Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Orgasm Inc.

Now you can accuse Dirk of having a somewhat predictable taste in film titles. After all he got introduced to this media somewhat later in life… But he honestly swears that he went to see this film at the current Hot Docs Film Festival in Toronto for the purest of professional reasons. It is a brilliantly shot, researched and told story about how the pharmaceutical industry identifies and defines new ‘diseases’ which can be a market for newly developed products.

It’s a remarkable film for many reasons. First, we think it really shows the reach of the corporate world up into to most private and personal spheres of human beings. After the tremendous success (commercial that is) of Viagra a lot of pharmaceutical companies have tried to see if similar products could be developed for women. The problem though is that while problems in bed with many men are clearly, say, a ‘mechanical’ dysfunction, the alleged absence of sexual satisfaction with women is a much more complex phenomenon. By carefully funding research, paying celebrity sex columnists and TV presenters and a whole host of players the pharmaceutical industry has – so the film – virtually created the diagnosis for a new disease: ‘Female Sexual Dysfunction’ (FSD).

Once that had been achieved, the next step is obvious: create a pill, a patch, a lotion, an implant – in short: a profitable product – to ‘cure’ women of FSD. Now there are two problems here: all products so far have severe risks and side effects and none of them really work. And that leads to the second problem: FSD - as many of the experts consulted in the film lay out – is not even a proper disease which can be cured by popping a pill. Rather, difficulties to experience a pleasurable and satisfying sex life for women depends by far the least on physical factors, but a whole host of social, psychological, economic and relational conditions. The film shows to which efforts the industry has gone to make female sexuality into just another commodity, which can be made of source of profit; in other words, ‘Orgasm Inc.’

The film is also great learning stuff for other reasons. Institutional scholars have shown the importance of the ‘organizational field’ for business to be successful. Orgasm Inc. shows how companies actively shape this environment: doctors, academics, columnists, TV show hosts, sex helplines, governmental agencies. They all are crucial for corporate success and companies have for long actively shaped, manipulated and used these actors for their interest. By choosing such a rather personal and intimate backdrop, the film just exhibits to which ends companies are ready to go to achieve their goals. Indeed, nothing is sacred any more.

But whatever the somewhat somber story line – it’s an incredibly funny documentary, very watchable. Liz Canner, the director, initially got drawn into this topic through an assignment to put together film material for sexually stimulating women for clinical trials for a pharmaceutical company. The film never lectures, but just by letting people talk, digging behind the surface of sleek corporate executives and mixing material it just achieves its goal in a still rather lighthearted fashion. Highly recommended.


  1. Dear Professors Crane and Matten,

    A very *interesting* article, indeed. I have to say that I agree with you over the extent to which the industry has made female sexuality just another commodity, and packaged it in the form of a 'pill', a 'lotion' or what you may.
    However, in my opinion, its not just about the commodification of "female sexuality", but of sexuality itself. The porn industry, sex-toys, and the massive lingerie industry are all indicative of this 'commodification'. Sex itself has become "expensive", and condoms are probably the best example of this (not disputing their usefulness). Like you have said, "nothing is sacred anymore"... I guess it goes on to show that in today's day and age, the personal is *not just* political... its more than that.

    Your piece really highlights the innovative nature capitalism, which is constantly in search of new markets. In many ways, the discussion of ethics here brings into question the very nature of capitalism itself.

    Just my thoughts anyway :)

    ~ Aparna

  2. Aparna,
    you are right, 'sex' is an industry these days. Not all of it in my view bad. What struck me with this film is how an industry creates a 'disease' out of something, in order to create a new market for profitable products. Thanks for your feedback, liked it.

  3. @ Aparna - Well, I guess this maybe because the causes of 'Male' Sexual Dysfunction are mainly mechanical/medical.
    While 'female' sexual dysfunction has 'emotional, relational, mental, physical, unknown1, unknown2... unknownN etc' number of dimensions. And until somebody is born on this earth who can understand the female mind, it will remain so.
    So, while the male part of this issue can be solved by poppping a pill, I guess no one even knows yet what the female part requires.

    But blaming 'Capitalism' for trying to do something is wrong.

    Whenever there is a market for something, there would be someone to sell it. This is like the way prostitution is projected. The sellers are targeted/villainized more than the buyers - who are the main raison-de-etre for the sellers anyway.
    So, I would prefer to blame the human society as such for its ills more than capitalism per se.
    This would be like blaming discount boards in shopping malls for the over drawn credit cards of hen-pecked husbands. The wives seem to be not getting any of the blame!!

  4. I am sure the many men that can now have erections thanks to viagra don't mind the corporate world in there personal sphere. At the same time I am sure women suffering from sexual dysfunction (and their partners) appreciate this as well. Corporate greed may not be a good thing but certainly seems like some benefit here.

    Also stop propogating the sterotype that men are all physical and mechanical. I would bet the underlying cause of male sexual issues is more commonly mental or emtional than anything else.


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