Ten Things I Learned About Female Orgasms

...from the documentary Orgasm, Inc.

By Kelly Bourdet

Filmmaker Liz Canner was working for a pharmaceutical company, making erotic videos for use in tests of female arousal drugs. Her growing suspicions about drug companies' ulterior motives inspired her new film, Orgasm, Inc., which takes a skeptical look at the business of female pleasure.

1. Supply creates demand; the pharmaceutical industry creates disorders.
What happens when people believe there ought to be a pill to solve all their ailments? A vaguely defined "disorder" can create a demand for a pill, any kind of pill, that purports to provide relief. Thus, we get "female sexual disorder," which, according to dubious research, affects forty-three percent of women. So we can make a drug for that, right? 

2. Remember "hysteria?"
That zany condition that swept the nation in the early twentieth century? Well, in hindsight, it seems like "hysteria" was just women being super-stressed that they never got off. And they never got off because there was no sex education and people didn't know as much about female sexuality then. "Female sexual disorder" might just be the twenty-first century equivalent.
3. There's no right way to have an orgasm.
There's a really heartbreaking portion of Orgasm, Inc. in which we meet Charletta, a sixty-year-old Southern lady who claims to have never experienced an orgasm. She becomes a test subject for the "Orgasmatron," a device that's actually surgically threaded through her spine. Despite the doctor's high hopes, the device doesn't work. By this point, I'm really feeling terrible for Charletta. But then, the filmmaker asks a question about her inability to climax and it's revealed that Charletta can have an orgasm, just not through penetrative sex with her husband. Wait, what? This woman said she was unable to orgasm! But she can have an orgasm just fine. She just needs a tongue or a vibrator or her hand or whatever. Charletta's story highlights the way we view women's pleasure through the lens of male pleasure.
4. Speaking of which, "Orgasmatron" is a terrible, scary name for a sexual aid, albeit a great name for a Motörhead album.
The device Charletta has surgically installed into her backbone is a live wire, placed adjacent to nerve endings that supply the impulse for orgasmic sensation and pleasure. The creator boasts that it's guaranteed to provide a woman with an orgasm. Well, it doesn't provide all the women in his extremely small test group (eleven women) with orgasms. Oh, and potential risks of the device include shock, paralysis, epidural hemorrhage, and cerebrospinal fluid leak.

5. Help a lady out.
Obviously the problem of women's diminished interest in sex as they age has multiple contributing factors. Orgasm, Inc. explores the fact that working women still complete three times as much housework as their partners. Women are also often more responsible for child-rearing. Maybe this has something to do with their not wanting to have as much sex.

6. A puppet vagina makes everything more fun.
In the process of making the film, Canner comes across some entertaining ladies offering non-medical solutions to women's dissatisfaction. (One sex-shop owner showcases a big velvet puppet of a vagina.) Maybe we need to focus on providing women the tools to explain where and how they like to be touched instead of looking to medication.

7. Your junk is beautiful.
Recent years have seen a surge in women seeking vaginal plastic surgeries. There are now over 200 cosmetic genital surgery clinics worldwide. The filmmakers interviews a woman who lost a third of her total blood volume following a botched vaginal plastic surgery — not common, but scary. Women often seek cosmetic procedures to tighten their vaginas and to reduce the size of their labia, but the potential risks of these surgeries include scarring, infection, chronic pain, loss of sensation (kind of an important one), and inability to have intercourse.  

8. There's a lot of money to be made by convincing women there's something wrong with them.
Obviously, financial gain is the motivation behind many questionable cosmetic procedures and pharmaceutical remedies, but it's especially resonant to watch Canner interact with Lisa, a marketer who's promoting "Designer Laser Vaginal Rejuvenation surgery" at a sex convention. When Lisa shows Canner the results of the surgeries, Canner exclaims that the women have been made to look like little girls. Lisa then admits this is true and vows to quit her job. (She doesn't.)

9. "Will a pill help solve women's sexual dissatisfaction? Maybe if the box has a map of the clitoris on it."
One sex-shop owner's response to the search for the female-orgasm drug emphasizes, again, that we need more women to understand the ways their bodies work. The film points out that seventy percent of women need direct clitoral stimulation to reach orgasm. How many of them know how to get it?

10. Monkey expert solves the world's sex problems.
In the final scene of the film, Canner speaks with Emory University psychologist Kim Wallen at the Yerkes National Primate Research Center in Atlanta. He's spent his life researching the sexual behavior of primates. The two watch some monkeys engage in an elaborate sexual dance and she asks him what lessons he's learned from his observations. He pauses, then says, "Pay more attention to females." That's a takeaway message if I've ever heard one.

Commentarium (21 Comments)

Feb 11 11 - 10:53am

Great article. Thank you.

Feb 11 11 - 12:16pm

The title of this article should be "Ten Things I Learned About How Women Are Great Just The Way They Are (And When They're Not, It's Usually Men's Fault)". That's fine if you're into that sort of thing, but it's not really an article about female orgasms, and would be better suited for Cosmo than Nerve.

Feb 11 11 - 1:01pm

#8 - exactly.

Be familiar with (and able and willing to convey) what it is you're into. If you're not familiar with that, maybe try getting familiar with it - solo.

Feb 11 11 - 1:16pm

The "orgasmatron" is from the Woody Allen movie "Sleeper".

Feb 11 11 - 3:53pm

Exactly, I was going to say that.

Feb 11 11 - 2:18pm

Charletta's misconception about female orgasm is actually very common, especially among older generations who came of age in a time when psychologists actually promoted that myth. I'm shocked that the doctors didn't investigate this avenue BEFORE performing SPINAL SURGERY.

Disclosure: I haven't watched the film yet, so perhaps there is more context to explain this issue.

Feb 11 11 - 2:21pm

OK, since the mods apparently nixed my earlier post, let me put it this way: this article isn't really about female orgasm, it's about a movie that critiques Big Pharma for creating and exploiting an alleged medical condition, whereas the real problem is the assumptions, attitudes, and biases of our (allegedly) male-centric society. That's fine, but the title should've been "Ten Things I Learned From Orgasm, Inc.", because more than half of the article's 10 bullet points aren't really about orgasm at all. I mean, c'mon, #5? I don't come to Nerve for lectures about how men should be doing more housework.

Feb 11 11 - 3:20pm

"OK, since the mods apparently nixed my earlier post"...or not! No idea why that comment triggered the mod filter...

Feb 14 11 - 2:00pm
Hank Rearden

The change in font size and the use of a return key do add a little separation to the "ideas" at work, but I honestly think the title of the article is "Ten Things I Learned About Female Orgasms...from the documentary Orgasm, Inc."

Feb 11 11 - 4:16pm

@Lac. A lot of these points aren't necessarily a jibe at men. Women are often their own harshest critics and these days there a plenty of women in the pharma/medical field who, for whatever reason, are selling their sisters short. Vaginoplasty is a perfect example. Not many men I know who'd kick a woman out of bed because of the hang of her labia. If that agenda's being pushed, it's the invariably female edited women's mags that are doing the pushing.

Feb 11 11 - 7:34pm

Twiddler, its true that women and media aimed at women do reinforce the idea of women having the perfect genitalia, being able to come from just a quick in-and-out, and being sexually dysfunctional if they don't. But the majority of these ideas come from male targeted media created by men, such as most porn, where it is now considered a niche fetish to have hair, almost all the women shown have the perfectly pink, small "playboy pussy," and can orgasm from penis thrusting alone, or can at least perform it for the camera. That's not a jibe at men, and it doesn't mean men are evil. It just means that the group in power is mainly responsible for beginning systems of oppression. I'm white, and I don't think I'm evil, but I understand that black people didn't just choose to oppress themselves and we are all responsible for doing something about it, even though some black kids do join gangs, etc.

Feb 11 11 - 5:30pm

It's not just women's magazines. Some of the "lad mags" are pretty scathing in their descriptions of female genitalia - "beef curtains" is one favorite expression.

Feb 11 11 - 10:05pm

@SC - Well OK let's isolate porn from the rest of the male-targeted media because fishing and motor sport magazines, as sexist as they can be, tend not to editorialise on female sexuality and the women featured therein are not so unclad that you could say there's a genital agenda at play (the water is murkier I grant you with breasts). So porn then, especially in its modern format, is a highly fetishised circus act. I would say the "playboy pussy" is just part of a wider cultural aesthetic which developed in the 80s - a rejection of hippy granola for commodified, clean-lined, anodyne erotica (whether it was Hustler or Madonna). Isn't it possible that the root of this, and many other, problems is not media and the people who own it, but something more fundamental in the human animal; tribal ritual and an instinctive bias towards sexual submission and the unconscious or overt display of such by women? It's hard to put any sort of empowering spin on "vajazzling" but equally hard to say that it sprung from a male dominated media.

@GeeBee - I'd say the intent of that term was adolescent humour rather than criticism and the average reader of a lad mag would be happy to encounter *any* female crotch drapery. Some bullshit article in Cosmo telling some 16 year old how, when and why to cosmetically alter their genitals tail-ended with some trite "think it through carefully and be happy with yourself" escape clause seems the more insidious form to me.

Feb 11 11 - 11:57pm

Wait, so in one sentence you're claiming that the narrow "designer vagina" aesthetic originated in the 80s. Then right after that you claim it's instinctive. Contradictory much? (And for the record, no I don't think it's instinctive to want a smaller vulva. Monkeys don't seem to have that issue.)

Feb 12 11 - 6:29am

No that's not what I'm saying at all. I'm suggesting that cultural biases in humans (possibly genetically inherited) may be the more profound source of cultural phenomena such as "designer vagina's" than oppressive media (which is surely just another cultural artifact of human societal behaviour). As a lower order primate, it's unlikely monkeys share human social impulses (although evidence suggests they share at least some). Female genital display certainly plays its part in the sexual behaviour of some primates but body adornment/modification behaviour appears to be exclusively homosapien.

Feb 12 11 - 1:04pm

There is actually a commercial product called "Orgasmatron," but it is a scalp massager, and has no literal connection to orgasms--it just feels really, really good when you use it. I'm reluctant to post a link that might look like spam, but it's easy enough to find online, especially once you know that it's made in Australia.

Feb 19 11 - 2:52pm

Oh man is that the spidery-looking wire thing?? Those things rule

Feb 13 11 - 10:03pm

To ask a woman, especially a woman you truly care for and about to have surgery to make you happier in bed is extremely selfish and for a woman to get her vag operated on because her husband / boyfriend asks her to, I wouldn't think so. As a man who respects women completely I think it's appalling what guys ask women to do for strictly selfish reasons. These guys ask their women to literally look like Barbie dolls than leave when a younger women comes along that they can manipulate, absolutely unacceptable.

Feb 21 11 - 7:42pm

Greg, did you have penoplasty? Seriously, grow some balls buddy...bottom line here: if you're really a "man who respects women completely," give them their autonomy and let them do what they want with their bodies -- even if that means the cliched futile attempt to fight Father Time. They're grown-ups who can use their brains, and if they're angry about peer pressure or media presentations of beauty, let them vote with their pocketbooks (or maybe they can borrow your purse).

Feb 17 11 - 12:02pm

Woody Allen's Orgasmatron in "Sleeper" was a lampoon of Wilhelm Reich's Orgone Accumulator. You could sit inside and...

Feb 21 11 - 4:34pm

Agreed that the title and the subject of the article don't always go hand in hand, if you skip the subtitle, it's an interesting article none the less. Does anybody remember that test in school that said at the top of the page "Read all instructions before writing anything". It would tell you to draw smiley faces and a swirl here and another thing here, then at the bottom of the page it would say "Do not follow any of the instructions above just write your name at the top and date". If you don't skim the line " Her growing suspicions about drug companies' ulterior motives inspired her new film" you would understand the article better. Everybody gets different perspectives from same experiences. Really though, I would say 10 is the most important in you look at it in different perspective. I'm not a monkey so I don't know if "engaging in a elaborate sexual dance" gets his monkey-girl all hot and bothered. Likewise, he's not human so he wouldn't know about oral, visual, and other stimulates that we use. Understanding and communication are the most important factors to the female orgasm, not pointing fingers. I do agree though that "big pharma" is is to blame. Media is advertising, and they control the media. BIG bucks baby, BIG bucks.