Film exposes pharma profiteering from female sexual health
By Sarah Frostenson, The Dartmouth Staff
Published on Monday, May 18, 2009
Over 40 percent of women suffer from female sexual dysfunction, or FSD.
At least that's the statistic put forward by many pharmaceutical companies and some of America's largest advertising agencies, according to documentary filmmaker Liz Canner, the Dartmouth Center for Women and Gender's 2009 Visionary-in-Residence.
"I kept hearing the number 43 percent, 43 percent, being quoted as the number of women affected by FSD," Canner said in an interview with The Dartmouth. "But I was suspicious."
For the last nine years, Canner has committed herself to investigating the murky details of female sexual health. Her film, "Orgasm, Inc.: The Strange Science of Female Pleasure," is the culmination of her investigation, during which she learned about the commodification of female sexual health and the wide-scale marketing of drugs as the panacea for FSD.
A sneak preview of the documentary film was shown in Loew Auditorium last Monday to a standing-room only crowd, the first stop in the film's nationwide tour. As a result of the high turnout at Loew, the Center for Women and Gender organized two additional screenings of the film on campus on Tuesday.
Canner's residency also included a slew of appearances in classes and at student events, as well as an independent filmmaking workshop on Friday.
"Orgasm, Inc." draws attention to how drug companies market their products. In a clever use of text and digital animation, Canner demonstrates the proliferation of those endless acronyms -- "Social Anxiety Disorder" for "shyness" and "Restless Leg Syndrome" for "creepy crawly leg." Canner shows that there is a profit of many billions to be made in convincing healthy people they are sick.
Canner describes in the film how she was originally hired by the pharmaceutical company Vivus to create an arousing video to be used in clinical trials of the female stimulant cream Alista. She intended to use footage from the experience for a documentary on female pleasure.
But what started off as a documentary on the pursuit of pleasure rapidly turned into a serious investigation into the behind-the-scenes, high-roller game played by the pharmaceutical industry and medical device manufacturers.
From Viagra marketed for women to testosterone patches, sprays and creams, Canner suggests that pharmaceutical companies are willing to try their hand at almost anything to win the FDA approval race.
Despite all her research, Canner says that she never was able to find a conclusive explanation for FSD -- what it is or what causes it.
In one scene, Canner pays $1,500 to assess her personal level of sexual dysfunction at the Berman Center, a private clinical facility in Chicago founded by Laura Berman, a female sexual health expert, to treat sexual function.
The Berman Center uses a "GenitoSensory Analyzer" to measure sexual dysfunction -- one of the least alarming instruments documented in "Orgasm, Inc." From an implanted electronic probe that promises its user orgasms (the "Orgasmatron") to reconstructive surgery to make vagina look "more youthful" (vaginoplasty surgery), Canner grows more and more alarmed in the film by the treatments and methods used to treat so-called FSD.
Although she said she was discouraged at points during her nearly decade-long investigation, Canner said that she pushed her documentary to completion with the help of many friends, including Dartmouth Center for Women and Gender director Xenia Markowitt.
"It took a village to make this film," Canner said.
Markowitt said that she remembers many of Canner's setbacks and frustrations, but that she continued to encourage Canner to complete the investigation because she believed the message of the film was urgent and necessary.
"I had heard talk on campus of vaginoplasty surgery and was concerned the talk could keep growing," Markowitt said. "Liz's film calls for a sexual revolution and puts women at the center of their sexual health. The documentary is eye-opening."
Canner said she is working with Markowitt and several Upper Valley community members to organize SheBop, a group that will work off of Canner's documentary to improve women's sexual health.
Canner said that SheBop's mission begins with Dartmouth.
"I want students to build upon the message of the film and become engaged in their community," Canner said.