“Orgasm Inc.”: a revealing documentary

Movie Review
Orgasm Inc.

Directed by Liz Canner
2010, 78 mins., not rated

In the early 1960s, President John F. Kennedy announced that America would land a man on the moon by the decade’s end. Science’s current counterpart to the space race is the competition to send women over the moon – to create a female equivalent to those drugs and treatments aimed at overcoming erectile dysfunction. Sex aids for women to achieve orgasms could take the form of a female Viagra, or perhaps cream, shot, surgery or even electrodes inserted into the spine. In any case, the race is on, and as every salesman knows, sex sells, so there’s gold in them thar hills.

Director Liz Canner’s uncanny documentary started out as a cinematic rumination on female pleasure, but ended up an exposé of Big Pharma. She had been hired by a pharmaceutical firm to edit erotic videos that would be used during clinical trials of a cream intended to aid human female subjects to attain orgasms.

However, the company that hired the cagey Canner – who has a background of making human rights documentaries about Nicaragua, the LAPD and the L.A. riots – got much more than it bargained for. Like health insurance industry whistleblower Wendell Potter, Canner grew increasingly disturbed by what she was in a unique position to witness, and the filmmaker went rogue.

The result is Orgasm Inc., a probing look at what could be called the “Female Sexual Dysfunction Pharmaceutical Surgical Complex” (FSDPSC). Pills, surgery and other treatments can be costly and contain health risks, so according to Canner, in order to overcome these objections, Big Pharma concocted the myth that female sexual dysfunction is a “disease.” Now, having identified this dire condition, the FSDPSC is riding to the rescue with the cure.

Females happen to be different from males, however. The “solution” is not simply a feminine version of those boner pills exalted in ubiquitous TV commercials. In the quest to create a female Cialis, there’s billions of dollars at stake, but so far these “treatments” promise more than they deliver.

Canner exposes the fact that most of the public pitchmen and women for these various drugs, etc., aimed at inducing vaginal and clitoral orgasms are paid by Big Pharma. All those TV therapists, scientists and the like fail to disclose their financial ties to the firms manufacturing the products they’re appraising and praising. During the Bush years, paid Pentagon officers served as pundits pontificating in news media outlets about the Iraq War, while columnist Armstrong Williams secretly took money from the administration while pushing Bush’s educational policies. Williams’s “defense” was that he didn’t know he was doing anything wrong.

Perpetrators of these covert conflicts of interest are worse than immoral – they’re amoral, absolutely lacking any ethical compass. Like the insider trading culprits captured in the Oscar-winning documentary Inside Job, the perps have cognitive dissonance; they operate in a realm that’s so sleazy and corrupt they simply can’t recognize what’s right and wrong (the legal definition of insanity, by the way).

The corruption Canner cannily reveals in Orgasm Inc. makes a strong case that we need a “truth in advertising” law applied to pitchmen/women, requiring them to disclose to viewers/listeners/readers their financial ties to what they’re pitching, either a product or a political position. Let’s call a flack a flack.

The worst abuse Canner exposes in Orgasm Inc. has to do with what’s called Designer Laser Vaginal Rejuvenation surgery. Much has been revealed about the dangers involved with “boob jobs,” but now we have plastic surgery on female private parts to “treat” female sexual dysfunction. Is this just a high-tech version of the kind of female genital mutilation decried in “backward” Third World nations?

Sexuality is a powerful force: Our sense of self-worth, attractiveness, need for intimacy and emotional satisfaction are wrapped up in it. Canner craftily shows that the FSDPSC preys upon women, exploits and heightens their insecurities and feelings of inadequacy, promising them pleasure and approval, all of which it stands to profiteer from, whatever results they produce.

When it comes to nudity, Canner’s filmmaking is pretty conventional: She exhibits a certain Puritanism, even as she knows full well that sex sells – hence her doc’s catchy title and its titillating advertising graphics. But there is no graphic nudity in Orgasm Inc., even when this could have greatly benefited viewers. For instance, when discussing vaginal plastic surgery, it would have been useful for audiences to actually see what’s being spoken about. After all, film is a visual art form, not just talking heads. For decades artists have fought valiantly for the freedom to depict sexuality honestly. It’s weird that the only genitalia to be seen onscreen comes in the form of pubic puppets (!). Despite this criticism, Orgasm Inc. is an insightful, inciting documentary.



Ed Rampell
Ed Rampell

Ed Rampell is an LA-based film historian and critic, author of "Progressive Hollywood: A People’s Film History of the United States," and co-author of "The Hawaii Movie and Television Book." He has written for Variety, Television Quarterly, Cineaste, New Times L.A., and other publications. Rampell lived in Tahiti, Samoa, Hawaii, and Micronesia, reporting on the nuclear-free and independent Pacific and Hawaiian Sovereignty movements.