There is a new documentary causing quite a lot of buzz today. It is called Orgasm, Inc. and it looks at the strange but inevitable collision of the pharmaceutical industry with women’s sexuality. Liz Canner uses this film to display the sad reality that pharmaceutical companies play a crucial role in shaping the diseases they seek to treat. To make money they need to treat diseases and they are certainly not above fabricating or exaggerating them in order to come to the rescue with some amazing new cure. Such is the case with Female Sexual Dysfunction, the particular focus of the documentary. At least that is what Liz Canner argues in Orgasm Inc. This is not a case of companies reacting to genuine problems and creating cures, but a case of companies generating diseases and then magnanimously stepping in with a cure.
A Cure that Needs a Disease
If Canner is right, it tells us two things: there are some diseases that need a cure and some cures that need a disease. When we think of the pharmaceutical industry, we like to think that they have before them a list of the diseases that afflict us and that they are responsibly seeking to generate cures for them. That’s the rose-colored glasses view. The reality is that these companies answer to the shareholder, they answer to the bottom line. And to keep that bottom line healthy they need to be proactive. And so, like any other industry, they fabricate the need as they fabricate the product. We know this happens in other areas–fashion and personal care and electronics–so why not in pharmaceuticals?
Here’s the rub: if a cure is going to sell, it needs to have insurance companies pay for it; insurance companies will only pay for it if it works against a specific medical condition. But definitions can be changed, and eventually this is what tends to happen: the drug companies work with medical experts to define the disease in such a specific way or in such a vague way that the insurance companies will need to provide the medications for it.
According to the Mayo Clinic, Female Sexual Dysfunction involves “persistent, recurrent problems with sexual response or desire.” That is rather vague, to say the least. “Persistent” and “recurrent” are both open to definition; almost any human being could claim to have persistent problems with desire in one form or another. So hand over the pills.
When it comes to sexuality it is not at all difficult to convince people that they are substandard and to reassure them of a quick fix. This was the case with Viagra and now it’s the case with the female equivalent. A review of the film by Andrew O’Hehir makes this point:
Essentially, “Orgasm Inc.” illustrates a time-honored principle of capitalism, which is that you’ll never go broke by convincing women that something is wrong with them and then selling them something to make it better. (Arguably men got the same treatment with Viagra, which clearly addresses the symptoms of erectile dysfunction, but does nothing to address underlying causes like stress, diet, weight, poor health or the aging process.)
So I suppose I offer this article with two applications.
All Sex is Dysfunctional
First, be wary of any cure. As the industry gears up to treat FSD it is going to seek to convince women that they have a problem that needs to be addressed (and one that can be best addressed by medication). They will pull out all the stops to make women feel inadequate so, in turn, they can offer fulfillment in a little pill. Most women need little encouragement to believe that they are sexually inadequate. Be wary of the messages. The truth is that all sex is dysfunctional because all sex happens in a dysfunctional world. The kind of cure these companies propose does not get to the heart of most problems (just like Viagra does not get to the heart of many of the problems that lead to erectile dysfunction). In this case it is a quick relief of symptoms, not a true cure at all.
Second, by making this issue one that can be best addressed by a pill, we allow people to be drawn away from the true source of dysfunction, whatever that may be. It is easier to take a pill than to deal with past abuse or sexual history; it is easier to take a pill than to deal with health reasons; it is easier to take a pill than to deal with what may be the spiritual heart of an issue. Like any other area in life, we always need to be wary of the quick fix, the kind of fix that comes in a bottle.
It is entirely possible, likely even, that there are some women who may benefit greatly from this kind of a cure–a cure that addresses a genuine need. But it’s more than likely–it’s doubtlessly true–that this cure will be sold to those who have no true need for it. It will be sold to those who can be convinced they have a problem or to those who can be convinced that this offers the easiest way of dealing with a problem, even if that means (or especially if that means) avoiding the heart of the issue.