Orgasm Inc. explores the changing face of female sexuality, from the race to develop the female Viagra to designer vaginas. Orgasm, Inc. was shown at the Palace 9 Theater in Burlington, VT and won best feature for the 2009 Vermont International Film Festival. nthWORD talks to Liz Canner about her controversial award-winning documentary.
nthWORD: How did you become interested in making documentary films?
LC: I started making documentary films when I was in college at Brown University during the first Gulf War, the first war in Iraq, and we were doing a class project for Paper Tiger Television, a look at the media representation of the war. And it was then that I realized so much of what we get as information we think is real information is often packaged by Madison Avenue including, in that case, the war, for instance reframing what we think as a civilian casualties as collateral damage, and that kind of thing, so that war has been sanitized and many other aspects of our lives that we think are being represented as the truth aren't necessarily the truth. It was then that I became interested in projects that provide a deeper analysis than the sound bytes that we get.
nthWORD: As your film Orgasm, Inc. shows, it's the use of language--
LC: Right, so you have Madison Avenue branding conditions and actually coming up with the names of disorders and acronyms that sound good, that people want to repeat, so you have things like shyness being reframed as social anxiety disorder . And my favorite one that they've come up with recently is male menopause which is andropause , from androgyne, so it's a pause of your androgyne. So I think that it makes you understand what we think of as maybe medical or how we talk about war or what's scientific, that a lot of it's packaged to sell.
nthWORD: At the beginning of this film, you mention that you got a job editing erotic videos for a drug trial for a pharmaceutical company. How did you land such an interesting gig?
LC: I got the job through a friend who I'd worked with before, Kim Airs, and I was offered the job through her because they needed a filmmaker to help them edit together this porn. Then I went out and shot some non-erotic footage that we intercut in it so they could see if it was the porn or if it was the drug. They were testing it. But it was kind of a fluke. I was already working on this film about women and pleasure, and then this was the next step. It gave me insight into what was going on. I didn't think I was going to be making an exposé.
nthWORD: It sounds like it happened organically--
LC: It just happened organically. As I was going along I started to realize that there was something unusual that was bigger than just looking for a pleasure drug for women.
nthWORD: In the film, you confront a woman at a trade show who is marketing Designer Vaginas . It was one of the most revealing and compelling segments of the film, especially after hearing one woman's physical trauma of the surgery gone wrong.
LC: With the vaginal surgery I was really curious about it, and I didn't know a lot about it and I was not planning on putting it in my film, but none of the drug people would talk to me. It was right after they stopped the studies on hormone replacement therapy, so no one wanted to talk to the media. So there she was, and she would talk to me, so I started filming her, and as I was filming her, she has this meltdown on camera. So you begin to understand that they are conflicted about doing this job, and that they know better, but that they probably need the money.
At that point [the designer vagina] was very fringe, but over the years, while I was making this film, it really took off. Now there are over eight of these clinics within New York city alone and 200 worldwide, but that doesn't count all the doctors who are doing it who aren't part of the trademarked Designer Vaginas franchise. It has become huge, and we don't know the numbers of women getting it done, but you can assume, given the number of clinics, that it's quite large.
nthWORD: And again, that goes back to the use of language. Designer Vagina. You can shop for a new body part, so to speak...
LC: Right. I think we assume, and this is where we get caught up, that if in Africa a woman is getting a clitorechtomy - and she didn't choose to get the clitorechtomy - somehow we're going to go over and rescue these women. But here, because women are choosing to do it, we shouldn't intervene. But the reality is that choice is only as broad as your choice really is and what your assumptions are, so what's happened is a lot of pornstars are getting this done. And as we know, a lot of pornstars shave. And a lot of young women now shave. And women, we don't really know what women look like, if we are heterosexual, so they are getting their idea of what a normal vagina is from porn . So our whole concept of what is normal for the size of a labia is changing due to this surgery. So women often think their labia is too long, because they're looking at the pornography. And the other thing is they haven't seen themselves since they were young girls. If you shave and look at an adult woman's vagina, it's very different from when you were young.
So there are all these elements that are playing a part in narrowing the choice, in a way. The other problem is if you're going to make a choice, you want to make an informed choice. And the sexual surgeries are being misrepresented as being efficacious, when there's absolutely no documented evidence that these surgeries increase sexual function. So that is a case of false advertising.
nthWORD: And the price tag is pretty high --
LC: The price tag is thousands of dollars.
nthWORD: And then there's follow up --
LC: And then the follow up.
nthWORD: And the look --
LC: During my research, I went into a porn store, and women with pubic hair was in the fetish section! A huge porn store! Shaving has become the norm. That's where cinematography has come in. Because it's a way to shoot. So now a whole younger generation of women are shaving.
And there are a lot of health reasons not to shave. Pubic hair protects you from bacteria.
nthWORD: I went into the film thinking it was just going to be the race for the pills, but there was so much --
LC: Yeah. That's what I initially thought too. But so many other things started developing and I realized I had to cover them to show, to give you an idea of what's happened since female sexual dysfunction was created, and how it created a marketplace in so many different arenas. It wasn't just for the drugs.
nthWORD: I was really blown away by what you uncovered in this film. Where can filmgoers see Orgasm, Inc. in the future? Is there a distribution plan?
LC: Right now, we're doing festivals. This was the first one in the States. There are TV channels taking a look at it. It will definitely be available on our website and we're doing a campus tour coming soon. We're definitely trying to get it out to young people because they're the targets for a lot of this marketing.
nthWORD: Have you submitted to Sundance, or --
LC: We can't do Sundance because we're being broadcast on television in many countries internationally. So we ended up doing that, because we decided we wanted to get the film out there. There's a drug that's probably going up for approval, in Paris next month. So I wanted to get it out there. The problem is when you release your film, it's where you hit it on the festival circuit.
nthWORD: I think this is a film people should see. Liz thank you for speaking with me today and good luck!
LC: Thank you!