from everyone I interviewed. In fact, I interviewed someone from BioSante but she didn’t sign a release so I didn’t include the footage. This was during Bush’s [presidency], and the woman decided that we were part of the Christian right and were gonna stop BioSante’s drug from being improved.
The footage of the Orgasmatron being removed from the woman’s spine and the interview with the genital surgery patient are both pretty horrifying. How did you keep the film more lighthearted overall?
I wanted the film to move people emotionally in different directions. Some scenes show the extremes people will go to to have an orgasm. But on the other hand, the people I interviewed were very funny. They told a lot of jokes. I included their humor and the tone reflects that. I think that sexuality is something that a lot of people are uncomfortable talking about publicly. In a way, the humor let us all laugh at it and then get down to serious stuff.
Despite the many fallacies behind FSD that you exposed, is there a part of you that hopes there is some magic patch or drug that would have the desired effect of allowing women more orgasms, or do you think this whole idea of “curing” FSD is likely to go away eventually?
I don’t know if the idea is likely to go away because the market potential is so large. What really concerns me isn’t whether they make a drug, it’s whether or not the American public is protected so that only people that really do have a physiological problem end up on the drug. The reality is, they’re developing things that have serious side effects at this point, even breast cancer risks. It shouldn’t just be a sexual enhancement product. These products haven’t really worked at all. I’m concerned that because of direct consumer advertising, healthy women could end up on this drug.
The woman that tries out the Orgasmatron at the end comes to the happy conclusion that she’s fine trying to have an orgasm on her own. Are you hoping that women will see this and the desire for that kind of magic cure will go down because of potential side effects?
We have very poor sex education in this country. We don’t teach that 70% of women need direct clitoral stimulation in order to have an orgasm. That leaves a lot of women open to being taken advantage of. If you just take your information from porno movies and magazines, you think you’re supposed to be having fabulous sex all the time and being orgasmic from penetration. My hope is that the documentary will give women more constructive [solutions] than [what they hear] from these advertisements and news clips.
Has the movie gotten the response you’ve wanted?
Many women have come up to me in tears afterwards, saying that they’ve known some of this information for a long time. They’ve realized that with false expectations about sexuality, you can put so much pressure on a relationship and make the wrong decision.
What is your next film project in development?
I have a few things flying around, but really I just want to take a long nap! It’s been a really long road with this project.