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Film

There's Nothing Funny About Not Being Able to Orgasm

Writer Cris Mazza talks about her new film about living with anorgasmia.

Brooks Sterritt

Cris Mazza is a professor of creative writing, director of the Program for Writers at the University of Illinois at Chicago, and the author of more than a dozen books—including novels, short story collections, and the forthcoming, Charlatan: New and Selected Stories. Her first novel, How to Leave a Country, won the PEN/Nelson Algren award in 1984, and since then, Mazza has examined issues surrounding place, sex, gender, and hierarchy with incredible directness. With Something Wrong with Her: A Real-Time Memoir, Mazza placed the circumstances of her own life under a critical lens. The memoir details Mazza's experience with anorgasmia, or an inability to achieve orgasm, and the concomitant anxiety and effect on her relationships.

With director Frank Vitale, Mazza wrote, co-produced, and starred in the film Anorgasmia: Faking It in a Sexualized World, a kind of follow-up to Something Wrong with Her. In Anorgasmia, as in her writing, Mazza is unflinching: Regarding her first sexual experience, she reports only "a feeling of accomplishment" and that it "felt like his penis was studded with razor blades." The film is billed as "docufiction," and alternates between interviews with Mazza and fictionalized scenes using mostly non-actors. It also incorporates photographs and home video footage from Mazza's childhood. By combining fiction and documentary, Anorgasmia gets at something deeper than mere fact or reportage. I was recently able to interview Mazza about the film, which concerns "a woman locked in a lifelong struggle to understand her sexual dysfunction: lack of desire and arousal, and completely anorgasmic."

VICE: The Mayo Clinic defines "anorgasmia" as "the medical term for regular difficulty reaching orgasm after ample sexual stimulation, causing personal distress." When did you first learn the term and that it might apply to your situation?
Cris Mazza: I'm not sure this answer will make me look good. I believe I had completed a draft of Something Wrong with Her, and the publisher used the word in discussing the book with me. I used the word three times in that whole book, though these could have easily been added during various revisions. I did use the word "inorgasmic" six times, and I believe it is not a real word!

To answer this differently, I used a word based on logic that meant "doesn't have orgasms" without knowing there was a medical "condition" with a mental distress component. Then again, maybe my ignorance will be right in with the rest of everything! That is, I learned more from writing the book and making the film than I ever would've just dealing with my own body.

The website for the Mayo Clinic also calls the condition "a common occurrence, affecting a significant number of women." Have many women contacted you, either after reading Something Wrong with Her or after seeing the film Anorgasmia, and noticing some aspect of themselves in your work?
In my experience, this condition seems a bigger "shame" than anything that would be the opposite, whether you would call it sex addiction, the old-fashioned term "promiscuity," or various forms of fetish from orgy to masochism. It seems to admit lack of sexual desire and/or lack of sexual response is the taboo no one wants to admit. It's a highly sexualized culture, so being anything from hungry for sex, a victim of sex, or adventurer in sex give a person cultural credibility. Living outside of that sexualized culture brings no cachet whatsoever. Is it because women are still very much judged via their sexuality first, and an anorgasmic woman therefore has no value? I do think there's something to that. I heard from very few women about shared experience; those I did I knew from some other area of life first (so there was already a relationship that would allow this kind of intimate admission). I had a personal piece in xoJane about anorgasmia, and it garnered dozens of comments—most were suggestions of what I could do to fix myself. I don't remember a single one admitting to a similar experience.

I think this complete taboo is weakening, but it's because of the victim-culture. Recently there was an article about a woman suffering with anorgasmia, and they said she had "endured years of it," but she was 24! She also was able to admit to having many sex partners. Another article in a British publication covers a 19 year old who "endured years of anorgasmia." This blows me away because my disinterest in sex (and some not insignificant amount of fear) kept me out of sexual relationships until I was 24! So these articles still feel the need to find sexually active women, to give them some value.

What do you make of the so-called celibacy syndrome in Japan, a trend in which millions of people under 40 are eschewing dating, as well as sex? In and of itself, this is only a "problem" in terms of population growth, but the trend seems to have both cultural and economic drivers, some of which are present elsewhere.
I hadn't heard about this, so I read this article. It seems Japan has a series of cultural and economic conditions that might have created a perfect storm for this—conditions and traditions the US doesn't have. While Japan may have "celibacy syndrome," it's not a fad or style thing. Whereas in the US if we instead have "rape culture" (and I think we probably do), that is more of a style of behavior (or pack mentality) than it is driven by economic conditions and long-standing traditions clashing. I even think the percentage of Japanese women who "are not interested in or despise sexual contact" is related to this perfect storm of conditions—the deep cultural traditions about sex and procreation, which is not attached to love, must have some effect. I am not well informed on what percentage of women in other cultures would claim that same quote. All I know is that I would have, and did (although secretly) feel exactly the same way from pre-adolescence through my mid 20s, except I would have added "feared." There may have been a more personal perfect storm of conditions that put me there, but a cultural/religious/economic/disaster-laden atmosphere in the US was not the reason.

By the way, there's a very old religious sect in this country—the Shakers—who I believe have about died out because their creed was not "sex for procreation only" but "no sex ever."

In the film, you mention asking your ex-husband what it's like to be a man, and his response is that "you walk around wanting to fuck everything." Questions of universal validity aside, the statement gets at how cartoonish sex can seem. There's something absurd about thrashing around with someone for no other reason than it feels good. Do you think more people are realizing how absurd sex is, if not modern life itself?
He responded without hesitation, and he's not even like that. It certainly does make desire seem cartoonish, and life as a sexualized human beyond simplistic. Even animals, for whom sexual urges are inexorably linked to olfactory sense, don't carry this single-minded pursuit through waking hours. (I believe our closest DNA relative, chimpanzees, are more like my ex-husband's crude wholesale statement than the one I just made about the generic group, animals.) But if people are starting to view the whole "thrashing around" as absurd, I have not come across it.

The film is described as a "docufiction sequel" to your memoir, Something Wrong with Her. Perhaps you could say something about the documentary fiction angle, as opposed to making a documentary.
I guess the co-producer used the word "docufiction." I called it a fictional sequel to my memoir—a literary angle that I thought hadn't been plumbed. In a way, though, "docufiction" is more accurate in that all of the interviews were "true" (i.e., real memory). The docu is the interviews, and the fiction is the scenes. The interviews were the backstory that any novel like this might need (i.e., "how did she become this way?" Of which the answers are only guesses). Then the dramatized scenes were the fictional story.

We did not have the wherewithal (budget, cast, etc.) to make a film version of the memoir, even if that were possible, considering the fragmentation of the book. So there weren't going to be reenacted scenes from my past. Therefore, the only way to thoroughly probe the past was through the interviews. To avoid long stretches of talking heads (even though the camera work during the interviews is very effective), we did a lot of B-roll of Mark and me in daily activities. I also provided still photos of both Mark and me in childhood, and Frank digitized my parents' old 8mm family films. So the interviews could be voice-over as much as possible.

As far as why didn't we make a pure documentary? Probably because it's not a recovery story—there's no answer, no recovery. And it doesn't have the "high drama" necessary.

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