Posts Tagged 'kos'

Can shock value spur change?

By Harry van Versendaal

The decision by most mainstream Western news organizations last week to run a – now iconic – photo of a drowned Syrian boy lying face down on a Turkish beach generated a substantial amount of commentary and polarized views.

It is not the first time that broadcasters and print media have faced such a dilemma. Responsible editors – not the titillating tabloid type – regularly scratch their heads in seeking a path between maximizing truth-telling and minimizing harm. Harm, for that matter, can go two ways: offending the public that views these images as well as violating the dignity of those who are depicted in them.

Shoot

Professional photographers are, inevitably, the first to make the call.

Giorgos Moutafis, a freelance photographer who has over the years documented the struggle of Europe-bound migrants and refugees for several foreign publications, has no qualms.

“I would have definitely taken that picture. Perhaps I would not have shot it the way it was, but I would take it. All my images are made to be published, or I would not be doing this job,” he told Kathimerini English Edition.

That does not mean that anything goes, Moutafis says. Just like a story, a photograph too can be made in different ways. “You need to protect these people. Put your own moral values before the lens. It’s not always straightforward,” he said.

“The important thing is to document what happened, not to personify the incident. You have to make sure you stay focused on the facts. For me it is not just about one dead Syrian boy, it’s about the hundreds of people who perish on the way to Europe,” he said.

Viral

The image went viral on social media last Wednesday after at least 12 presumed Syrian refugees died trying to reach Greece’s eastern Aegean island of Kos – a popular gateway to Europe for thousands of people seeking to flee war and poverty in the Middle East and Africa. The boy’s body was washed ashore along with several other victims.

At first glance, the picture, taken on a beach not far from the Turkish resort town of Bodrum, is deceptively benign. It shows a dark-haired toddler wearing a bright-red T-shirt and shorts and lying prone in a sleeping position, soaked, with his head resting on the sand as the waves lap at his hair.

The photo sparked a barrage of photoshopped memes and tribute videos on Facebook and other social media.

A second, less jarring image that many news organizations chose to run instead portrayed a grim-faced police officer carrying the tiny body away from the scene.

The boy was subsequently identified as 3-year-old Aylan Kurdi, from the war-ravaged town of Kobani in northern Syria, where Kurdish regional forces have fought against ISIS militia. His 5-year-old brother and their mother also drowned.

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Aris Chatzistefanou, an Athens-based journalist and left-wing activist, has often shared online graphic images of asylum seekers who died trying to enter Europe. He uploaded Aylan’s photo as well as a number of other, more graphic images from recent migrant tragedies. He defends publication on political terms.

“If journalists showed the world what really happens on the battlefield, then the idea of war would be unacceptable to all men,” Chatzistefanou said.

Warnings of compassion fatigue and claims that insensitive visibility risks sacrificing the dignity of the dead, he says, smack of irony and hypocrisy.

“These people were shown little respect while they were alive,” he said, slamming Western compassion over the dead bodies along the European border as hypocritical.

“We show compassion for political reasons: to evade criticism of the notion of Fortress Europe,” he said regarding the 28-member bloc’s migration and asylum policy.

Thousands of refugees drown each year in their desperate bid to reach Europe. The EU spends billions of euros guarding its borders as its member states squabble over which shoulders this undue and unwanted burden should fall on – a burden that is, at least in part, of their own making: It was Britain, France and the United States which backed the Syrian opposition in the early stages of the uprising against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s rule and then left them to their own devices.

Confront

Lilie Chouliaraki, a media and communications professor  at the London School of Economics, is critical of what she calls “the distribution of witnessing ‘roles’ in the global distribution of images.”

More often than not, she argues, those who witness images of suffering are viewers in the West, while those who suffer belong to non-Western zones of war, disaster and poverty.

“Part of this global distribution is a particular regulation of the flow of images of death so that extreme images of distant others are kept away from Western public spheres on the grounds that the West needs to be protected from the potential trauma of seeing others suffer,” she said attacking the taboo of public visibility as “hypocritical.”

“It privileges the protection of those who safely watch over those who truly suffer; and it obscures the indirect responsibility of the ‘innocent’ West in the wars or disasters it is to be protected from,” said Chouliaraki, an expert on the mediation of disaster news and author of several books, including most recently “The Ironic Spectator: Solidarity in the Age of Post-Humanitarianism.”

“My view is that avoiding confronting the shock of a child’s death on screen or other similar spectacles runs the risk of turning Western publics into self-concerned, inward-looking and ultimately narcissistic publics who may show compassion for others like ‘us’ but don’t really think about or feel for the tragic fates of those far away,” she said.

The law

Publishing some of these photographs could be challenged on legal grounds, legal expert Niki Kollia notes, even though it would involve separate actions being taken in each country the image has appeared.

In Greece, the law foresees imprisonment of up to six months for anyone charged with disrespecting the memory of the deceased.

But Kollia believes that this is wrong when the photograph is taken in the context of reporting the news.

“Banning these images for ethical, political or religious reasons would deal a hefty blow to journalism,” said Kollia.

Empathize

But critics warn against giving in to what has been called “the pornography of pain” and the superficial, self-satisfied feelings of sadness and morality when sharing a grisly picture on social media.

Alexia Skoutari, an Athens-based activist who works with refugees, is skeptical of the use of visceral imagery even if that is employed in a bid to awaken people to humanitarian disasters. Resorting to emotionalism instead of thoughtful discussion is an unwelcome sign.

“It shocks me that it would take pictures of a dead toddler to mobilize empathy. Why would you need to see something so brutal to feel compassion and understanding about another man’s plight?” she said.

Impact

Do the people who saw Aylan’s pictures have a better understanding of the situation than they did before? Can the image of a lifeless boy on a beach change the refugee debate?

During his annual State of the Union address to the European Parliament in Strasbourg on Wednesday, European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker announced proposals for a radical overhaul of the bloc’s migration policy, including the opening of legal channels to coordinate arrivals in Europe and permanent systems for distributing the influx of refugees across the continent.

For Chouliaraki, dramatic footage has the power to raise awareness and donations, as well as put pressure on urgent and more efficient measures to tackle the refugee crisis. But it can do little insofar as it concerns tackling the broader causes of the crisis.

“This is a matter of geopolitical and economic interests and it would be naive to believe that images have the power to decisively affect global politics,” she said.

The truth is that rarely has media coverage of humanitarian disasters managed to prompt Europeans to action.

In October 2014, a boat went down off the Italian island of Lampedusa, killing 366 migrants and asylum seekers on board.

“Back then, again, European leaders were shocked,” said Eva Cosse, an Athens-based expert with Human Rights Watch.

“But did they replace the persistent emphasis on border enforcement with the imperative of saving lives and providing refuge to those in need? No, they didn’t.”

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From cult horror to shamanic healing

By Harry van Versendaal

The son of a cowboy father and a Jewish hippie mother, Michel Orion Scott was bound to become an eclectic filmmaker.

The 28-year-old director from the US state of Texas worked as a production assistant on cult-horror blockbuster “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning” and is currently working on a documentary about Jewish immigration to Bolivia before the onset of the Second World War.

Scott recently traveled to Kos for the 2nd Ippokratis International Health Film Festival. He left the island with the top audience award for “The Horse Boy,” a feature-length documentary.

The movie follows Rupert Isaacson and his wife Kristin as they take their autistic 6-year-old son Rowan on an epic journey by horseback across Mongolia in search of a shaman who they hope can cure their boy.

Scott spoke to Kathimerini English Edition about the making of “The Horse Boy” as well as his future projects.

I read that you’re the son of a cowboy father and a Jewish hippie mother. In what ways would you say this has influenced who you are and what you do?

My interests have always been really eclectic, which is one of the reasons I love making documentary films so much. One month I can be exploring autism, the next animals and hunting, and the next dance and painting. I get to be a child and dive into new adventures all the time. I think that growing up with parents who came together despite their divergent interests started me on this path.

What made you choose this specific theme?

I didn’t pick it so much as it picked me. When I first met Rupert and Kristin, I saw the incredible dedication they had to their child. I saw that they would literally go to the ends of the earth to find a way into his life. When Rupert told me that he would be traveling with Rowan across Mongolia on horseback searching for shamans who he thought may be able to heal his son, I knew instantly that this was a film that had to be made.

What were the main obstacles you had to overcome in making this film?

I planned for the shoot for five months but nothing could have prepared me for the physical difficulty of shooting video from atop a horse. After the second day, my entire body ached from head to toe. Most of the time, I would hold the reins in one hand, camera in the other as I trotted from the front of the line to the back, getting a variety of shots, then heading in to film interviews with Rupert and Kristin on horseback. Justin Hennard, our sound man, literally had his sound mixers attached to saddlebags while he operated the boom from the saddle. The making of this film in itself could have become a tremendously comedic documentary. Good fortune was on our side, though. In the end, we pulled it off with few major setbacks.

How easy was it for the shamans to let you into their locale and shoot the rituals?

The first set of shamans on the sacred mountain never questioned the camera’s presence. They were deep in trance and did not seem bothered by the extra activity around them. They had been told beforehand, though, that the ceremony would be filmed. [The shaman] Ghoste, however, first said that he would not allow his ceremony to be filmed. I was OK with that, of course. I did not want to interfere with the natural course of Rupert and Kristin’s journey. I was sure that we would be able to work around it in the editing process. Eventually, though, once we had explained to Ghoste the reasons for wanting to film – so that we could bring this story of love, adventure and acceptance back to the rest of the world – he seemed to understand and ended up allowing us to film.

Did you deliberately keep a distance from all the metaphysical stuff? Do you really think that Rowan was healed?

I don’t deliberately keep a distance from the metaphysical stuff. I believe that for every action, there are a thousand different interpretations. I also believe that not everything has to be explained for it to be understood. I do, absolutely, think that Rowan was healed. I was there for it after all. The reasons that he was healed, however, are not so cut-and-dry. It could have been the shamans, or the fact that Rowan was in a completely new atmosphere, meeting new people, or that his parents intentions and deep dedication somehow affected him on this journey. Most likely, I suspect, it was all of these combined.

How is Rowan now?

Rowan is doing incredibly well. He has never regressed. He continues to read and write and communicate at an accelerated rate. But as Rupert says at the end of the film, Rowan is still autistic. It is part of who he is. This is an important part of the message. Rowan was not “cured.” He was “healed” – as were Rupert and Kristin, and, in some ways, myself.

What impact will the movie have in your opinion? Do you hope to convey any specific message?

I hope that this film makes people think about how we can make space for unique individuals in our culture instead of institutionalizing them or trying to mold them to fit our rigid perception of what “normal” is.

At some point in the movie, you put down the camera to give the parents a hand. How often did you have to do this?

I did my best to keep the camera rolling as often as possible. I did put the camera down a couple of times to help the parents. I was a guest on their journey and it was important for me to not forget that. They were allowing me to peer into and film the most intimate parts of their lives. Given this, I had to respect their wishes when [I was] told not to film.

To what extent did the parents have to adapt their journey and daily schedule to the needs of the film and the crew?

I worked very hard to adapt my schedule around the schedule of the parents. It was very rare that the parents had to alter their course because of the film crew. I went well out of my way to keep this from happening.

And how often did you have to stage scenes in order to achieve a dramatic effect?

No scenes were staged in this film. There were a couple of times that I had Rupert or Kristin repeat something they had done or said if I was unable to capture it on film the first time. With this said, nothing in the film was fabricated or staged for dramatic effect.

You worked as a production assistant on 2006’s “Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning.” What did you gain from that experience?

I wasn’t long out of college when I got the job. It was quite exhausting, really, and was one of the reasons that I decided to try documentary. Sometimes working on a big-budget narrative film can feel like working in a factory. That said, there were some good times on the set. I really loved seeing how the visual effects crew created gory scenes out of items you would never guess, like bubble wrap and corn syrup.

What is your next project?

I am working on several documentaries. One about traditional agriculture and water rights on the Hopi reservation, one about masculinity in the US, and one about Jewish immigration to Bolivia in the 1930s before the onset of WWII.

Photo by Vasia Anagnostopoulou

“The Horse Boy,” official trailer:

Preparing for D-day

By Harry van Versendaal

It was 1995 when Juul Bovenberg’s father became seriously ill. After a short but painful spell on his sickbed, Mr Bovenberg asked his GP to take away his suffering by taking away his life. The family and the doctor agreed to the man’s final wish to choose a dignified death over endless, unavoidable pain.

When the GP visited the house to carry out the euthanasia, for once Bovenberg’s attention was not focused on her ill father. In fact, the 23-year-old Juul could not help stare at the man who had come to end her father’s life.

“I noticed how nervous he was. His whole body was shivering, and I saw his relief after he was done. As his car left the driveway, I realized how difficult this must have been for him. He was the one to actually pull the trigger. I asked myself: How will he return home; what does he feel right now?” she explains now.

But it would be years before Bovenberg, a Dutch filmmaker in her late 30s, would begin to search for an answer. In 2009, she made a documentary inspired by that incident. “A Deadly Dilemma: Euthanasia from a Doctor’s Perspective” – which was screened last week at the 2nd International Health Film Festival on Kos – follows three Dutch GPs during each of their preparations for and the sequel to performing euthanasia on one of their patients. The movie, which won the jury’s second prize for medium-length films, came after last year’s screening of John Zaritsky’s “The Suicide Tourist,” a compelling documentary about an American Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) patient’s decision to make use of assisted suicide in a Swiss clinic.

Voluntary euthanasia has been legal in the Netherlands since 2002. Doctors are allowed to help terminally ill patients to die, provided they follow a set of strict regulations designed to prevent abuse. Patients must be terminally ill adults facing a future of “unbearable” suffering. They must have made a voluntary, considered and persistent request to die, while a second, independent physician must give the green light before the procedure is carried out. Holland was one of the first countries to legalize mercy killing, although the practice had been unofficially tolerated for decades.

Voluntary euthanasia and/or assisted suicide, which has also been legalized in Belgium, Luxemburg, Switzerland and the US states of Oregon and Washington, is still very much the subject of controversy involving moral, medical, religious and philosophical questions. Notwithstanding the title of Bovenberg’s documentary, the doctors featuring in it seem to have no second thoughts about the ethics of the practice. What they do seem to carry is the mammoth emotional burden about being the ones to shut down the circuit. “You are not trained to kill someone,” one of them says in the movie. An ethical decision is not necessarily an easy decision.

“I didn’t want to make a film about the moral aspect of euthanasia,” Bovenberg says. “It is about the feelings of GPs in a country where euthanasia is legal. Even for doctors that morally accept euthanasia, it remains a heavy subject, having to apply it. A lot of people have the wrong idea about euthanasia in the Netherlands, as if this does not mean anything to a doctor. But a doctor has feelings too.”

In the movie, we see the doctors holding their regular meetings with their terminally ill patients, discussing with them and their relatives as they regress. The process is emotionally difficult and, in some cases, practically almost impossible. A heavily paralyzed woman suffering from ALS struggles to communicate with the doctor by moving her thumb and, when this becomes impossible, with slight nods of her head. Her husband sits alone in the backyard. The doctor is worried that her rapidly deteriorating patient will soon no longer be able to give her (legally required) consent. In the end, she doesn’t have to, as the woman dies of natural causes.

Another doctor frequents the gym to sweat out his stress. He chats with colleagues and takes care of “normal” patients. And then comes D-day. He prepares the lethal potion. Driving his car to the house of his patient, a shockingly calm and cool-headed man suffering from a hereditary metabolic disease, the poison sitting in a brown bag on the back seat, he wonders about his patient’s feelings about physical contact. “Is he the type to hug and embrace?”

Bovenberg, who lives on a houseboat in Amsterdam, studied documentary and production at the Dutch Film and Television Academy (NFTVA) in Amsterdam. She is the winner of the prestigious Nipkowschijf award for the VPRO Dutch television series “Veldpost.” Her “Looking for Loedertje” was nominated for the Dutch Academy Award while “Laura is my Father” was nominated at the Cinekid Festival. “A Deadly Dilemma” is her twelfth movie.

“Why do you do it?” the director asks the third doctor, who is preparing to end the life of a young woman who has cancer. “In the end, because of my love for my patients,” he replies.

Ultimately, they all feel they have done the right thing; they all feel relieved. But don’t get the wrong impression. “You never get used to it. It’s the hardest thing to do.”

Dying to get thin

By Harry van Versendaal

Jessica Villerius knows a thing or two about control. Having struggled with anorexia nervosa for about 10 years, the 29-year-old filmmaker from the Netherlands will tell you that the concept is central to understanding the demonic workings of this eating disorder. Starving yourself to death, she says, can give you a sense of control when other parts of your life are going wrong or simply seem too hard to deal with.

Anorexia has the highest mortality rate of any mental illness. Only about 40 percent fully recover. Jessica is one of those – and she has taken her victory a step further, by making a documentary that aims to inform people about this lethal disease, while exposing the “war in the head” of the patients.

Her powerful 60-minute film “Facing Anorexia” (Vel over Probleem), which went as far as to prompt a change in Dutch state clinics’ treatment of the condition, is showing at the 2nd Ippokratis International Health Film Festival on Kos, at the Orpheas Municipal Theater, on Friday September 3, at 9 p.m. For more information, visit http://www.healthfilmfestival.gr.

What made you shoot this documentary?

I wanted to show the world the truth about this “sniper”-disease. It infiltrates your body at first (the urge to be thin) but becomes part of your mind in the end. It is so dangerous, because at that point it’s really difficult to get yourself together and recover. Your state of mind — after a long period of not eating and torturing your body — is so unhealthy, that you really need help from outside to recover. I wanted to show that this is indeed a deadly disease, and also very importantly, that it’s not a matter of choice. You simply don’t choose to have anorexia. It’s awful and torturing — something you would not wish for your worst enemy.

I have read that you are a former anorexia patient. Did making this documentary involve facing up to past demons or did the experience actually help you in making the movie?

Yes, I did a lot of catching up with old demons, something that I wasn’t really prepared for. I thought I had buried my grief. But watching the girls — I always call them “my” girls — suffer and struggle really opened up some old wounds. But in the end it was all worth it.

What are the main myths and misconceptions surrounding this disease?

Three things: that it is a choice, that it is about eating and that it is impossible to fully recover. All not true.

Are you in favor of legal measures such as banning too-skinny models from the catwalks, censoring photoshopped ads and closing down pro-anorexia websites?

No. I’m not one of those people who think that you can get ill by looking at pictures. Of course, young girls should be taught that they are beautiful just as they are, but let’s stay real: We also have to watch our kids not getting overweight. There is a middle ground. Closing down pro-ana sites is not the answer: Those kids will find each other anyway. An answer to that could be more information about the danger. Sounds corny but by shutting down those sites we do not solve the problem. You cannot get anorexia by just looking at the sites, you can get more in trouble by watching them. We should monitor these girls and offer them the right professional help.

Can media stereotypes actually incite anorexia or do they simply reflect and encourage an existing cause or trend?

I think they only reflect and encourage. Anorexia nervosa is a disease that is – partly — determined by genes.

A number of experts and former anorexia patients say that underneath the well-recorded psychological, biological and environmental reasons behind the disease, most of the causes can be traced to issues of control: Adolescent girls with poor self-esteem relish the sense of control that dieting gives them and refuse to stop. What is your opinion?

Totally true. It’s not about eating, calories or being thin. It is all about control. The only thing we have control over and is visible for the outside world, so that they can see your statement, is your weight and appearance. That’s it. It’s a way to show yourself and others that you are extremely unpleased with yourself or a situation.

Is there a turning point when anorexia sufferers actually realize that their psychological condition has become a physical one?

It’s the other way around. The first notable change is physical. The second is psychological. And that one is much more difficult to solve. But you have to worry about the first one first. Because if your body is not cooperating, your mind will eventually also let you down. And then… you loose. You need to get your mind straight in order to recover. When someone with anorexia decides not to die from this disease, she will recover. Most anorexics are extremely wilful and strong.

How easy was it for you to communicate with the patients interviewed in your film, given that they refuse to accept they have a problem?

Very easy. We speak the same language and it was simply impossible for them to lie to me – which is what they did to their parents and doctors.

Did the girls featuring in the documentary actually watch the film? How did they respond to it?

Yes, of course. I went up to them personally to watch it. It was very difficult for them, as they cannot look at their own bodies, let alone on screen. That’s why I have tremendous respect for these girls. They put their own sorrow aside to help others and that’s why I truly love them.

What has the overall response to your film been so far? Are you working on a new project?

It was amazing. It was in all newspapers, magazines and television shows in the Netherlands. It has been sold to eight countries now because it shows a pure look on anorexia. Our health system has been adjusted after the film.

Orgasm Inc.

By Harry van Versendaal

Sales of Viagra, the famous blue pill used to treat male impotence, exceeded $460 million worldwide last year. Imagine how much money could be made from producing a pill for the other half of the globe’s population: women. It’s no surprise that the world’s pharmaceutical companies are locked in a race to come up with a pink Viagra.

Liz Canner joined the race in 2002. That was when the 42-year-old filmmaker from Vermont, in the USA, was recruited by Vivus, a small pharmaceutical company based in California. Her job was to edit erotic videos for women used as test subjects in the development of an “orgasm cream” designed to cure something called “female sexual dysfunction.” In the process, she discovered that “sexual dysfunction” was a catchall term with little scientific value. But there was little point in creating the drug unless the industry first created the condition. As a medical researcher says in the film: “We’ve come up with the drug. Now we have to come up with the disease.”

The fruit of her nine-year research, a 78-minute documentary called “Orgasm Inc,” exposes efforts by the pharmaceutical industry to medicate female sexual desire – from cosmetic vaginal surgery to Dr Stuart Meloy’s push-button orgasmatron – putting women’s health at risk for profit.

“Orgasm Inc” won the Best Feature award at the Vermont International Film Festival and Best Feature Documentary award at the Southeast New England Film Festival, while The Independent magazine last year named Canner one of the top 10 independent filmmakers to watch. The film will be screened at the Orpheas open-air cinema on Kos on Friday, September 3, at 8.50 p.m.

Canner spoke to Athens Plus about the industry of female pleasure.

How did you get involved in this project?

After over a decade of producing documentaries on human rights issues such as genocide, police brutality and world poverty, the violent images from my movies were giving me nightmares and making me depressed about the state of humanity. In order to change the script in my head, I had decided my next project would be about pleasure; specifically, the history of the science of female pleasure.

Then, strangely, while I was in the middle of shooting the movie, I was offered a job editing erotic videos for a pharmaceutical company that was developing an orgasm cream for women. The videos were to be watched by women during the clinical trial of their new drug. I accepted the job and gained permission to film my employers for my own documentary. I thought the experience would give me access to the secretive world of the pharmaceutical industry and insight into the latest scientific thinking about women and pleasure.

I did not set out to create an expose but what I uncovered at work compelled me to keep filming and investigating. This insider perspective allows the film to scrutinize the culture within the pharmaceutical industry, which has been perverted to place the drive for profit above our health. So much for pleasure…

How easy was it to make this film? What were the main obstacles you had to overcome?

It is not easy to make a documentary about the secretive pharmaceutical industry and the media’s collusion with it. It has been quite stressful.

You spent nine years on this project. Has it given you a new perspective on the issue of female orgasm – or lack thereof?

The biggest secret about orgasms is how rarely women actually have them during heterosexual intercourse. One of the women in my film, Charletta, underwent painful surgery to have an orgasmatron device installed in her spine. The only thing that it did was make her leg kick out uncontrollably. Needless to say, it did not work. It turned out that Charletta actually had no trouble climaxing but wanted it to happen during sex with her husband in what she considered a “normal” way. She was thrilled when I told her that most women don’t climax through intercourse alone.

According to Charletta, her idea about what her sex life was supposed to be like came from the movies. In our society, we’re constantly bombarded with images of fabulous sex in the media and the message that we should have orgasms every time. This is just not accurate. Researchers have found that 70 percent of women actually need direct clitoral stimulation in order to climax.

Charletta had been told by the doctor that she had female sexual dysfunction because she was not having orgasms during intercourse. The idea that there’s sexual dysfunction implies that there’s a norm. However, there is nothing that says what functional is. There is no norm — no medical study that says that women should be having five orgasms a month during intercourse or 10 sexual thoughts a day in order to be healthy. So this idea that you can be dysfunctional is problematic. If you create something that makes it appear that there is a function that women should be living up to, it’s quite dangerous. I think that all of us have complaints. I mean, who doesn’t want to have an orgasm whenever they want?

Your film contradicts past reports that some 43 percent of women suffer from sexual dysfunction. Do you think the figure is arbitrary?

All over the media you hear that a shocking 43 percent of women suffer from female sexual dysfunction. I first heard this statistic when I was working for the pharmaceutical industry in the early 2000s and it surprised me. If so many women had female sexual dysfunction, why didn’t my mother tell me about it and why weren’t my friends talking about it? In fact, I had not even heard of the disease until I took the job with the pharmaceutical industry.

In “Orgasm Inc,” I investigate the history of the 43 percent statistic. It turns out that it was taken from a sociology survey that was conducted in the early ‘90s to find out what people’s sex lives were like. It was never meant to measure the number of women with a disease. Using exaggerated statistics like that manipulates women. It also says to Wall Street that there is a large market for this drug.

Do you think this is a case of disease mongering, as it were, i.e. of the industry trying to convince people there is something wrong with them?

The media talks about female sexual dysfunction as if it always existed — when in fact it was a term that came about in the late 1990s. When Viagra was released, it was such a blockbuster drug for men that companies like Pfizer began to think that there was also a big market for women. The problem was, in order to develop a drug, the FDA required that there be a clearly defined disease. Pfizer and a number of other drug companies sponsored the first meetings on FSD. In the end, 18 of the 19 authors of the definition of the disease had ties to 22 drug companies. This definition is extremely broad: Almost any sexual complaint you have, whatever causes it, will fall into this disease category.

It’s a bizarre disorder, because you have to self-diagnose and you have to be distressed by it. So in other words, if you never felt an iota of sexual desire in your life but it didn’t bother you, you don’t have the disease. If you never had an orgasm but it didn’t bother you, you don’t have the disease. There are real physiological conditions that can cause sexual problems such as hysterectomies and diabetes. I think we can’t ignore that. But for the most part, most of women’s sexual problems are caused by sociocultural conditions like past sexual abuse, relationship problems and stress due to overworking.

Could it be that men are simply looking for ways to make up for their failure to stimulate women?

In the United States, part of the problem is the lack of comprehensive sex education for both men and women. In most sex ed classes, the full genital anatomy is not taught. The clitoris, the most sensitive part of the female body, is not mentioned because it is taboo to talk about pleasure. It was surprising to me how many women and men do not know where the clitoris is.

While shooting your documentary, you witnessed the development of a number of treatments. Did any of them seem to work?

In “Orgasm Inc,” I followed the pharmaceutical industry over a period of nine years as they raced to develop a female Viagra. I kept hoping that they would discover a magic bullet but most of the products currently in clinical trials do not work much better than a placebo (sugar pill) and the side effects for many of them are quite horrific – including breast cancer and cardiovascular problems. Part of the problem is that sexual experience is really complicated and based more on context than biology.

In the press you read: “Men have their Viagra, women want theirs too.” I’d love to know which PR firm came up with this slogan, because it is very effective. The question is what do women need Viagra for? Most of women’s sexual problems are not caused by a physical medical condition but are the result of sociocultural issues. So, I think the only way that most women will be satisfied with their sex lives will be if they can take a product that makes them feel comfortable about their bodies; that ends sexual abuse toward women; that creates equality in the workplace; that creates equality in relationships; that gives women good sex education so they can fully know about the clitoris and about how their bodies function. Why can’t we take a pill like that?

Isn’t there a percentage of women, however small, that do suffer from some form of sexual dysfunction?

The thing about sexual experience is that our sense of satisfaction comes from our expectations. In other words, if women think that they should be having an orgasm every time they have intercourse, then a lot of women are going to believe they have sexual problems. If women think they should have the same libido at 60 as they had at 20, a lot of women are going to think they have a disease.

Right now, there is a cultural shift going on and medicine is changing our expectations but this is not a new phenomenon. In our grandmother’s time, women with low desire were said to suffer from frigidity. During the feminist movement of the 1960s and 70s, the pathologizing and medicalizing of woman’s sexual experience was challenged and resisted. Terms such as nymphomania and frigidity were no longer used. Recently, the clocks have been turned back. Low desire is now called hypoactive sexual desire disorder (a subset of FSD) and there are quite a number of drug companies racing to find a nose spray, pill, cream or patch to cure it. By the way, I find it very curious that they’re working on a desire drug for women. Would anybody think to develop a desire drug for men?

It is important to note that some women do suffer from a real physiological problem when they experience a lowering of their sex drive. Radical hysterectomies and some antidepressants affect libido. However, the majority of women do not suffer from a disease. For many of us, our libidos are influenced by everyday life experiences such as aging, our sense of body image, the health of our relationship, stress, and past sexual encounters.

You have taken your film to many film festivals. What has been the response to your work?

It has been exciting taking “Orgasm Inc” to film festivals. We have had many sold-out shows and received a lot of positive feedback. There have been quite a number of times when women have come up to me in tears after a screening and told me that they learned things about their sexual response that they did not know and they feel relieved to discover they are healthy and normal.

Have you had any reactions from the pharmaceutical companies?

When we showed “Orgasm Inc” at Lincoln Center in New York, a woman who works for the pharmaceutical industry stood up and denounced the film. The audience grew annoyed with her and booed her down. It was quite a tense moment.

Are you working on a new project?

My next project is finally going to be about female pleasure. It is called “The Hidden History of O.”


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