Volume 80, Number 37 | February 10 - 16, 2011
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“Orgasm Inc.,” Liz Canner’s new documentary, is premiering at the Quad Cinema.

Film on ‘female Viagra’ takes on the drug companies

By David A. Garfinkel

After years of medical testing and counseling, women can finally rejoice: Lack of consistent orgasms during sex is normal, not a disease. That may not be the best news, since 70 percent of ladies can’t reach the finish line from sex alone. But Liz Canner’s first feature documentary, “Orgasm Inc.,” exposes pharmaceutical companies’ treatment of female sexual dysfunction (F.S.D.) and problems in the search for a cure. The movie, which Newsweek called a “desperately needed antidote” to excessive hype from drug companies pursuing a female Viagra, premieres in the United States at Greenwich Village’s Quad Cinema, 34 W. 13th St., from Feb. 11 to 17.

“Orgasm Inc.” follows the research of creams, pills and probes, all aiming to help satisfy the millions of women struggling to climax. Companies have been trying to cash in on a female love drug for years, though many argue that the disease they hope to treat is a myth. Canner fears that this misrepresentation of female sexuality hurts women.

“It really puts women at risk of being misinformed and taken advantage of,” Canner said in a special advance press screening at New York University.

Currently, the film has been shown across Europe, South America, Japan and Canada. But activists protesting drugs purporting to treat F.S.D. have had difficulties raising awareness, just as Canner has had difficulties distributing the film in the United States. Canner believes her troubles finding U.S. distribution stem from the pharmaceutical industry’s outsized influence in television advertising, along with the sexual content of the movie.

“God forbid there’s a film that features female pleasure,” Canner said.

The documentary, which took Canner 11 years to make, begins when a pharmaceutical company testing a vaginal orgasm cream hires her to create female-friendly pornography to use in their clinical testing. In the ultimate reality show, Canner drags along a camera to film her as she learns tidbits such as the female preference for steamy scenes with story lines. Meanwhile, she slowly realizes that drug companies are not actually treating an already-recognized disease, but creating it in the search for a new revenue stream. The California-based company, Vivus, Inc., she comes to see, is actually trying to adapt its drugs — initially used to treat erectile dysfunction — for women. After tests consistently fail, the company abandons the effort, but other corporations continue the search.

The leading contender ends up as Procter & Gamble’s Intrinsa, a testosterone patch said to increase the female libido. However, opponents argue that the dangerous side effects of increased testosterone — including breast cancer — are too great a risk.

“When you talk about sex drugs, you’re talking about millions and millions and millions of people going on these drugs,” said Canner, 42, whose face barely shows her age and whose ideas firmly resonate with the college crowd decades younger. “We’re talking about a tremendous number of women in the population going on them,” she said.

Canner, who grew up in Groton, Mass., and now lives in Vermont, is a veteran filmmaker whose previous work addressed darker topics. In 1993, Canner’s “State of Emergency: Inside the LAPD” focused on police violence just after the Rodney King incident. Two years later, her film “Deadly Embrace: Nicaragua, the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund” critiqued the effects of globalization.

Canner wanted to move on because these films were giving her terrible nightmares. Though “Orgasm Inc.” seems like a major departure from those earlier films, she believes the subject is comparable.

“The reason I feel that this is a human rights issue,” Canner said, “is because when you have something like the pharmaceutical industry, which is so powerful and so well funded, it really starts to undermine our understanding of sexuality.”

The movie contains striking images certainly suggesting human rights abuses. One woman recounts her vaginoplasty — essentially a vaginal facelift — that bled and drained her body of one-third of its blood and nearly killed her. “Orgasm Inc.” also addresses insecurity and shame. Many of the women in the film feel diseased because they don’t know that their lack of steady, instant orgasms is actually quite usual. But pharmaceutical companies, the film argues, hope to profit by recasting the norm into a medical dysfunction.

“Basically, if you can define a disorder in a really broad way, then you are going to have a lot more people fall into that category,” Canner said, referring to newly created names for common problems, like restless leg syndrome or social anxiety disorder for shyness.

A main figure in “Orgasm Inc.” is Leonore Tiefer, a professor of psychiatry at both New York University School of Medicine and Albert Einstein College of Medicine. Tiefer organized the New View Campaign (N.V.C.), which seeks to “expose the deceptions and consequences of industry involvement in sex research, professional sex.” Although Tiefer said skepticism of pharmaceutical companies is high in the United States, she also recognizes the trouble Canner has had in marketing “Orgasm Inc.” to U.S. TV stations, which are reluctant to show the film.

“The question is getting out our message,” said Tiefer in a telephone interview. “A commercial film and an activist campaign have different places in society and different ways of interacting with institutions. In order to get people to see Liz’s film, she has to get it into theaters and that requires the cooperation of distributors.”

And Canner has not had that cooperation. The film has been shown to several American TV stations and she was turned down each time. Canner feels that the amount pharmaceutical companies spend on advertising has hindered her chances, because the U.S. is one of only two countries in the world that permits direct-to-consumer pharmaceutical advertising. (The other country is New Zealand.) After the major U.S. rules change in 1997 that permitted direct-to-consumer broadcast advertising, pharmaceutical spending soared to nearly $5 billion in 2007 from $220 million in 1997, according to reports by the journal of Minnesota Medicine and marketing research firm Research and Markets.

With the release of “Orgasm Inc.,” Canner hopes to start a greater conversation in America about the growing influence of the pharmaceutical industry. The film is opening in New York, Chicago and Coral Gables, Fl., in February, and in Los Angeles in March.

In addition, Canner is traveling on a college tour and speaking against the treatment of female sexual dysfunction with potentially harmful drugs, such as Intrinsa. Although banned by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, Intrinsa was made available in Europe in 2007 for “post-menopausal women with diagnosed sexual problems,” according to the Daily Mail.

Canner is desperately searching for a vacation from 11 difficult years of production, but it may still be awhile before “Orgasm Inc.” can be seen throughout the country, allowing Canner some fleeting freedom from the film she has invested so much of her efforts in.

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