In her documentary “Orgasm Inc.,” filmmaker Liz Canner investigates the race between U.S. pharmaceutical companies all vying for the same objective – to create the first FDA-approved drug to treat a medical condition deemed Female Sexual Dysfunction.
During her work with a drug-development company called Vivus, Canner became unconvinced that FSD was even a disease at all. If it was, why weren’t more of the reported 43 percent of all women allegedly suffering from the dysfunction talking about it?
During our interview, Canner, who has spent nine years making this documentary, explained how pharmaceutical companies are exploiting consumers today and how these companies use deceitful statistics to peddle their products.
“Orgasm Inc.” was released on DVD June 21.
Was having humor in this film a conscious decision you made going in or did it just work out that way once you started shooting?
The idea was to make the film something people could feel comfortable with through humor. Sex is something people feel uncomfortable about in general. Basically, everyone I interviewed had a great sense of humor. The film sort of reflected the tone of my subjects. I thought it was the best approach for dealing with such an awkward topic.
It is awkward to talk about sex in some aspects, but it is also very intimate. As a director, how were you able to get some of the women you interview to open up to you about a subject like orgasms?
I interviewed a lot of people by myself without the typical camera person. I think that – in some ways – intimacy made people feel more comfortable. I think in some cases I spent a lot of time with the people I interviewed. It was a variety of things that created the film you saw.
Over these past nine years, has the topic become less awkward for you to talk about? At times in the film, you seem nonchalant about it. In other scenes, I sensed a little embarrassment.
I think our culture is still quite puritanical. When I made “Orgasm Inc.” it was hard to talk to my parents about it. It was even harder for them to tell their friends what their daughter was working on. Over the years, I’ve gotten a lot more comfortable talking about this issue and have actually become an advocate for people getting comprehensive sex education. The pharmaceutical industry has easily exploited us because we are so poorly informed about the basics of sex. It has become part of my mission to speak very openly about sex as much as I can. It’s an important part of life that we have unfortunately switched around and made taboo.
Did your parents give you the sex talk as a teenager?
I got the sex talk from my mother, but I have to say she was uncomfortable with sexuality. She didn’t teach me about the clitoris. I didn’t even learn about the clitoris in sex education classes. I think there is a big gap in our knowledge when we teach genital anatomy. My mother was very peripheral in our discussion. She felt uncomfortable talking about pleasure as most mothers do. It wasn’t the best eye-opening conversation in terms of sex itself.
In the film, you talk to a group of young women who admit most of their sex education came from what they learn from their peers. Is that how you learned about some of the things your mother left out of the conversation?
I got a lot of information from my friends and from reading. I remember the Judy Bloom book “Forever” was a big part of my sex education in the sixth grade. I think I learned a lot from books and certainly our peers tell us where babies come from. It was a variety of places.
For a couple of years when I was younger, I thought a condom was something you wrapped your whole body in after I saw “The Naked Gun.” Did you ever get any kind of wrong information like that?
(Laughs) Well, I remember I used to blow up my dad’s condoms thinking they were balloons. He’d be like, “Don’t touch those!” He would hide them, but I would go and find them. I thought they were the greatest balloons because they were stronger than regular balloons.
At what point during your work with Vivus did you realize there was a story here that went deeper than you first thought?
It wasn’t until I went back a few years later because I kept putting the project on hold. The issue kept changing and I kept waiting for Vivus to come out with a drug. I realized there was a discomfort with the people at Vivus during our interviews. It was their own unease with what they were doing. I was asking very basic questions and getting very strange responses. That got me curious. I wasn’t planning on doing an exposé on them. I really wanted to do a film on pleasure.
What were your initial thoughts when you first heard the term Female Sexual Dysfunction?
I heard about it when I was asked to put fact screens in front of the porn videos I was editing [for Vivus] that said, “Forty-three percent of women suffer from Female Sexual Dysfunction.” I had never heard of it. I was like, “What is this new disorder? Forty-three percent of women have it, so why have I never heard of it before?” I thought everyone would be talking about it. If almost half of all women have it, it’s like an epidemic.
We learn in the film the statistics reported by the pharmaceutical companies are pretty fuzzy.
Yeah, I think the statistics are all a part of marketing. If they can convince women by saying that 43 percent of all women have this then we probably do, too, if one of us is sexually dissatisfied or has a sexual problem. The statistics take the issue completely out of context. Something like sex is so influenced by relationships and sex education and expectations of what your sexual experiences are supposed to be like. There are all these different factors. This idea that 43 percent of women are sexually dysfunctional was really something that was twisted around. Those statistics came from a sociology study that was never meant to measure someone’s sexual dysfunction. It was supposed to measure someone’s sexual dissatisfaction. It’s very easy to take these statistics and turn them around and take something that is a part of everyday life and make it into a medical condition. Unfortunately, there isn’t enough protection from this false marketing on disorders that have been expanded and influenced by the pharmaceutical industry.