Apr 302010

So last night I went up to Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art to see Orgasm, Inc, a documentary about the relationship between the pharmaceutical industry and women’s sexuality.

It was super, interviewing some of my favorite sex researchers, including the marvelous Leonore Tiefer and my favorite behavioral neuroendocrinologist Kim Wallen, and it made me think about a lot of things, many of which will be appearing on the blog eventually.

The very short summary is: when Viagra turned into a megadrug that gave old and middle aged men erections like they hadn’t had since they were teenagers, the next goal was to see if it would help women too.

It doesn’t.

(Or rather, it doesn’t help any more than a placebo, but I should mention that sex drugs have the strongest placebo effect of any medication. In the FDA approval meeting for a testosterone patch that didn’t get approved, we learned that 50% of the patients on the drug wanted to continue taking it; nearly 40% wanted to continue taking the placebo.)

But WHY doesn’t it work?

Well it’s because of this thing I keep saying over and over, that women’s sexual responsiveness is context-dependent. Situational. What pill can you take that will fix a situation like having to work 50 hours a week, having a fight with your partner, being too exhausted and strung out from childrearing to have energy for sex, or hating your body because it doesn’t look or behave as it should?

Part of the situation is, or should be, fairly easy to fix: women understanding their own sexuality.

In the film, two women go through different surgical procedures to increase their likelihood of having orgasms with penetration. Both of them can have orgasms from other stimulation, but both believe that their inability to orgasm through penetration means they’re broken, abnormal, diseased. Then when Liz informs one of the women that in fact she’s in the majority (it’s been days, I think, since I mentioned that only about 1/3 of women are reliably orgasmic from penetration), she more or less instantaneously embraces the idea that she is healthy and normal! Hurray!

And in Polly Vernon’s recent Observer article on the film and its concept, she mentions a friend who learned from the internets that women’s sexual desire can be – often is – responsive rather than spontaneous. Just learning that fact and knowing that it’s okay to start having sex when you’re willing, rather than when you’re interested, apparently brought her back from the sexual dead.

I routinely forget that women don’t know this stuff, but it’s information that transforms women’s relationships with their bodies.

Still, I drove home last night worried.

“There is no profit,” I thought, “In telling women they’re normal and healthy. The power is where the money is. So what can anyone do?”

But this morning I’m feeling more optimistic. I’m pretty sure this is a message women WANT to hear, and I’m utterly certain it’s a message that can change their lives for the better. And it’s a message that loads of us feminist sex researchers, educators, counselors, and therapists are spreading (Debby Herbenick, Petra Boynton, Heather Corinna, Susie Bright to name but a few).

We’ll never get on Oprah with that message – as you learn in the film, Oprah is attached to the Berman sisters, who are attached to the pharmaceutical industry – but I wonder how loud our shared voices CAN be? How can we make it so that everyone knows the stuff that I forget people don’t know?

Yeah, the film reminded me of things I forget. I forget how powerful and rich and wrong-headed pharmaceutical companies can be. I forget how little women know about their own bodies. I forget how monolithic and impermeable is the media’s representation of women’s sexuality. Consequently, I forget how important it is that I do the work I do.

Every day. Over and over. Less than a 1/3 of women are reliably orgasmic from penetration. Women’s sexuality is often characterized by responsive rather than spontaneous desire. There’s not a great correlation between what a woman’s physiology is doing and how she feels. Have I said that yet? Should I say it again? Have you all heard me? Have you all told your friends?

There is no pink viagra because there is no medicine for a culture that tells women they’re broken.

Oh wait, yes there is.

It’s me.