Female Viagra: Where Is It? (Audio)

A new documentary follows Big Pharma's search for the Big O.

| Mon Feb. 14, 2011 7:23 AM PST

In her new film, Orgasm Inc, documentary filmmaker Liz Canner chronicles Big Pharma's as-yet-unsuccessful search for a female equivalent to Viagra. The movie, now showing in select markets, explores the manufactured "epidemic" of female sexual dysfunction and finds pharmaceutical executives trying to dictate women's level of desire. Do women really need expensive sex toys from their doctors? Are TV sex disorders real or just disease-mongering? Mother Jones spoke with Canner recently about these and other sexy topics.

Mother Jones: Your movie, Orgasm Inc., looks at companies as they search for a female Viagra. So, did they find it?

Liz Canner: well, when I started making this documentary almost 10 years ago I thought that this project would only last a year or two because  the news was constantly saying and the pharmaceutical industry was constantly saying, 'We've got the drug, it's just around the corner. It will be approved.' And I waited nine years and there still is no drug that is FDA-approved. The only thing that is FDA-approved to cure female sex dysfunction is the EROs CTD, which is basically a very expensive sex toy you get from your doctor.

MJ: And these drugs are being developed to help treat this disease, female sexual dysfunction, is that right? 

LC: Yes, the drugs are being developed to cure a variety of sexual complaints, things like difficulty with lubrication, things like orgasmic dysfunction, things like lack to desire. Lack of desire is actually the thing that the drug companies are working on the most.

MJ: In the view of these medical professionals that are in the pharmaceutical companies, how much desire are women supposed to have?

LC: This is where it gets very tricky, because there is nothing that says a woman is supposed to experience 20 sexual thoughts in a day. There is nothing that says what normal is when it comes to sexual function. So in fact, the term female sexual dysfunction is a misnomer because there is nothing that says what sexual function is. Basically, female sexual dysfunction is a recognized disorder and the FDA recognizes it because in order to come up with a drug, the pharmaceutical industry had to create something that would be recognized so that they would know when they'd actually cured somebody.

Basically what's happened is, in order to be diagnosed with female sexual dysfunction, the woman self-diagnoses. It's only dependent on whether or not she's upset with her sexual function. You basically have to be dissatisfied in order to be considered dysfunctional. There's nothing that says you should be having 10 orgasms a month. And so, because there's no norm of sexuality, it becomes something based on what your expectations are, and what you desire your sex life to be.

MJ: And where do you think women are getting these ideas of how many orgasms they're having, or what motivates these women to be upset enough to create a dysfunction?

LC: Well, I think we live in this really schizophrenic society where on one hand we're teaching abstinence-only sex-education in our schools, and on the other hand we're bombarded constantly with sexual imagery on television, in the media, in women's magazines, saying we should be having great sex all the time and here's how you do it. So I think that has made it so that we have these ideas that we should be having great sex. On the other hand, some women feel uncomfortable fully experiencing pleasure because of the sexual messages they got when they were young, so we live in this very confusing world. And now we have the introduction of the medical industry coming in and promoting this idea that if you're not experiencing a certain type of fabulous sex all the time that you have a disease.

MJ: You talked to a number of experts. Did you learn any non-prescription, non-surgical tricks that do seem to help women orgasm?

LC: Well, Betty Dodson, who wrote the book Self-Loving for One, claims that you can go to see her and be cured of all your sexual problems within an hour or two with her favorite vibrator. But it seems to me that part of the best sexual tricks seem to involve focusing on the part of the female body that has the most nerves: the clitoris. So I think any attention paid to that particular area helps tremendously.

MJ: There's also an expert in your film who says your biggest sex organ is between your ears. Did you find that to be true in making your documentary? 

LC: Well, part of the difficulty I had in making this documentary is that the majority of women may not have a sort of medical condition—or maybe a small percentage actually do, and I don't want to disrespect that—but the greater majority of women suffer from other things. Such as, the fact that women continue to do the majority of domestic chores around the house. A recent study, actually one of my favorite studies ever, showed that if men help out around the house, they tend to have better sex lives. So I think things like that, a more equitable relationship... certainly watching a man vacuum is a big turn-on.

MJ: We've talked mostly about the film. Is there anything else you wanted to mention?

LC: Yeah, the whole health care debate that's been going on, one of the aspects that hasn't been fully discussed is the relationship of over-prescribing and over-medicalizing. Female sexual dysfunction is just one of many disorders that has been expanded and recently created that many people are being diagnosed with. In some cases, there are disorders like premenstrual dysmorphic disorder, this is a newer disorder, people are being prescribed massive amounts of drugs for these disorders, and in many cases they may not be diseases at all. The US is the only country other than New Zealand that allows direct-to-consumer advertising.

The effect that this has had is that we make up 5% of the world's population, and yet we purchase 42% of the world's drugs. So you can actually look at the numbers and see when the direct consumer advertising went up in the late 1990s, how many more people started getting on prescription drugs. Part of it is the types of disorders that get advertised on television are very vague. They're things that everyone suffers from now and again, such as trouble sleeping. And then we go to our doctors, we ask for these drugs, and doctors tend to prescribe what we ask for. We end up self-diagnosing and then going to our doctor. And I just hope that disease-mongering and the deregulation that took place in the 80s and 90s in the pharmaceutical industry will be re-examined and more regulation will be put in place to protect the public. 

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