Arts & Culture

‘Orgasm Inc.’ investigates motives of pharmaceutical industry

Liz Canner’s ’91 documentary challenges women’s Viagra, female sexual dysfunction

By
Contributing Writer
Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Liz Canner’s ’91 documentary started out as some footage on Vivus and soon turned into a full-fledged film questioning the company’s motives.

Oct. 14 moving.media@brown screened “Orgasm Inc.,” a 2009 documentary directed by filmmaker Liz Canner ’91.

The symposium, moving.media@brown, was hosted by the Department of Modern Culture and Media Oct. 14­ and 15. The goal of the symposium was “to get people thinking through what media can and cannot do,” said Wendy Chun, professor of modern culture and media and a member of the moving.media@brown organizing committee. Chun also added that both the MCM department and symposium organizers are “dedicated to creating dialogue between alums and current students.”

Chosen as one of the symposium’s featured films, “Orgasm Inc.” follows the race to create a Food and Drug Administration-approved female Viagra in the 2000s. Canner had originally been hired by Vivus, a drug company, to edit erotic movies for a drug trial testing Alista, a cream intended to treat a disease coined as “female sexual dysfunction.” Curious about the topic of female pleasure, Canner got permission to film the process. But what started out as some footage on Vivus soon turned into a full-fledged documentary questioning the motives of the entire pharmaceutical industry.

“I would ask them very basic questions, and I got very strange answers, which made me curious about what was going on,” Canner said before the screening. “The pharmaceutical industry doesn’t just develop drugs.”

What interested Canner was not the development of the drug, but the concept of FSD, the troubling problem that  companies like Vivus, Procter and Gamble and Pfizer claimed created a need for a female Viagra­.

All over the United States, the idea of FSD was running rampant. A 1999 study claimed that 43 percent of women suffer from FSD, and the market for a drug to treat it skyrocketed when Vivus made it known that they were experimenting with the creation of a female Viagra. Canner began digging deeper, interviewing doctors, patients, advocates and protesters of the potential drug. Through what ended up being nine years of research and filming, Canner discovered a fierce debate over the existence of FSD.

Promoters of the drug claimed that it would solve sexual issues for women by increasing sex drive and inducing orgasm, but Canner found that many of the doctors who said this had ties to drug companies. Canner also discovered that the authors of the study that found 43 percent of women suffer from FSD had ties to Pfizer. When Canner questioned Vivus over what was inherently wrong with the women who allegedly had FSD, its employees couldn’t answer the question.

Critics of the drug and the idea of FSD claimed that a multitude of other reasons, including body issues, stress and previous sexual assaults, could explain troubles with sex. Furthermore, many of the drugs being created to treat FSD came with negative side effects and risks.

Despite protests, the drug companies still managed to influence the public and convince many women that they were ill. “Not only am I not normal, I am diseased,” one woman told Canner in her documentary. Canner watched others go under the knife in an ultimately fail attempt to rid themselves of FSD.

By the end of Canner’s film, all the companies vying to create the female Viagra failed to get approval from the FDA. But while companies failed to develop an approved drug during the timeline of the documentary, Sprout Pharmaceuticals recently got its own version of the drug, Addyi, approved by the FDA in August 2015 after initially getting rejected twice. Its sales have been far from successful.

Though the film made a smaller impact in the United States than it did abroad, Canner is still happy with the attention her film has gotten. “We were able to get the issue out to the press and to me, that’s what it’s about,” Canner said. “It’s about having an impact and using the media to do that in any way we can,” she said. “It’s not always just about seeing the film.”

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