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Inventing Orgasmic Misery

Last night, I was invited to a documentary movie called Orgasm Inc. Intentionally, I had planned to stay home and go to bed early so I would be rested prior to the half marathon I was planning on running this Sunday. But when I saw the email invite, I thought, as a scholar working on porn and its serial production, I could not possibly miss that movie.

So I went. The screening, which was part of the San Francisco Women's Film Festival, took place in a small multiple-purpose room. It was your typical indie film audience - people in jeans and cardigans distributing fliers about "Anti-corporate Film Festivals". And naturally, half through the movie, the projector broke down and the director had to jump in and entertain the crowd, until some geek hooked up his Mac and its crappy sound card to another device which enabled us to see the rest of the film.

All this is not to imply that the movie itself was bad. It fact, it was the kind of film that lingers. That changes the view of the world you had before. In other words, a movie worth blogging about.

Orgasm Inc. deals with the invention of female viagra, a pill to increase woman's pleasure during sex. Sounds reasonable, right? If men can't get it up, they pop a blue tablet and can perform perfectly afterward. Why shouldn't women enjoy that same easy orgasm?

The problem is the very idea of female pleasure itself. Scientists still don't really know what triggers off an orgasm in a woman; accordingly, it's also hard to say what a "sexual disorder" would be. Is it the lack of desire or only the inability to come? Is it pain during intercourse or only a occasional discomfort? What is normal for some seems pathological for others.

But in order to develop a drug that "cures" a certain disease, the pharmaceutical companies actually have to prove that there is a disease in the first place. And because no one really knows what's "sick" or "healthy" in sex - they simply went ahead and invented the disease they then planned to cure - a thing called "female sexual disorder". The old wisdom that "sex sells" seemed profitable enough: Before they could sell the sex in (in form of a pill), they needed to make sure that people were short of it. The definition of "health" ceased to be a medical issue and started to be a financial one - if it hadn't always been.

The movie would make a wonderful new chapter in Foucault's History of Sexuality. In it, he says that this thing called "sex" as we know it came into being when people started talking about it in the 19th century. The way they talked about it was usually in creepy psychoanalytical sessions that revealed the apparent "perversion" of patients. Vibrators, for instance, were first developed to treat a condition called female "hysteria". What happened was that by declaring people "abnormal", society made sex the thing it is today - something that always seemed slightly sick.

Liz Canner, the director, does a fantastic job tracing this dubious enterprise - one that sets out to heal women and instead declares them sick. I will not give away all the details of her stunning investigation; but it is impressing how little women know about their bodies and how much harm they are willing to do to themselves in order to achieve something that is supposed to be "better sex".

When I walked out of the multiple-purpose room later, I was of course worried about porn's share in this misery-causing industry. After all, the female pleasure portrayed there can be easily misunderstood as something fixed and mandatory. At home, I clicked on the website of the Feminist Porn Awards which were going on in Toronto this same weekend. And I knew, there was hoping.

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