For the last decade, you haven’t been able to watch a football game on TV without seeing an ad for Viagra, Cialis and the like. But have you ever wondered why the commercial breaks during Dancing with the Stars and daytime soaps aren’t filled with spots for female versions of those drugs?
If the pharmaceutical industry had anything to say about it, we’d be seeing those ads. That race to create the female equivalent of Viagra is the subject of Liz Canner’s documentary Orgasm Inc., which screens Thursday night at 9 p.m. during VideoFest. Canner got the idea to make the film when she got a job working for one of the very companies trying to make a drug for what it vaguely termed Female Sexual Dysfunction.
In an e-mail exchange for the Art&Seek Q&A, Canner discusses why we have yet to see the female “little blue pill” on the market and what making the film taught her about the industry she once worked:
Art&Seek: Did you ever feel conflicted at all when you were making the film, since you worked alongside these people and had gotten to know them?
Liz Canner: I did not set out to make an expose of the pharmaceutical industry.
In fact, I liked the people that I worked with. The documentary is not about them personally. It is about a problem in the way in which diseases and pharmaceuticals are developed by the drug industry. Here is the story of what happened …
After over a decade of producing documentaries on human rights issues such as genocide, police brutality, and world poverty, the violent images from my movies were giving me nightmares and making me depressed about the state of humanity. In order to change the script in my head, I decided my next project would be about pleasure, specifically, the science of female pleasure.
Then, strangely, while I was in the middle of shooting the movie, I was offered a job editing erotic videos for a pharmaceutical company that was developing an orgasm cream for women. The videos were to be watched by women during the clinical trial of their new drug. I accepted the job and gained permission to film my employers for my own documentary. I thought the experience would give me access to the secretive world of the pharmaceutical industry and insight into the latest scientific thinking about women and pleasure.
I did not set out to create an exposé, but what I uncovered at work compelled me to keep filming and investigating. This insider perspective allows Orgasm Inc. to scrutinize the everyday patterns of pharmaceutical company work in order to explore a culture that has been perverted to place the drive for profit above our health. So much for pleasure …
Art&Seek: How has the process of making a film about the pharmaceutical industry affected how you feel about the healthcare debate going on now?
L.C.: Through working on Orgasm Inc., I have become acutely aware of how the healthcare debate has been framed. The pharmaceutical industry has been let off the hook for a number of things – one of them being that for the past 20 years, drug companies have been involved with expanding our notion of what constitutes health and illness. Ordinary life problems have been renamed as diseases with the help of Madison Avenue. Shyness became Social Anxiety Disorder; heartburn turned into acid reflux disease and incontinence became Overactive Bladder Syndrome. This over medicalizing has contributed to the over prescribing of pharmaceuticals and the rise in healthcare costs. The U.S. makes up just 5 percent of the world’s population, but we account for 42 percent of the world’s spending on prescription drugs (yet we don’t live any longer than others).
Art&Seek: A lot of men seem to be happy with taking Viagra, Cialis, etc. From your research in the film, do you think we will ever see a similarly effective drug for women, or are we talking apples and oranges in making the comparison?
L.C.: I have been waiting for a Viagra-type drug for women that worked for almost a decade. This was going to be the end of my documentary. While making Orgasm Inc., I discovered that the clinical trials of the drugs for female sexual dysfunction and for erectile dysfunction had very high placebo rates (30-40 percent). This speaks to the psychological aspect of sexual experience and points to the potential of help through coaching, sex advice and encouragement.
Art&Seek: During the film, you essentially had a representative from one of the companies that is pushing this idea of Female Sexual Disorder say she needed to quit her job because she didn’t believe in what she was trying to sell. What did you think when you heard her tell you that?
L.C.: It’s unusual to interview someone and have them experience a life epiphany right in front of you. In this case, Lisa was selling a cosmetic genital surgery procedure to doctors. During the interview, she realized that the surgeries were making women look like little girls. She turned to the camera and said that she needed to quit her job.
I think there are quite a number of people who find themselves feeling conflicted about things they have to do for work. However, it’s rare to find someone with the courage to admit this on camera. Lisa’s discomfort with what she was selling caused me to believe that there was something really wrong with designer vaginas, so I started investigating it further. In the movie, you learn what I discovered.
The Art&Seek Q&A is a weekly discussion with a person involved in the arts in North Texas. Check back next Thursday for another installment.