Dr. Jen Gunter was building a 3D model of the clitoris at her home one day, fashioning it from clay, a toilet paper tube and a McDonald’s straw, when her 15-year-old son walked in.
“He looked at me and said, 'You are ruining my childhood,’” Gunter laughed.
The obstetrician-gynecologist has styled herself as the world’s most steadfast defender of women’s vaginas against dubious products, untested science and nothing short of “the patriarchy.” Gunter, born in Winnipeg, shot to prominence in 2017 when she waged war on Goop, Gwyneth Paltrow’s wellness franchise for women, known for peddling iffy treatments including vaginal steaming and $91 vaginal jade eggs for “empowerment.” Sounding the snake-oil alarm, Gunter entered into a series of high-profile spats with Team Goop and won, by most accounts.
Readers of Gunter’s new book The Vagina Bible won’t find many Goop smackdowns; the OB/GYN has widened her crosshairs. Women’s health, she argues, has been vastly underserved by their physicians, their partners, predatory marketers, dangerously ill-informed cosmetic surgeons and the culture at large – a sizeable army making women feel bad about their reproductive organs, in seemingly infinite ways.
With The Vagina Bible, Gunter hopes to give women their combat armour. The clear-eyed encyclopedia touches on just about every matter serious (vulvar pain, menopause, STIs and toxic-shock syndrome), intimate (kegels, orgasms and lube) and banal (ingrown hairs, douching and the pH balance of soap). With her trademark dismissiveness, Gunter tackles all manner of new horrors inflicted upon women, from “vaginal rejuvenation” to the O-shot – injections of a woman’s own plasma into her clitoris, ostensibly for better orgasm (“so many layers of horrific, it’s hard to know where to begin,” she writes).
Throughout, Gunter, 53, proffers hard truths about sex most women innately know. No, vaginal orgasms are not the norm, the G-spot isn’t a thing and squirting really isn’t what you think it is. “A penis is not the most reliable way to achieve female orgasm,” she writes.
While the Twitter-loving OB/GYN is certainly not the first to dispel these myths about women’s sexuality, today, she holds the loudest megaphone. The Globe and Mail spoke with Gunter by phone from the San Francisco Bay Area.
Why did you feel women needed a user’s manual for their vaginas?
Well, misinformation is coming at women from so many different angles. Many doctors still believe medical myths. In the States, we have a government invested in misinformation about contraception and abortion; you’ve got a bit of that in Ontario with the repression of sex education. You have Big Natural [the natural products industry] grifting off the information gaps. Women calling themselves fertility doulas are spreading misinformation about the pill. Online, Instagram influencers are also pushing misinformation about women’s health. I had this Lord of the Rings Gandalf moment: “You shall not pass!” I was done.
How did you decide to get right into it, with several in-your-face diagrams of women’s genitalia on Page 2?
I wanted women to open the book and be like, “This is it, this is what it looks like.” We haven’t talked about women’s bodies in non-sophomoric terms. If women are forced to talk in euphemisms, how do you even know what you’re talking about? If you don’t know how all the features on your car work, you can’t drive it well.
“Not knowing your anatomy, how it works and how to make it work,” you write, “is disempowering and puts women at a disadvantage in a sexual relationship.” How?
I noticed over my career that I had far fewer questions about problems with orgasm and sexual function from women who partner with women, who are more likely to know how the parts work. There were many more of these questions from women partnering with men. Where do these women learn practical aspects of female sexual response? If she’s with a younger man, where has he learned it? From what his buddies told him? From porn?
Hearing women, it strikes me how often sex is reduced to metrics defined by men: “How many orgasms did I give you?” “Did I make you orgasm at the same time that I did?” “Did I make you squirt?” When we focus on these metrics, we diminish pleasure, which can mean different things for different people at different points in their life, at different points in their day.
A question your female patients ask you a lot is, “How did I not know this?” What’s the answer?
Medicine’s not good at communication. When you have 10 minutes with a patient, it’s hard to do a good job of educating people. And now we have fewer checkups for women because pap-smear test guidelines are changing [every three years instead of annually in Canada].
You examine the many ways women are made to feel ashamed in this realm: the incessant grooming, the scented baby wipes and washes, the invasive “tightening” surgeries. You describe it as a push to “tame the female genital tract for some misogynistic ideal.”
I have women of many ages now look at me shocked when I tell them that pubic hair is normal. They’re revolted. Are we saying that a prepubertal vulva – no pubic hair and small labia – is the ideal? It’s important for us to think about what we’re promoting as the ideal.
You cite a study that found a third of women who go under the knife to reduce their labia minora had previously received negative commentary. What do you tell these women?
We forget how a casual comment can have such negative impact. With labiaplasty, if you know that your labia minora have erectile tissue and specialized nerve endings involved in sexual response cycle, maybe you might think differently about having those reduced. We don’t have long-term data on labiaplasty to be able to tell women what the impact might be on their sexual function.
You paint a wholly different picture of women’s sexual anatomy as this incredible machine, a highly complex set of erectile tissues, glands, oils – everything with a specific purpose.
It is incredible machinery that can do so much. Before we had any ability to offer medical care, women were having babies, dealing with blood and having sex to do it all over again.
Let’s turn to Gwyneth and Goop. Why are celebrities pushing wellness cures particularly problematic for women’s health?
Celebrities are genetically privileged: They’re gorgeous. They look like the healthiest specimens. They have star power. But few get behind evidence-based medicine. There is so much good advocacy they can do and then you think, really, you want to sell vaginal steaming?
The women who flock to wellness brands such as Goop often feel disenfranchised by Western medicine, by doctors who don’t take their concerns seriously, who speed through appointments or fail to refer them properly. Can you see why women might turn to the wellness sphere, jade eggs and all?
Women are not heard in the doctor’s office in ways that they should be. Alternative medicine providers are capitalizing on these gaps, making patients feel they’re being listened to.
Women need to be better represented in medicine. If we don’t have more female researchers, professors and medical-school deans, we’re going to have a hard time fixing the system. The other way is to empower patients so that they know when they are getting bad advice.
You’re on Twitter a lot, swear a lot and like to share personal intel. What do you say to doctors who’ve taken issue with your M/O?
I would say that patients appreciate authenticity. They want to feel a connection, that the doctor gets you. How you feel at the doctor’s office matters as much as the information you get.
In your tussles with Goop, you’ve argued that, “Unlike Paltrow, I’m a brand with no product to sell.” Wouldn’t some say you’re the product now, with your new book and new web series, Jensplaining?
Nobody gets rich off a 10-episode series with the CBC in Canada. That’s not a portal to wealth. I made far less than I would make practising medicine. I’ve been in clinical medicine for 24 years and want to stretch myself in other ways. But I’m not selling health products and I never will.
This interview has been edited and condensed.