Dr. Jen Gunter knows everything there is to know about vaginas, and in her new book, she explains it all. 

By Jessi Gold, MD, MS
Aug 13, 2019 @ 9:00 am
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Jason Lecras/The New York Times/Redux

A Venn diagram of the difference between a vulva and a vagina.

A Twitter thread about why women should not put garlic in their vaginas.

A challenge on Instagram from a woman who shoots ping pong balls from her vagina. 

A peer-reviewed scientific article looking at over 5,000 pieces of Chinese art and archaeological collections for vaginal jade eggs...that found none.

Besides the word “vagina,” what do all of these viral moments of the past year have in common? Dr. Jen Gunter, MD. “I’ve always been vocal,” she tells InStyle. “I know it’s hard to believe. I’ve always been very outspoken. I was always the annoying person [in training] saying, ‘I think you got that wrong,’ or ‘you quoted that paper incorrectly.’ It was horrible, it didn’t make me a lot of friends.”

Now known affectionately as “Twitter’s resident gynecologist” and not-so-affectionately (by Goop, her sometime Internet foe) as “that Canadian gynecologist,” Dr. Gunter’s unique style of research-backed humor has created a new brand of “famous doctor” — one who is well-known enough for the first half of the moniker, but actually legitimately credentialed as the second part. 

When every day it seems like reproductive rights are under attack and female patients continue to be ignored to perilous result, Dr. Gunter is a comforting presence: A loud feminist who’s there to debunk myths, call out unfairness, and challenge those who profit off of women’s wellness to actually do something for the patients they claim to serve. If you doubt her healthcare truths, do so at your own risk. No one, not celebrities, politicians, nor especially other doctors, is off limits from a searing Gunter burn, which come in fast and hot, with the passion of five decades of fighting back. “I’m the fucking expert,” she once tweeted in response to someone who had questioned her facts. “That’s how it works.” Classic Gunter. 

As a woman in her 50s, she’s setting the record straight on reproductive anatomy and health care, while handily dismissing the societal view that women diminish as they age, one of many lies she deliciously shuts down on Twitter on the regular. She frequently shares her own stories — even the painful ones, like losing her son after a traumatic premature birth — to fight for what she believes in. And she never hesitates to utterly own critics who don’t know what they’ve stepped in to when they dare to challenge the research she covers in her regular New York Times columns (or dare to challenge “her vaginas” to lift weights — which, yes, that happened). 

And she practices, too. She is an OB/GYN who specializes in vulvar and vaginal conditions, pain with sex, and pelvic pain in San Franscisco. At an event in her hometown, a young woman  in the audience stood up to say,  “I am lucky to say Dr. Gunter is my doctor. She was the only one who believed me.” She said Dr. Gunter who was the first and only doctor to validate her experiences, listen, and explain her symptoms to her. Dr. Gunter tells InStyle: “When doctors don’t know the answer, they often make the patient feel dismissed, I think, instead of saying, ‘Let’s figure out how we can work this out.” 

For those of us outside the greater Bay Area yearning for this unfortunately rare level of care, the next best thing: Dr. Gunter has a book out August 27. The Vagina Bible, which, as its name would suggest, is practically a text book on all things vagina, from periods and pregnancy to menopause, and pleasure. She also has a new TV show, Jensplaining, airing on CBC (the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation) starting August 23. We had a chance to talk to Dr. Gunter about her new book, who she thinks needs an educational guide to vaginas (nearly everyone, it turns out), and what we stand to learn from it. 

Tell me about The Vagina Bible. Where did the title come from? 

I am so sick of books by doctors that tell people nothing substantial. I want practical information, and that's what I want people to have. I’d want them to have to have an anatomy lesson, I’d want them to have a little of the cool history because that’s kind of fun dinner conversation. I’d want them to know about all the parts, then I’d want them to know how the parts work, and how to care for those parts, and about the medications that affect those parts and how contraception affects those parts. I’d tell them about the medical conditions that affect those parts and the snake oil that is sold for those parts. And then I could hopefully help them put it all together and teach them to talk to their provider about those parts.

I wanted to call it “the Vulva and Vagina” or the “Compendium on the Vulva and Vagina” like a medical textbook, and my agent was like, “nah.” Then, finally, I was like, “What I really want is for women to have a bible!” and she was like, “Yes!” 

Was there any concern about using the word “bible”? 

No. We use the word “bible” to explain things a lot. I would say my Netter [a popular anatomy book] was my bible on the subject. I guess having the genitals next to a religious word is a little bit provocative, but I refused to have a title with a euphemism, like the “V book” or “What’s Up Down There?” Those are the books that are out there. If you write about the fucking vagina, just say that. It should be no different than if I wrote a book called “the Elbow Bible,” right?

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How has that idea, that vaginas are sort of verboten, impacted your work? 

I think that's part of it, just trying to get people to say those words. The problem with sexual health is that we don't talk about it, and not talking about it is not an option. If you can't say the word, then you can't describe symptoms to the doctor. If you don’t know the language, you can’t communicate. Why we are not teaching this in school like we give driver’s ed — why aren’t we giving medical ed? If you don't have the right language, that is really oppressive.

Why do you think that is?

Every single time I question something like that, I think, “How does that benefit the patriarchy?” That’s the first question I ask myself. Not talking about sex benefits the patriarchy because when women know about sex and know about their bodies, they are more likely to turn men down, to say I want a better partner, to maybe leave and say, really, sex is supposed to take more than three minutes? Or, well, not supposed to, but it can if you want it to, if that’s your jam. And, if you’re lying to me about sex, what else are you lying to me about? Making sex shitty for women, and making them believe that that’s what they should like, is a pretty good way to keep them controlled. Also, stigma and shame. If you make someone feel shameful for asking for better sex, or stigmatized because they are asking for that, they are easier to control, because when people feel ashamed they don’t speak up.

And, there is also this fear of speaking up and not being believed.

For women, so many of them have been dismissed. For generations, I truly believe, women haven’t been heard. If your mother’s been disbelieved, your grandmother, your great grandmother, if you think women have probably been disbelieved since the beginning of fucking time, wouldn't that affect you? Of course it does.

In your book, you talk about women believing misinformation, or being quick to trust alternative medicine, perhaps because it’s a place where they finally feel heard or believed. 

They listen more. And they make these emotional connections which are SUPER important. One of my biggest stressors moving my family from Denver to San Francisco was finding a pediatric cardiologist that I can totally trust for my son [who has a congenital heart defect]. We went through two before I found someone. They were probably well trained, but I didn’t connect with them, didn’t feel like I was being listened to. Now, imagine if you are someone who doesn’t know [as much about medicine] and the third person you find is someone selling supplements, and what they offer you is not good medical care?

One of the easiest ways to figure out [if you’re getting legitimate care] is to ask, “Who is profiting from that?” Anyone who is making money off of selling you something can’t be trusted for information. That’s like Gunter’s number one rule.

That always fascinates me, all these people who make bucket loads of money off of wellness. What is it now, a $4 trillion industry? They are worse than big pharma. Because at least big pharma has to do some studies to get approved, right? You don’t know what’s really in these supplements and wellness products or not. You have no idea, and they don’t have to prove it. It just amazes me that they get that pass. I am no friend of big pharma, but damn, at least they are doing something. 

Speaking of wellness products, you joke about “vagina Etsy.” What is the weirdest or most interesting vaginal health item you’ve seen on Etsy?

I think the Oak Galls — I was like, what the actual fuck is that? That is where wasp larvae grow. What the fuck! You know but all of these cultures have medical astringents [drying agents] to go in the vagina. I mention this in the book, but what is it about a dry vagina that men need? Like, what? A good man wants his partner to enjoy sex.

RELATED: What it Really Means if a Man Won’t Go Down on You

In your chapter on how to communicate with your provider, you invented the term “bother factor,” to help people better discuss their needs. Can you tell me more about that?

I think very early on I realized that I thought I was speaking the same language as the patient, and I was totally not. People come in to see me, and they can’t actually tell me what’s wrong. That fascinates me, I think it is because no one has given them the language to explain what is wrong. It is stuck in their head, like they intuitively know what’s wrong because something’s bothering them. Whenever people can’t describe their symptoms, and I say, “What is bothering you the most?” they can almost always tell me. It is the most liberating phrase — What is bothering you?

I think we don’t teach doctors how to deal with symptoms, they are something that we gather and then we discard as we move along. I don’t think we should be discarding symptoms — that is what brings someone to the office. Sometimes what is bothering the patient is not what you would think.

You write a lot about your own routines and experiences. As a psychiatrist, I think a lot about self-disclosure, sharing of yourself with patients. Is there anything you would not disclose?

We are always told in medicine not to. But to get something from someone, you sometimes have to give something. If all you give is your knowledge, and patients are OK with that, that’s great, but sometimes people need something emotional. So sometimes I do tell personal things. Like I will say, “Oh, you can use coconut oil as moisturizer.” And if they balk at that, I’ll say, “I use it. I put it on my vulva.” It is not something I lead with, but it’s just something that comes out now and then if it is needed.

But, I feel less weird doing that on a platform. Like on my TV show, I told people I have period sex. I do it less in office than I do publicly, because I feel like, I am not taking away from their visit. 

But, patients must see or read your stuff online, and then come in knowing all about you anyway?

I have to say … not really. What does happen is, when I write, I get emails from patients thanking me for speaking up. I get a lot of that. I’ve had more thank yous for standing up about women’s health publicly than anything I’ve ever done. More thank yous for that than delivering healthy babies. 

Around the 2016 election, a patient told me that she was watching one of the debates in a bar and they had Twitter comments scrolling up beside it or something, and one of mine came up. She said she slammed her beer on a table and stood up and said, “That’s my gynecologist!” Those are the kind of things that keep me going. I think a lot of women feel like I do, that they are done with how they have been treated, and I guess if I have a voice and people are listening, it would be unethical to not speak up. 

 

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