Friday 18 March 2011

Orgasm Inc: business interests are not women's interests

Just because she's wearing a white coat
doesn't mean you should trust her.
Last weekend at the ICA I was privileged to be invited to chair a debate about sexuality, body issues and the pharmaceutical industry, following a screening of Liz Canner's documentary Orgasm Inc. The doc itself is a chilling examination of the false creation and medicalisation of a host of sexual 'dysfunctions' in women, prompted by the success of Viagra and companies' desperation to capitalise on the possibility of a female Viagra. While a series of funny and excruciating tests of female arousal for various pills, thrills, creams, patches and other devices throws some comedy over the issue, the underlying material is shocking. Canner's film shows executives at one of the pharmaceutical companies laughing amongst themselves and crowing over their stock options. When asked to justify their pathologisation of the 'female dysfunction' area, they can barely keep straight faces. Snickering, they say "The statistics never lie" but they become tongue-tied, evasive and nervous when questioned further. They push products which are proven not to work, and these products are endorsed in the media by a host of seemingly neutral physicians who, it turns out, are being paid to promote the products. This horrible, vast and lucrative world is thickly populated with quack doctors, opportunists and greedy tycoons - or wannabe tycoons - who do not give a damn about women, but give a big damn about big dollars. They are making money because there are so many women out there who are out of touch with their bodies, unconfident in their sexuality, unsure about what they 'ought' to be doing and oppressed by an absolutely artificial image of what satisfactory sexuality looks and feels like.

Contrasted with their avarice and callousness is a woman who is in a trusting, sensual and loving relationship, who has never been able to climax through intercourse alone. This is normal, but she doesn't know it. Instead she beats herself up about not having a 'real', 'proper' or 'normal' experience. She thinks that, despite the pleasure and joy of her life, there is a right and wrong way to do sex; when asked what she thinks about when making love she says immediately "war - fighting with myself." Her desperation to do it 'the right way' is painful to watch. She submits to any and every experiment, including the gruesome insertion of a nerve-stimulating device into her spinal cord. The risks of such a procedure are huge - she could die of shock or be paralysed - and the shot of the wires emerging from a hole in her back make the viewer shudder. The experiment fails utterly and one is left nauseated by the people who are, effectively, experimenting with the bodies, feelings and insecurities of these women, who trust them so completely.

I recommend the documentary, although it focuses more on the workings of the pharmaceutical industry than on the stories of the women who feel they need these products, even though they have proven to be ineffectual. To even up the debate, BEV invited the psychosexual health expert Dr Sandy Goldbeck-Wood and Sam Roddick, activist and owner of the Coco de Mer 'erotic emporium' (joke - I had promised her I wouldn't describe her beautiful shop of  sexy things in 1970s soft porn speak) as well as a leading figure in international fair trade and grassroots movements and the founder of Bondage for Freedom. These two speakers were an excellent combination: Sandy was crystal clear, calm, cerebral, very thoughtful and precise in referring to the women and men she treats; Sam was fiery and inspirational, a broad, warm and extremely engaging and voluble speaker. Together they provided a comprehensive and compassionate take on sexual 'dysfunction' in its commonest forms. Both advocated that people must learn to listen to and ground themselves in their own bodies, that the body is a barometer for the emotional self, that sex is something which happens between individuals and is not something that is done to you or that you 'do' to someone else, that pleasure flows from joy, connection and happiness and that there is - above all - no 'right way' to do it. We agreed that the image of sexuality which currently exists not only in the mainstream (say, in Hollywood romances or in novels) and in seemingly frank depictions of sexuality, like porn, are all falsified in some way. Either they are painfully raw, unsensual and workmanlike or they are airbrushed to perfection. As one woman in the doc comments, in a Hollywood film a couple is always beautiful, sex is natural and easy, it looks great, it's not messy, it's brief, nobody jokes around and they climax together. Every - single - time.

Both Sandy and Sam commented that, for all the seeming sexualisation of our culture, people are in fact extremely shy about talking about sexual problems with their doctors, with their partners or even with themselves. There is a fundamental split between the mind and the body, culturally, which leaves each person feeling alone and feeling as though they are a failure. Liz Canner's documentary shows what happens when huge corporations step into the breach and seem to offer solutions, which take advantage of individuals' feeling of inadequacy and reap the benefits while offering precisely no meaningful comfort, help, pleasure or care.