It’s hard to watch TV commercials for prescription medications, whose lists of side effects seem to grow steadily longer, without feeling a little suspicious. One currently airing for Seroquel, an anti-depressant, devotes more than half the ad’s time to the drug’s risks, mentioning “death” four times. It’s troubling issues like this that eventually consume the attention of Orgasm Inc., an exploration of the race for a “female Viagra,” that snowballs into a much broader indictment, of both the pharmaceutical industry and the quick-fix culture that supports it.
The pharmaceutical industry is the third largest in the entire world, and as the film points out, it’s in need of serious policing. Director Liz Canner makes a lot of big claims in her narration, but they never seem baseless or histrionic, padded out by a clear foundation of research, the press packet even containing an extensive list of works cited. The quest for a pill to stabilize the tempestuous female sex drive, with a possible bounty on the scale of the ‘90s Viagra boom, is presented as a monetary pursuit without much of a scientific basis.
Of course, drugs still need to earn medical approval, which means a condition needed to be invented to justify medicating it. The film links the recent publicizing of female sexual dysfunction (FSD), a catch-all diagnosis meant to explain away any type of problem, to 19th-century “hysteria,” which distorted the need for an orgasm into a medical condition.
Then, doctors secretly treated hysterical women through clitoral stimulation, meant to induce a “hysterical paroxysm.” Today’s companies promote a more accepting image, but one that’s equally resistant to accepting the inherent complexities of female sexuality. Canner explores the collective ignorance that has allowed such a culture to flourish, finding two problems at its core. The first is the twisted expectations many women have toward their own bodies, which have led to clinics devoted to cosmetic vaginal surgery, described here as a modern form of genital mutilation. The second is the societal conception that every problem should be easily fixable, leading to a quick-fix reliance on pharmaceuticals, rather than a focus on dialogue and counseling.
This drug-obsessed culture is presented with scary precision, via statistics and voices from both sides. Offenders include crooked doctors like Laura Berman, a TV physician whose prescription of Viagra to women, despite clinical trials showing it’s useless and harmful, at first seems merely irresponsible. That’s until we learn she’s a shill for several pharmaceutical companies, paid $75,000 a pop to defend them on cable news shows.
The appraisal presented by Orgasm Inc. is grim but not hopeless, depicting a struggle between greedy companies and virtuous doctors, which while at times over-simplistic seems also to have truth on its side. Reasonable and clear-headed, adept at compressing large amounts of information into a neat package, it’s a strident issue movie with the feel of a more objective portrayal.