Martha’s Vineyard Film Society screens “Orgasm, Inc.”


With a title as titillating as “Orgasm, Inc,” viewers may think the film showing Friday, June 4, at the Katharine Cornell Theatre is a piece of hot erotica. Not so. Instead the Martha’s Vineyard Film Society is sponsoring a rather awkward and jokey look at how the pharmaceutical industry tries to bamboozle women into thinking their products will bring instant sexual fulfillment.

“Orgasm, Inc.,” subtitled “The strange science of female pleasure,” takes a leisurely, somewhat rambling look at how the term female sexual dysfunction (FSD) came into existence as a way to bring women their own version of Viagra.

A few shocking (and misleading) statistics get tossed around: 43 percent of American women suffer from some form of FSD; 80 percent of them have body image issues. As Mark Twain liked to say, there’s “lies, damn lies and statistics.” The point is that numbers, particularly in the form of statistics, often mislead by making weak arguments seem more powerful than is justified.

Director Liz Canner began filming her documentary after she was hired to edit porn films to be used in clinical trials for a new female sex enhancement product developed by the California-based pharmaceutical company, Vivus. Vivus gave Ms. Canner permission to interview staff for her own documentary.

Dr. Virgil Place, the jovial, elderly gent who founded Vivus, explains that he became interested in the field of sexual enhancement after his own radical prostatectomy. The male product devised by Vivus came into being before Viagra, but got left in the dust by Viagra’s vigorous marketing campaign. That’s when Vivus turned to product development that could help fix female sexual parts.

The topical cream Vivus came up with is Alistra, a vasodilator that functions vaguely like Viagra. The catch is that increased blood flow is not necessarily the only component involved in sexual climax.

Ms. Canner interviews a number of critics of “pink Viagra,” including journalist Ray Moyniham, writer for the British Medical Journal, who claims that pharmaceutical companies are trying to turn healthy, normal people into patients to make a buck.

New York University psychiatrist Leonore Tiefer, who organized a protest at a Food and Drug Administration (FDA) hearing on FSD drugs, argues that drug companies have shifted cultural values about sexuality and that a one-size-fits-all drug is impractical, since sexuality is different for different people.

“Orgasm, Inc.” wanders into a Colgate University workshop on sex education, then visits the Good Vibrations Antique Vibrator Museum of Joani Blank. At the Berman Center run by Chicago-based sex therapist Dr. Laura Berman, the camera sees clients fork out $1,500 for treatment.

More disturbing are the surgical interventions intended to improve female sexual response. Marketed as “giving women choices,” these include vaginoplasty, labia reduction, and other forms of surgery that begin to sound ominously like voluntary forms of genital mutilation.

Finally, the director turns a spotlight on Procter & Gamble’s attempts to get approval for a testosterone patch for FSD and the alarming side effects that use of such hormone treatments can cause. Luckily, the FDA did not approve Procter & Gamble’s Intrinsa product, but the drug company marketed it in Europe instead.

Like good sex, “Orgasm, Inc.” leaves you longing for more. For instance, if female sex enhancement drugs are medically questionable, what are the long-time implications of widely used drugs like Viagra, intended only for erectile dysfunction?

Did Woody Allen, who introduced the Orgasmatron in 1973’s “Sleeper,” miss his true calling as a scientist, if an anesthesiologist discovered a genuine orgasmatron in 2004? Do shark fins and bear gall bladders work for women as well as men? Maybe Ms. Canner needs to produce a sequel that makes better sense of “the strange science of female pleasure.”

“Orgasm, Inc.,” Friday, June 4, 8 pm, Katharine Cornell Theatre, Vineyard Haven. $8; $5 for MVFS members. Doors open at 7:30. For more information, go to

Brooks Robards, who divides her time between Northampton and Oak Bluffs, is a frequent contributor to The Times.