Dr. Jen Gunter is Taking Down The Patriarchy, One Vagina At A Time

Photographed by Ruby Woodhouse
Dr. Jen Gunter lets the F-word fly as easily as she does the words "vagina" and "vulva," anatomical terms she deliberately included in the title of her new book, The Vagina Bible: The Vulva and the Vagina: Separating the Myth from the Medicine. "I'm tired of euphemisms," she says with an exasperated sigh over the phone. Exasperation is a mood I gather that she feels often. Her life’s work is to debunk myths about women’s health — a challenge, given that in the era of Goop jade eggs and Kardashian vajacials, misinformation about vaginas has never been trendier. While tips on how to spruce up our vulvas are as ubiquitous online as avocado-toast recipes, the stigma attached to female anatomy hasn’t gone anywhere. "People feel shame for talking about their bodies and the internet is a fucking quagmire. I'm doing my best to fix that."
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Gunter "doing her best" has catapulted the Winnipeg-born doctor from obscurity to acclaim as "Twitter’s resident gynecologist." She’s the go-to medical voice to call BS on celebrity wellness brands (including her epic takedown of a Goop "health conference") and the wacky remedies that inevitably come with a quick Google search. She’s also an outspoken critic of the US’s recent abortion laws. The Vagina Bible is packed with the stances you’d expect from Gunter if you follow her on Twitter, along with her signature candour and ability to distill doctor jargon into relatable and often funny anecdotes, like the years Gunter spent in “hideously floral and large” underwear her mother bought for her, recounted in a chapter about how underwear affects vaginal health. (In short: it probably doesn’t.) That kind of blunt delivery is why Gunter is so popular, and why she’s headlining a new CBC show called Jensplaining, on which she'll deliver more of the same no-holds-barred takes on women’s health.
All of Gunter’s work leads back to her "vagenda" — "for every woman to be empowered with accurate information about the vagina and vulva." (Including this common misconception: the vulva is the part of the body that touches your underwear; the vagina is in the inside.) Here, she tells Refinery29 why the patriarchy is the number-one thing getting in the way of her vagenda, what she believes is the biggest threat to women’s rights, and what we need to know to sift through the lies the wellness industry tells us about our bodies.
Two years ago, you wrote on your website, "we need a vagina and vulva bible, so I am writing one!" Why were you so adamant that we needed one?
I had had a particularly trying few days in the office. I had told six or seven women that what they believed about their body, or had been told by another doctor, or what they had read online, was incorrect. Like, don't use garlic for yeast infections. There are many sites that people consider to be reliable that have this misinformation. I would tell patients things and almost every woman would say, "How did I not know that?" And I thought, "How DID they not know that?" I just got obsessed with this idea that women needed a textbook.
Why are so many people that we trust as professionals giving us misinformation?
A lot of women's health is incredibly poorly researched or not at all. There are no studies on what's the best way to shave or remove your hair. There are no studies on how to wash your vulva. There are no studies on many of these things about the way women live their lives that intersect with health but aren't directly medical. Most of what doctors have been told has been passed down. Some dude wrote it in a book in the 1950s and everybody takes it as fact.
How can people sift through the medical misinformation online?
Be mindful of your source of information. For example, in Canada, The Society of Obstetricians and Gynecologists is a great website. Instead of just searching on Google, I recommend people start searching internally on medical professional organization sites. And never, EVER get health information from anyone selling you a product.
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What do you think is the biggest current threat to women’s reproductive rights?
Politics. Politics doesn't have any place in medical decision-making. The core tenant of patriarchy is oppression. What better way to oppress half the population than by saying you don't get to control your biology?
I don’t think we can talk about the threats to women’s health without talking about the bias that we see in medicine. We know women's health issues are often misdiagnosed. It's especially bad for pregnant women and even worse for Black women. Can you speak to that?
When I gave birth to my kids, I almost died. I was a white woman doctor in my own hospital, on my own post-partum floor. You would think, if anybody should be listened to, it should be me, right? I almost died from sepsis. They said I was acting hysterical because my babies were in the intensive care unit. I had to scream and yell to get the care I needed. If that could happen to me, that could happen to every woman. It's about acknowledging the problem and saying, "Hey medicine, we need to be better." I would say, for example, with maternal mortality, many people think that preeclampsia, which can cause maternal death, is a condition that happens during pregnancy. But it can also start post-partum. If people know that, they can advocate for themselves. In a perfect world, doctors are not missing anything but we're not in a perfect world and we have to give people practical advice. Sometimes, that practical advice is how to navigate the system.
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What about the biggest threat to our overall sexual health?
Misinformation and shame. I've been in gynecology for 27 years. So, it's nothing for me to say the words vulva or vagina. I see naked bodies every day. I would like everybody to have that same freedom and not have any shame or stigma. If you're going shopping in the underwear department and you have a problem with how your labia feel in your underwear, you should be able to say, "Hey, well this kind of rides up. It gives me too much labial cleavage. Do you have a suggestion?"
Photo: Courtesy of Peacock Alley Entertainment
You equate the stigma around our vaginas and the aversion to talking openly about women’s health directly to the patriarchy, right?
Absolutely. The patriarchy has conditioned you to believe that the uterus is toxic so that you have no value. You have to have your intact hymen until "they" decide it's OK not to be intact. They tell you your uterus, as soon as you start menstruating, is [unclean]. What a smart thing to do. Half the population menstruates, half the population doesn't. They were looking for an obvious way to exclude this half of the population, so they go, "You're dirty. You can't come to school. You can't go to religious services. Too bad those menstrual products are so expensive, you're in poverty." As long as the myth exists that uteruses have toxins [that they need to be cleansed or detoxed...] the patriarchy is still ahead. That's why the wellness industry is so dangerous because they use those same words. They tell women that they have toxins in their uterus and toxins in their vagina. They are not feminist; they are just patriarchy wrapped up with a feminist-looking ribbon.
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Talk more about the connection between the war on reproductive rights and wellness.
They both use fake facts about women's bodies and obscure them. They use the exact same tools. If you look at the language on Goop or any wellness website and you look up products marketed to women, they use "clean," "pure," "natural." If you were trying to design the lead for a TV show, like America's Next Virgin Bride, you would use those same three words. Since the beginning of humanity, we’ve been judged by our reproductive potential and our bodies have been a weapon used against us. Two years ago, I swallowed a red pill. I decided every single thing that I heard about a woman's body, before I thought anything else, I was going to say to myself, "How does that benefit the patriarchy?"
What's the one takeaway you want women to have from your book?
If anyone says anything cruel to you about your intimate parts, they have the problem, not you. That [feedback I hear] is almost exclusively from women in heterosexual relationships. You are perfect just the way you are.
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