Welcome to Orgasm Inc, a wry and unsqueamish piece of film-making by the American documentary maker, Liz Canner, who has charted the race to market the first medical cure for female sexual dysfunction (FSD) and has attempted to unpick the ethical dilemmas that have accompanied it.
The very existence of clinically correctable FSD is contentious. The way drug companies convert disorders into conditions that can be remedied only with the regular purchase of their branded pill is a familiar story. Indeed, the study in the 1990s that identified 43% of American women as suffering from this baggily defined dysfunction was found to have been conducted by psychologists with links to the drugs industry.
A 2005 survey that came to similar conclusions about women in Europe and Asia was sponsored by Pfizer, the maker of Viagra. And, crucially, the success of treatment for FSD is fairly subjective. Unlike Viagra it cannot be measured against a map of the Mull of Kintyre.
The fact is that cases of purely medical sexual dysfunction among women are rare. As Petra Boynton — the British sexual health academic who has nobly exposed the profit motive of the medicaliser — points out, a variety of means already exists to help women: education, therapy, existing healthcare for related conditions and improving communication skills within intimate relationships.
“All of these can be made available now, yet nobody pushes for this when arguing for a medical ‘cure’ some time in the future.” Boynton is similarly dubious about the way pharmaceutical companies appropriated the feminist language of empowerment and sexual-satisfaction rights to paint critics as prudish or anti-women.
In Orgasm Inc Canner traces the coinage of FSD to the Viagra-inspired expectation that the transformation of common female sexual difficulties into a drug-soluble disorder would equal a bonanza for shareholders. But when her subject, Charletta, newly liberated from her orgasmatron (yet to make it to the market, incidentally) intones with the wonder of the newly sighted, “Maybe sex in the movies is not normal,” one becomes aware of a broader cultural displacement.
A shift in the meaning of sexuality
Drug companies alone can’t alone be responsible for a shift in the meaning of sexuality that has seen it commodified, marketed and individualised; measured against a scale so narrowly objective as to be oppressive; where desire is functional and instrumental rather than co-created by two people.
The latest reporter on the pornification of society is Britain’s former home secretary, Interior Minister Jacqui Smith, whose recent investigation for BBC Radio Five Live appeared to trade on her naivety as a legislator on hardcore material who had never seen the stuff and a wife whose spouse was enjoying the milder end of the spectrum.
But her anxiety about young people’s access to and experience of online pornography is entirely valid. “Porn isn’t sex education,” she wrote in a pre-publicity piece. “But there are young people today growing up with the idea that it is. This is changing the way young people think about one another and what they expect to have to do in their sex lives.”
Bike-shed anecdotes suggest that many of porn’s regularly featured and more objectionable acts are now incorporated as normal in teenage sex lives. And Smith’s documentary comes out in the same week as research revealing an accelerating clamour for vaginal cosmetic surgery among young women.
I’d argue that the genders have always been socialised to experience their sexuality differently, with girls taught that sex is part of a romantic narrative of love, partnership and children, while boys are told that it is a discrete act underpinning masculinity. But porn deepens and distorts this divide. Boys learn to be consumers, viewing women as disposable and catering to their needs only. The concurrent lesson is that girls should value their sexuality only according to how it is perceived by men, denying their own needs in the process.
But as Zoe Margolis — the sex blogger and author of Girl with a One-Track Mind — argues, porn doesn’t become mainstream in a vacuum. “[This] requires a much wider commodification … female sexuality packaged up as a product geared to generate profit: capitalism with tits, basically.” The irony is that the apparent “anything goes” democratisation of desire in reality constrains men and women more than ever.
Just as Orgasm Inc argues that treating sexual problems is more complex than finding the female equivalent of a chemically sustained erection, challenging the commodification of sexuality is not zero-sum. This is not about a reactionary attempt to replace one stereotyped version (male, porny, penetrative) with another (female, cuddly, politically correct).
But sex embodies a human freedom the market denies. To desire and be desired can be many things: funny, awkward, transforming, sacred and profane. To be honest about what turns you on, for a moment or a lifetime, demands a particularly intimate bravery that is threatened with extinction by the megaphone of cultural sexism. —