By Libby Brooks The Age
March 7, 2011

The quest for a Viagra for women is all part of the commodification of sex.

Charletta adjusts the dial on the remote device that controls the electrodes surgically inserted into her spinal column. Her left leg begins to twitch alarmingly. Her inability to climax during sexual intercourse, which has led her to take part in the clinical trial of the Orgasmatron, remains unresolved. ”But it’s useful if I want to kick someone in the ass,” she observes.

Welcome to Orgasm Inc, a wry and unsqueamish piece of filmmaking by American documentary maker Liz Canner, who has charted the race to market the first medical cure for female sexual dysfunction (FSD), and attempted to unpick the ethical dilemmas that have accompanied it.

The very existence of clinically correctable FSD is contentious: the way drug companies convert disorders into disorders that can be remedied only with the regular purchase of their branded pill is a familiar story. Indeed, the 1990s study that identified 43 per cent of American women as suffering from this baggily defined dysfunction was found to have been conducted by psychologists with links to the drug industry. A 2005 survey that came to similar conclusions about women in Europe and Asia was sponsored by Pfizer, manufacturer of Viagra. Crucially, the success of treatment for FSD is fairly subjective. It cannot – unlike Viagra – be measured against a map of the Mull of Kintyre.

Cases of purely medical sexual dysfunction among women are rare. As Petra Boynton – the British sexual health academic who has nobly exposed the profit motive of the ”medicaliser” – points out, there already exists many means to help women: education, therapy, existing healthcare for related conditions, improving communication skills within intimate relationships. ”All of these can be made available now, yet nobody pushes for this when arguing for a medical ‘cure’ some time in the future.”

Boynton is similarly dubious about the way pharmaceutical companies appropriated feminist language of sexual-satisfaction rights and empowerment to paint critics as prudish or anti-women.

In Orgasm Inc, Canner traces the coinage of FSD to the Viagra-inspired expectation that the transformation of common female sexual difficulties into a drug-soluble disorder would equal a bonanza for shareholders. But when her subject, Charletta, newly liberated from her Orgasmatron (yet to make it to the market, incidentally) intones with the wonder of the newly sighted, ”Maybe sex in the movies is not normal”, one becomes aware of a broader cultural displacement.

Drug companies can’t alone be responsible for a shift in the meaning of sexuality that has seen it commodified, marketised and individualised, measured against a scale so narrowly objective as to be oppressive, where desire is functional and instrumental rather than co-created by two people.

The latest reporter on the pornification of society is Britain’s former interior minister Jacqui Smith, whose anxieties about young people’s access to and experience of online pornography are entirely valid. ”Porn isn’t sex education,” she says. ”But there are young people today growing up with the idea that it is. This is changing the way young people think about each other and what they expect to have to do in their sex lives.”

Bike-shed anecdotes suggest many of porn’s regularly featured and more objectionable acts are now incorporated as normal in teenage sex lives. Research reveals an accelerating clamour for vaginal cosmetic surgery among young women.

I’d argue that the genders have always been socialised to experience their sexuality differently, with girls taught that sex is part of a romantic narrative of love, partnership and children, while boys are told that it is a discrete act underpinning masculinity. But porn deepens and distorts this divide. Boys learn to be consumers, viewing women as disposable and catering to their needs only. The concurrent lesson is that girls should value their sexuality only according to how it is perceived by men, denying their own needs in the process.

But as Zoe Margolis – the sex blogger and author of Girl with a One Track Mind – argues, porn doesn’t become mainstream in a vacuum. ”[This] requires a much wider commodification . . . female sexuality packaged up as a product geared to generate profit: capitalism with tits, basically.”

The irony is that the apparent ”anything goes” democratisation of desire in reality constrains men and women more than ever.

Just as Orgasm Inc argues that treating sexual problems is more complex than finding the female equivalent of a chemically sustained erection, challenging the commodification of sexuality is not zero-sum. This is not about a reactionary attempt to replace one stereotyped version (male, porny, penetrative) with another (female, cuddly, politically correct). But sex embodies a human freedom the market denies. To desire and be desired can be many things: funny, awkward, transforming, sacred and profane.

To be honest about what turns you on, for a moment or a lifetime, demands a particularly intimate bravery that is threatened with extinction by the megaphone of cultural sexism.

Libby Brooks is a Guardian columnist