“When society insists that we don’t speak or write a word, the implication is that word is shameful,” Dr. Jen Gunter says
If you’re a frequent Twitter user, chances are you’ve come across Dr. Jen Gunter, known fondly as “the internet’s OB/GYN.” Gunter has made advocating for women’s health her mission in life — as a New York Times contributor, she speaks out against wellness trends she deems harmful and dangerous, and she’s working to destigmatize the anatomical words for women’s reproductive parts. We chatted with Gunter about her new book, The Vagina Bible, and about why she wants women to be better informed about their health.
What was the inspiration behind the title for your new book, ‘The Vagina Bible’?
This is a textbook for everyone about the vagina and vulva, so I was adamant about no euphemisms. When society insists that we don’t speak or write a word the implication is that word is shameful, and there is nothing wrong or dirty or shameful about a body part. Many women — even with close girlfriends or in the privacy of a visit with their OB/GYN — have trouble saying vagina and vulva. So if an OB/GYN can’t insist on using the word vagina publicly, who can?
I wanted to call it The Vagina and Vulva Bible, but vagina has taken on a broader meaning in society and for many people vagina now encompasses the entire lower reproductive tract. I wanted to pay homage to that fact because you have to meet people where they are, but also introduce vulva into the general lexicon so that is why it is in the subtitle!
Bible came about because I wanted a word that makes people think of an extensive body of knowledge. I thought of “compendium” or “treatise,” but they sounded snooze-worthy. In medical school it was common to refer to our seminal textbooks as the “Bible” on that particular subject. And the literal meaning of the English word “Bible” is book or books (I believe it is from both the Greek and Latin). So it just all fit. I see The Vagina Bible as the book about vaginas and vulvas.
You recently went head to head with Twitter, after the platform banned the use of the word “vagina” in the promotion of your new book. Why do you think social media still stigmatizes anatomical terms in this way?
I suspect most social media algorithms are ultimately approved by people without vaginas or people who pay little or no attention to people with vaginas. In short, the patriarchy. The fact that vagina and vaginal triggered a purity algorithm was not surprising (although it was disappointing) and just reinforced why this book is needed. If you never say the word it never occurs to you what a vacuum that absence creates, but as someone who has spent her entire professional life caring for women I see the gaps and issues created by the societal inability to say vagina and vulva. That is why I called out Twitter publicly.
What did surprise me was “OB/GYN” was also considered offensive by Twitter. My entire career and the profession of caring for the female reproductive tract is offensive? We were banned from advertising with the words vagina and vaginal on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook. I mean, Jack (Dorsey) and Mark (Zuckerberg) come on. I know others trying to educate about vaginas and vulvas and cancers of the reproductive tract have faced similar bans due to supposed “profanity.”
You’re vocal about the dangers of trusting non-medical sources, such as blogs, online. Do you think women are especially vulnerable to these, and if so, why?
As my practice and writing is largely aimed at women I have to admit up front that my answer may be biased. However, I think people who are marginalized, and that is not just women, are the most vulnerable. If your concerns are not being heard or met or you have been dismissed in the doctor’s office or your condition has not been well-studied, it makes sense you would look elsewhere. If that person or site you turn to is more welcoming and empathetic, then of course you can see how someone might think, ‘Gosh, this person really cares.”
For women there is another layer. Patriarchal myths about reproductive tract purity have existed since the beginning of humanity. Women are dirty or unclean or impure (I mean, they’re not, but that is what the patriarchy says) when they start menstruating. Their societal worth has also been distilled to a virginal status at marriage and then efficient production of offspring. So, it is fascinating to me and frightening that the Wellness Industrial Complex uses that same language — “pure,” “clean,” and “natural” — to stoke fears and sell product. I wonder if this language evokes something visceral in women. Given how the uterus and vagina have been labeled as dirty and this fear used to control women for far longer than a millennia or two, how could it not?
Medicine has many gaps. Many areas of women’s health are understudied. Medicine has been patriarchal since forever. Women have their symptoms and their lived experiences dismissed. I can see how they turn elsewhere. However, the Wellness Industrial Complex is exploiting those gaps, not filling them.
Wellness is a $4 trillion dollar a year industry. Imagine if we used that money to fix medicine?
What’s the most pervasive myth you’ve seen on the blogosphere regarding women’s health?
That the vagina and uterus need cleaning or cleansing because they are “dirty” or filled with “toxins.” This is the core tenet of the patriarchy. The uterus and vagina don’t need cleaning, just like the prostate, the rectum and the heart don’t. If the uterus were filled with toxins, how does an embryo implant and thrive? That I see young women on Instagram and on blogs perpetuating this myth breaks my heart. They are taking a harmful and false patriarchal belief that has literally been used to oppress women since the dawn of humanity and are wrapping it up with a pink ribbon and calling it empowerment and often to sell useless and harmful products or services.
If you could recommend one thing women in America could do today to take better care of their sexual health, what would that be? Is the answer different for a 60-year-old woman versus a 30-year-old?
Get informed. Information is power. Being able to advocate for yourself and to have informed consent over everything you choose to do with your body medically is so important.
What’s the number one problem in American health care today, with regards to women’s sexual health?
That is a hard one to answer as health care is such a vast topic and there are so many ways that health care for women could be improved. I think the number one issue is access to affordable, quality healthcare. This isn’t just a financial issue (although that is a huge part). If you have been dismissed or treated poorly, that also affects your access to quality health care. If there isn’t enough research being done, that affects access to quality health care.
What’s next for you after ‘The Vagina Bible’? What’s your ultimate goal, in terms of affecting women’s sexual health?
My next book is The Menopause Manifesto. I am going to tackle the subject historically, culturally, and medically. I have so many things to say on this subject. The way we think about menopause is all wrong, because men get distinguished as they age and women get diminished. Menopause is not something to fear, however, if you have bothersome symptoms they can be treated. So many women have their menopausal health concerns ignored, and I am going to change that! And to get society to look at menopausal women in the way we deserve — with awe.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
This originally appeared in the September 18, 2019 edition of Katie Couric’s Wake-Up Call newsletter. Subscribe here.