The Sex Doctors are In

Orgasm Inc.

Posted by Anna Potter

Last week I was fortunate enough to attend a screening of a documentary called Orgasm, Inc. The film, by Liz Canner, chronicles the race for pharmaceutical companies to get FDA approval on "pink Viagra" -- that is, a pill for female sexual dysfunction.

What is female sexual dysfunction (FSD), you may ask? Good question -- and one that no one is quite sure how to answer. Some people liken female sexual dysfunction with male sexual dysfunction, but there are major flaws with this comparison. With men's sexuality, we can easily tell when there's premature ejaculation, and we can easily tell when there's erectile dysfunction: It's all very show-and-tell. Female sexuality is quite different. We don't really get obvious physical signals when a woman is aroused or moving through the stages of "normal" sexual response.

Another issue with defining female sexual dysfunction is that with men, the basic formula is this: Orgasm during sex = normal; no orgasm during sex = dysfunctional. But with women, research shows that somewhere around 75 percent of women never orgasm from penetrative sex alone. So what is sexual dysfunction in women? In 2000, the Journal of Urology offered a few definitions on FSD, and I've got a problem with all of them:

  • lack of interest in sexual activity,
  • "phobic avoidance" of sexual contact with a partner,
  • inability to attain or maintain sexual excitement,
  • difficulty attaining orgasm,
  • pain during intercourse,
  • genital pain.

Now, I don't know about the other ladies out there, but I gotta admit: Sometimes I just don't want to have sex. Or sometimes my mind wanders and I'm not going to get particularly aroused. And, sometimes a little lube goes a long way in avoiding occasional pain.

But do I need to take a pill for these things? Nah.

Besides, we don't even know how a "pink Viagra" should work. For men, pills for erectile dysfunction work by changing blood flow in the penis. For women, arousal and orgasm aren't just about blood flow; there's also a huge mental component. Emily Nagoski, the author of The Good in Bed Guide to Female Orgasms, says, "There's no such thing as a sexual dysfunction that's 'all in your head.' Neither is there a sexual dysfunction that's 'all in your vagina.' There is only the embodied mind. Thus education and behavioral training change physiology."

So many things shut down our brains when it comes to sex, and just as many light up our brains -- and those things translate to our bodies. In one of the FSD drug clinical trials, women were either given a placebo or given the activated drug, and were shown porn while their sexual response was measured. The result? No difference between the placebo and the drug -- and yet when a lot of the women were having orgasms anyway, one of the clinicians was led to the conclusion that, "Yeah so... so porn works."

Now look, I'm not here to say that some women aren't experiencing some problems, and anyone who is should absolutely see her gynecologist. I just don't want us all to be walking around thinking we're dysfunctional. One woman in the documentary decided to participate in a trial for something called -- I kid you not -- the "Orgasmatron." The device is surgically implanted into a woman's lower back, and works by stimulating the spinal cord. Why was this woman seeking out such an invasive procedure? She wasn't having orgasms when she was having sex with her husband. She said, "Not only am I not normal, I'm diseased. I'm in this to heal myself." Not normal? Diseased? Well, she had a change of heart when the surgery didn't work -- in talking with other women, including the filmmaker, she realized that most women don't experience orgasm from penetrative sex. And by the end of her journey, she said, "There are other ways to have sex other than sexual intercourse."

If I could write a prescription for women and the folks who love to love us, it would include lots of anatomy homework, some good silicone lube, a vibrator or two, an active mind, open and honest communication, and memorizing the phrase, "I am sexually unique and normal." If you'd like to learn more about FSD or just want to share your story, please visit our expert forum at Good in Bed.