When Chris Anderson, director of The O Tapes, first read the findings of the Laumann study that made public the information that 43% of women experience sexual dysfunction, he was shocked. If this was the case for men, he thought, there would be a pill. Just a few months after reading the findings, one was released—for men, not for women. After doing a bit more research, he discovered that the incidence of sexual dysfunction in men was believed to be about half that recorded for women by the Laumann study.
Anderson, who had been working as a film editor, was in the market for a documentary film project, and after doing a bit of research into the subject himself, the elusive female orgasm became its subject. The only problem, he determined was that he was the wrong gender to carry this project through. But this didn’t deter him. He hired an all-female staff and proceeded to interview hundreds of women and a few noted (or notorious) experts in the field about sexuality. Many of these interviews revealed that women just don’t talk about sexuality.
Last night, I attended a sparsely populated screening of The O Tapes in San Francisco that was followed by a short panel discussion featuring the director and three local experts on human sexuality. Either San Franciscans think they already know everything about sex or the rainy weather served as a deterrent, because the Lumière Theater wasn’t even a quarter full. But I guarantee that everyone in the audience learned something new, whether it was a historical fact or a point of view put forth by someone interviewed in the film.
While I would have preferred a more narrative approach, the organization of the film around subjects was effective. As Anderson pointed out during the panel discussion, the interview covered about 60 subjects, most of which could not be included in the final version of the film. Instead, he used his editing skills to define a more narrow set of topics including “orgasm” “foreplay,” and “self image” to provide organization for the project.
The primary strength of The O Tapes isn’t the film’s organization, but rather, the diversity of voices that Anderson was able to capture during the interview process. The women in this film range in age from 25 to 84, and are from a range of racial and ethnic backgrounds. While almost all of the women are heterosexual, a few queer women are also given a voice. The project is more than reminiscent of The Vagina Monologues (click here for a Mother Jones interview with Ensler), but the diversity of voices and content goes beyond that normally attained in sex-positive film festivals.
Even though the so-called sexual revolution started something moving in the right direction, we have a long way to go when it comes to understanding female sexuality. For Chris Anderson, part of the solution might be found simply in talking about, rather than around, sex. Getting this dialogue going isn’t an easy undertaking in a culture that has many taboos centered around female sexuality. Fortunately, as revealed in the film, many women do love to talk.
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