Dr. Jen Gunter aims to arm women with the facts

Author of The Vagina Bible opens CapU Speaker Series on Sept. 24

Dr. Jen Gunter, CapU Speaker Series, The BlueShore at CapU - Birch Building, Tuesday, Sept. 24, 8 p.m. Tickets: $12/$10 (tickets.capilanou.ca/TheatreManager/1/login&event=0).

Dr. Jen Gunter has dropped her kids to school, had her morning coffee, and is now ready to get down to the business of talking about vaginas.

She says “vagina” a lot during our conversation, and she’s on a mission to make sure we start saying it more often. “Calling it by its name doesn’t mean you’re going to be running down the streets singing ‘Look at my vagina, boys!’ We don’t do that with our elbows…”

The best-selling author of the newly released The Vagina Bible: the Vulva and the Vagina – Separating the Myth from the Medicine is coming to the North Shore to launch the CapU Speaker Series on Sept. 24. Gunter plans to delve into the misinformation, fear-mongering and downright lies surrounding women’s health and sexuality, something she’s been combatting for almost 30 years in her private practice as an OB-GYN. “I’ve always been a fan of empowering my patients,” she says. “I just want people to have facts and make their own decisions.”

“It’s a patriarchal approach to tell people ‘You mustn’t do that’. My approach is to say ‘Here are the risks, here are the benefits,’ because you are a grown-ass woman and you get to make your own choices with your own body.”

It’s been a long time since we burned our bras: why are women still so ignorant of their own bodies and sexuality? “I think it’s the core tenet of the patriarchy to keep women misinformed. When you can’t talk about your body parts, you’re constantly off balance, you can’t get the kind of health care you need, the kind of sex you want because you don’t know what to ask for.”

Gunter already has a sizable following on Twitter thanks to her weekly columns in The New York Times and articles in Chatelaine and Elle. That audience got a little larger thanks to the launch of her 10-part web series, Jensplaining, on CBC Gem last month. Each episode focuses on a topic such as menstruation, vaccines, and so-called wellness trends for women. The latter has put celebrity wellness gurus like Gwyneth Paltrow and her Goop website directly in Gunter’s crosshairs: after a 2017 post by Gunter called Paltrow’s site a “scare factory” the editorial board replied, calling Gunter “strangely confident.” (Gunter’s Twitter bio now lists her as “appropriately confident”)

The wellness industry is valued at over $4 trillion, and growing. Women are coaxed to incorporate everything from coffee enemas and jade eggs to endless nutritional supplements into their daily routine. “Wellness is a profit-generating machine just like big pharma,” Gunter states. “The idea that wellness is invested in helping you is not sustained by any factual information: if it was then they’d arm you with facts, not trends.” 

The doctor is on a mission against what she calls “Vagina Profiteers,” those peddlers of products who shame women into buying unnecessary personal health items, like douches and sprays. The same goes for tampons and feminine-hygiene products, where common theory says that organic is better. Baseless, Gunter insists: the risk of contracting Toxic Shock Syndrome is one in a 100,000 but dire warnings are emblazoned on every tampon box. Women have a higher risk of contracting an infection from a manicure or pedicure, or of being hit by a car. “Should we tell women not to cross the street? Come on.”

Raised in Winnipeg, Gunter now practices in San Francisco. She was inspired to write her book and take to the airwaves in order to reach as many people as possible. “For 29 years I’ve been listening to women come in telling me lies they’ve been told about the products they use, lies their partners have told them, or even lies that their doctors have told them,” she says. Now she wants to reach as many people as possible. “I still love taking care of patients, but I think that this is a calling.”

Her calling occasionally gets eye-rolls from her 16-year-old twins, like when their class was studying “fake news” and a real-time google search by the teacher brought up Gunter’s name. “It didn’t matter that I was one of the good guys,” she laughs, “they were mortified.”

She says the CapU talk will have something for everyone: “anybody who loves vaginas, or has a vagina or is vagina-adjacent should come.” And yes, men should attend, too. “You might be a dad with a daughter: don’t you want to know about the lies she’s going to be told about her body?” 

It’s all about awareness and factual information, starting with stretching our vocabulary. “If I can get people to say the words ‘vulva,’ ‘vagina,’ ‘orgasm’ and ‘clitoris’ without blushing I’ll feel like I’ve done a great job.”