Orgasm Inc.: The Strange Science of Female Pleasure. Directed by Liz Canner. Sausalito, CA: Roco Films International, 2009.
The Price of Pleasure: Pornography, Sexuality & Relationships. Directed by Chyng Sun and Miguel Picker. Northampton, MA: Media Education Foundation, 2008.
“I’m not only abnormal, I’m disordered.” These words were uttered tearfully by Charletta, a middle-aged woman who has been happily married for more than thirty years but who has (what she calls) a sexual dysfunction. She can’t orgasm through intercourse alone, and the shame and embarrassment is intolerable. To “cure” her disease, Charletta goes through a series of treatments, including having an orgasmatron, a long, thin electric wire, surgically inserted into her spine. She takes pill after experimental pill in the hope of achieving a “good enough” orgasm. She sits through invasive gynecological procedures to try to identify the problem. All fail.
Orgasm Inc.: The Strange Science of Female Pleasure examines how the pharmaceutical industry is creating new disorders in order to find a way to cure them. Director Liz Canner began this nine-year-long project when she agreed to take a job editing erotic videos for a drug trial developing a Viagra-type pill for women to treat a new disease: Female Sexual Dysfunction (FSD), an umbrella term that includes disorders like low libido, painful sex, and difficulty achieving orgasm. The premise of the documentary is simple and effective. Canner deconstructs the history of these presumed disorders and elegantly draws a line between Big Pharma’s desire for profit and unabashed disease mongering. She argues that FSDs are disorders created by the pharmaceutical industry in order to sell medications to cure them. The result is that more and more women think there is something wrong with them and undergo dangerous and untested treatments to try to cure these constructed diseases.
The film is impressive in its breadth of interviews. The strength of the documentary, and what makes it appropriate for a feminist classroom, is how balanced it is in its scope. Canner interviews pharmaceutical industry executives, research managers, sexual health educators, and porn shop owners. She attends sexual dysfunction conferences, tours sexologist offices, and follows Leonore Tiefer, the psychologist spearheading the New View Campaign, an organization dedicated to demedicalizing women’s sexuality, as Tiefer’s team prepares for the FDA hearing on the “female Viagra” drug. And she talks to everyday women of all ages and ethnicities who have been sexually abused, who have great orgasms, and who have tried the gamut of sexual treatments in order to cure their so-called dysfunctions.
Because Canner started out as a neutral observer, she hammers her point home without appearing biased or on a crusade. Her unassuming manner and genuinely curious approach to her subject matter allow her remarkable access to the pharmaceutical insiders, who without any probing from Canner, admit to creating disorders in order to profit from them. Such admissions will be particularly convincing to undergraduate students who are starting to learn about feminism and critical analysis of discourse relating to women.1
The Price of Pleasure: Pornography, Sexuality & Relationships comes to a similar conclusion—that ideas about women’s sexualities are created by outside industries—but uses a different example. This documentary looks at the effects of widespread pornography on our understanding of human sexuality, and as with Canner’s film, illustrates how women suffer the brunt of the damage when it comes to the industry’s impact. The film argues the same thesis that feminists have been making for years: watching violent, degrading, and humiliating videos of women being raped, mutilated, and tortured in porn associates violence with sexuality and normalizes women’s pain and suffering with pleasurable sex for men.
What makes this documentary innovative is that it incorporates two seemingly disparate ideas about the effects of porn on society. One argument is that violent porn objectifies women, leading men to become more violent and aggressive in the bedroom. The documentary features interviews with lawyers, social workers, and everyday men who explicitly draw these connections. The other, seemingly opposite, argument about porn that the directors Chyng Sun and Miguel Picker also make is that because porn desensitizes men from realistic expectations about what sex with women feels like, men become less interested in the real thing, are experiencing more anxiety around their sexuality, and are less able to orgasm and enjoy sex with real women.2
What both of these perspectives offer and share with Canner’s film is the exploration of how big industries such as Big Pharma and the ten-billion-dollar-a-year porn business shape our understanding of what constitutes normal sexuality and, in the process, alter our humanity in disturbing ways. What makes the Price of Pleasure effective but also disturbing is its unabashed examination of the pornographic images themselves, and the direct line they draw between profit, the degradation of women, and our views on sexuality in general. As with Canner’s film, this documentary opens up more questions than it answers, and for this reason, it is especially appropriate for an undergraduate classroom.3
1 For more information about Orgasm Inc., see the film’s website.
2 Additional information on The Price of Pleasure is available at the film website. This site also includes an extensive resources list.
3 Readers may also be interested in the New View Campaign, which is opposed to the genital cosmetic surgery industry.