The manual is written for the layperson — and it’s an informative and often entertaining 300-page tome filled with much-needed medical information on women’s bodies and sexual health, at all stages of life.
It’s a ruptured spleen, though, that we have to thank for the birth, pardon the pun, of The Vagina Bible (Random House), the new book by veteran physician Dr. Jen Gunter. In the late 1970s, the then-11-year-old was being treated for the ailment when doctors discovered she had kidney disease. “I spent a whole summer learning about medicine,” says the 53-year-old OB/GYN, who had to have one of her kidneys removed. “I ended up explaining to my mom everything that was happening.”
The experience set the Winnipeg native on course to becoming a doctor, one specializing in women’s bodies and pain issues. “I came from a ‘no sex please, we’re British’ household,’” says Gunter, who, like so many girls of her era, learned about sex and her own body from sources such as youth author Judy Blume. “My mother rarely told people I was a doctor,” she says, adding with a laugh, “and she never told them I was a gynecologist.”
By now, pretty much the whole world knows about the credentials of Dr. Gunter, who is set to appear before a sold-out house on Sept. 25 during Calgary’s Wordfest writers’ festival ( wordfest.com).
Along with The Vagina Bible — currently No. 1 on Canadian bestseller lists — the now northern California-based physician has a monthly column in the New York Times, a new web series for CBC Gem entitled Jensplaining and nearly a quarter million followers on Twitter, where she is known as the social media platform’s resident gynecologist. She’s been featured on TV shows across North America and in publications all over the world.
Gunter’s growing legion of fans love her for her ability to dispense vital medical information with a hearty dose of humour, occasional outrage and frequent F-bombs and other salty language. “I have a different communication style with people, which seems to resonate,” she says. “Hey, I’m not for everybody, I get that. But so many doctors aren’t good at public communication.”
In other words, Gunter is the newest celebrity medical expert for the 21st century. But she’s a big departure from the likes of Dr. Mehmet Oz, who has touted everything from evidence-free, “magic” weight loss compounds to using psychic mediums for treating psychological problems.
“People are realizing we are in such a fake news time and they are ready for this,” she says of both her ascendancy as a physician for the masses and her new book. “I set out to fix the Internet for women — I didn’t start with a plan or strategy; I just knew that not doing anything was not OK for me.”
Her passion for myth-busting, fighting misogyny and talking openly about the sexual and reproductive health of half the world’s population — “euphemisms oppress women,” she says — has its roots in her 25-year medical practice. “Woman after woman was coming in with absolutely incorrect information about her own body, things she’d been told by her mother, doctor, a dude,” she says. “I once heard ‘How did I not know that?’ five times in one day.”
She was also becoming increasingly aware of the misinformation and dubious claims by the wellness industry, which thanks to the Internet, has exploded into what Gunter says is a $4-trillion a year, global “wellness industrial complex.”
It was celebrity Gwyneth Paltrow’s Goop empire that particularly sparked her ire. Promoting such products as “vaginal steaming” and jade eggs meant to be inserted into the vagina for strengthening, is not just quackery, it’s outright dangerous, says Gunter, who also includes a chapter in her book on the sexual health of transwomen. “The vagina is a self-cleaning oven,” she says, noting the old wives’ tales of earlier times have now been replaced with modern-day snake oil products. “There’s a lot of money in vaginal shame.”
Still, more than a few have tried, in turn, to shame Gunter, an expert who’s been called Goop’s enemy No. 1 and even the “vaginal antichrist.” She’s not immune to the trolling and abuse that is so pervasive on social media sites like Twitter, but she can clearly handle it. “The Internet is a quagmire of bulls#@&,” she says, noting she has supporters who helped teach her how to navigate social media’s murky waters. “But it’s sad that while a private person can help me block people on Twitter, Twitter can’t even do that.”
The social media giants even refused ads for her new book because it had the word vagina in the title. “There’s a guy who got an ad approved on Instagram using the word dick,” says Gunter, who often cites outmoded, patriarchal views for the continued stigmatism given to normal medical terms when it comes to women’s health. “But the word vagina, from an OB/GYN, is different.”
Still, when it comes to talking about women’s vaginas — which, you’ll learn from her book, often gets confused with the vulva, a separate organ down there — Gunter has no plans to slow down her campaign, or what she cheekily calls her “vagenda.”
As long as there’s misinformation everywhere, whether such myths as the benefits of coffee enemas — “keep your coffee out of your rectum and in your cup” — or the G-spot — “There is no specific spot” — she’ll keep on dispensing much-needed health information and advice.
“When I’m doing book signings, I still hear women saying, ‘how did I not know that?’ all the time,” says the good doctor and proud mom of twin teenage boys.
“I am doing this ultimately for my patients and all my prospective patients,” adds Gunter, who as an 11-year-old learned to answer her own health care questions. “Wouldn’t the world be a better place if everyone walked into their doctor’s office informed?”
Copyright Postmedia Network Inc., 2019