The United States is one of two countries in the world that allows pharmaceutical companies to advertise directly to consumers. This fact might well explain why the total US population, which represents only 5% of the total, consumes over 42% of all of the pharmaceutical drugs sold globally. It also provides a deep insight into how more and more normal human issues become “treatable” health conditions. This phenomenon of renaming life issues into treatable conditions has impacted everything from shyness to restless legs, yet, perhaps no single topic has garnered as much research attention or funding as what has now been diagnosed as Female Sexual Dysfunction.
The early medical research that resulted in the subsequent rise of Viagra in the 1990s was in part responsible for the impetus to identify and name this parallel female syndrome to male sexual dysfunction. The original study, which collected data from thousands of women that self-reported the frequency of a group of common symptoms, which are the hallmarks of female sexual dysfunction syndrome. These included low/absent desire and libido, lack of lubrication and pain with sex. It was in fact this first study that generated the statistic that 43% of women had sexual dysfunction, which was later refuted by its authors. Yet, this study was the seed, which firmly planted the idea that female sexuality can and often is diseased.
The film, Orgasm Inc shows step-by-step how this multi-billion dollar industry of sexual dysfunction has been built over the last two decades. Inspired by the billions of dollars of income that Viagra and similar drugs have generated in the male sexual function arena, pharmaceutical companies have lobbied hard for the implementation of diagnostic codes, which pathologize female sexuality. Both male and female sexual dysfunction were split into four categories of disorders. These included sexual desire disorders, sexual arousal disorders, orgasmic disorders, and sexual pain disorders.
As large pharma companies race to find the billion dollar prize-winning pharmaceutical or surgical cure for female sexual dysfunction, millions of women have been won over to the disease mentality. What was not long ago perceived as a personal and private exploration of the erotic self, has become for many women an expensive and often risky slippery slope of experimental medical treatments that leave women often feeling hopeless and used. From the Orgasmatron, a device that promises control over orgasm through the use of an electrical probe inserted directly into the spinal column to a popular new form of female genital plastic surgery, a practice which bears frightening resemblance to female genital mutilation in third world countries, women have become willing to try almost anything in the name of a “cure.”
Leonore Tiefer, a PhD sex therapist in New York was incensed by the medicalization of female sexuality issues and started an advocacy and lobbying group called the New View Campaign. Their argument is that normal sexual functioning cannot be reduced to the physiological treatment of individual body parts. Female sexual functioning can only be understood and needs to be researched within the context of the relationship in which it occurs. Dismissing the critical social, political and economic conditions that define and often direct a woman’s capacity for intimacy under the umbrella term of “psychogenic causes” ignores the profound and perhaps deepest reality of a woman’s sexuality. Female sexual health cannot be healed strictly within the biological functioning of her genitalia, rather it is a mosaic of her past and present social environments, cultural norms, belief systems, and sexual education, as well as her history with sexual violence.
Orgasm Inc, demonstrates that female sexual dysfunction, if indeed such a classification is justified at all, will not find a cure in a bottle. There is no quick fix for the socio economic inequalities, cultural norms and rampant violence against women which live at the root of the personal stories that reflect the functioning of female sexuality. If healing lives anywhere, female sexuality thrives in the context of true intimacy with oneself and others.
This film is being screened at the University of British Columbia, and will be followed by a panel discussion from sexual health and sexuality experts. If you are not in Canada, look for a screening near you or buy the dvd.