The quest for the ultimate female orgasm

How far will women go for an orgasm?
By DEIRDRE FULTON  |  March 22, 2010


Let's talk about the female orgasm.

Oh good, no one flipped the page?

Let's talk about the female orgasm, and how for some women, it can be difficult to come by. And how drug manufacturers, eager to make a quick buck, have invented a medical problem — Female Sexual Dysfunction (FSD) — to sell pills, patches, and nasal sprays that will help women catch those elusive moments of ecstasy. So says Liz Canner, a New England-based filmmaker whose Orgasm, Inc. is a documentary about desire, drugs, and vaginal plastic surgery. In her 78-minute doc, released last year, she suggests that medical companies are capitalizing on women's sexual dissatisfaction to develop and market "the female Viagra," the Orgasmatron (not the fictional Woody Allen Sleeper cylinder, but rather real electrodes inserted into the spine), and even vaginal rejuvenation surgery — products and procedures that promise erotic fulfillment, but don't always deliver (kind of like that guy from last weekend!).

No one, least of all Canner, is suggesting that women are universally pleased with their sex lives, or that the desire for good sex, with all its orgasmic trimmings, is frivolous. But Orgasm, Inc., along with many mental- and physical-health professionals, argues that women are being pushed in a sterile, medical direction to seek that holy grail, a direction that barely acknowledges — much less challenges — the potential emotional, relational, and societal reasons for sexual troubles.

A Brown University graduate who spent her first few movie-making years producing documentaries about human-rights issues, Canner was "depressed about the state of humanity," she says in her director's statement. "In order to change the script in my head, I decided my next project would be about pleasure, specifically, the science of female pleasure."

In the midst of this project, she was asked to edit erotic videos for Vivus, a pharmaceutical company that was developing an orgasm cream for women. This lucky coincidence afforded her unparalleled access (increasingly restricted as her inquiry goes deeper) to the industry experts behind such research and marketing — the people who popularized FSD (in 2002, Oprah Winfrey called FSD an "epidemic") only to sell its cure. She investigates other FSD treatments, such as vaginal rejuvenation surgery and G-spot amplification, and the women who are desperate enough to try them. Along the way, she meets sex-positive activists such as Leonore Tiefer, a New York University School of Medicine professor who refers to the promotion of FSD and its so-called treatments as "disease-mongering," a position that's echoed by local sexperts.

"I think big pharma has some big ethics problems," says Ronald Feintech, a Portland-based psychologist and sex therapist. "I think that the entire medical profession is in the pocket of big pharma. It seems to me that there are a number of brand-new diseases that have been created for the purpose of making mega bucks . . . I think FSD might be in that category."

And while it's one thing to prescribe medication for restless-leg syndrome (another diagnosis that often gets blasted as pharma-created bunk), it's quite another to mess with sex. For better or for worse, many people define themselves through their sexuality, love lives, and lust lives. And for companies to turn that into a business opportunity — especially without having really proved that any of this stuff even works — is troubling.

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