Stories debunking viral nonsense about women’s bodies often cite the same doctor: San Francisco–based gynecologist Jennifer Gunter, M.D. Whether she’s taking down Goop’s ode to vaginal steaming or womb detox pearls, Dr. Gunter has become a leading internet proponent of leaving your vagina alone.
Gunter frequently writes about gynecological snake oil on her blog, where she also covers topics ranging from yeast infections and toxic shock syndrome to abortion legislation and fetal-tissue research. Reporters contact her because she’s usually among the first to comment on women’s-health news, either on her blog or on Twitter. There, she weighs in on presidential debates, cracks jokes about vagina tea, and responds to those among her nearly 26,000 followers who tag her in posts about monstrosities like vaginal speakers and vaginal yeast beer. She’s a bit like Twitter’s gynecologist, but she’s not exactly answering DMs about weird rashes.
Though she spends some of her free time writing and tweeting, by day Dr. Gunter is an OB/GYN who specializes in pelvic pain and vulvovaginal disorders. We spoke to her about Planned Parenthood, dick pics, and Googling symptoms.
Why did you start blogging?
I had two kids with pretty significant health issues — they still do, but they’re improving every day. [They’re now 12.] I actually had triplets, and one of my sons died. My other two boys were in the ICU for a very long time — they were born at one pound, 11 ounces, and one pound, 13 ounces. They both had chronic lung disease and were on oxygen for a year. One has cerebral palsy, and the other one also had a congenital heart defect.
I found myself down the early rabbit hole of the internet looking for advice and information, but I also knew how to do the medical research to back up what I was reading. I could see how people who wouldn’t get answers from conventional medicine would start to go in that direction — how people would start to feel desperate and believe what they hear. I had one of those moments of self-realization where I was like, Oh my God. This is what I’m doing.
It gave me a lot of empathy and understanding of why people are Googling symptoms. I thought, Why don’t I just write about what I know and see what I can do — at least in my corner of the medical internet. I really do blog and tweet and do all of these things to try to build a better medical internet.
Do you have guesses as to why some people don’t trust doctors? Is it because they read conflicting things on the internet or other reasons?
It’s different things for different people. Some people have definitely had bad experiences. I mean, it took me a very long time to trust my new hairdresser. Most women could understand that, right? I have really curly hair and had four bad haircuts in a row. So after four what I can only call almost life-ending haircuts I didn’t get my hair cut for three years. And that’s just my hair!
Sometimes people hear what they don’t want to hear — they want a cure, they don’t want a treatment. Sometimes conventional medicine makes it so difficult for people to jump through the hoops, which is also why building a medical internet can be really helpful.
When I have a patient who comes in and she’s researched her condition and has good information, it’s amazing what we can do together because there are no barriers to break down, she’s already there. Maybe I’m talking about new treatments that we don’t have [yet] and she says, “Oh, I read about that!” and it’s this amazing experience where you’re working together. Then you have somebody who comes in with all of this wrong information, and they think you’re hiding something from them. I’m like, “Look, if I had the cure, I’d give it to you. I’m not hiding it from you.”
Having people come in well-prepped is not only good for them so they don’t have as much anxiety, but it makes my job easier. That’s what I hear from a lot of my colleagues. People will stop me at meetings or will send me emails saying, “I used your post on eating placentas and I made it into a handout for patients, thank you so much.” That just thrills me because I’ve done the research, I’ve written it up, and doing this stuff isn’t like … some people knit, some people go skiing, and I like to read stories about weird stuff on the internet and write about it. We all have our thing we like to do.
Some of the things you write about are novel, but in your blog disclaimer you say that others are all too common. Is it frustrating to see women believe the same misconceptions about their bodies?
Yeah if, for the 92nd time, you’ve had to tell somebody with itching on their perineum that it’s not a yeast infection, you start to think, if I’m this one doctor doing this and I know that all my other colleagues are doing this and I multiply us by how many doctors are in the country … There are all these women out there thinking that the symptom they’re having is yeast when it’s a skin problem. I can only see so many patients a day, but with my blog, I’m definitely over 10,000 views every day. I’m reaching a far larger audience, and that’s just better for everybody to get the information.
How do you choose which crazy trend (or common problem) you’re going to write about?
Sometimes it’s just the time of day. You know, my kids haven’t woken up yet, and it’s five in the morning, and I’m like, Oh! Hey, let me write about herbal balls in the vagina. That’s how that happened. Sometimes it’s just literally, What the fuck? I have to write this. And other times, I’m like, Huh, I have to mull it over.
It’s one of these multifactorial things that depend on the time of day, how much I’ve been writing. Sometimes I’ll write three or four things in a week and then I need a break. Because I have two kids and I’ve got a Lab puppy and a one-eyed cat. And I have a boyfriend, and a job.
Do people also DM you with medical questions?
Rarely. I kind of have a standard [response], “I cannot give you any medical advice.” And then I usually end up unfollowing those people.
I also get people sending me dick pictures, too. It was so bad one year that I was going to do a calendar — try to raise money for prostate cancer or something. I was like, Oh my god, what are you people doing? Stop it. But I have some friends who are dating on Tinder and apparently that’s really common so I’m like, I’m not a prude but … yuuuh.
It’s an election year and you’ve been highlighting on Twitter what the candidates say about women’s health and reproductive rights. Are you watching for these kinds of things during debates?
Honestly, watching some of those debates seems to be about as fun as having your teeth drilled without anesthetic, but I have been watching it. I’m really not qualified to comment on anything but the medical aspect of what they say, but I am interested in that, especially because on the Republican side there were two physicians running [Ben Carson and Rand Paul].
I was the person who drew the attention to Ben Carson’s name being on that scientific paper that used aborted fetal issue. I’m just acutely aware and I really believe that politics and medicine shouldn’t be mixed together — I think politicians should be politicians, and doctors should be doctors, and patients should get to decide the medical care that’s right for them.
What do you make of the conservative stance on Planned Parenthood?
These discussions about Planned Parenthood and contraception and abortion — when people are talking about that, they’re basically saying things that are not true medically.
We already know how to prevent abortion: make long-acting reversible contraception available to everybody. That’s frustrating on a medical level because they’re acting like we don’t know, or that the way to make abortion less common is to restrict it when we know that doesn’t work. That’s a complete disavowal of medical facts and a vast body of knowledge, so that offends me on that level.
You blog and tweet and work and parent, but you also field questions from reporters like me. Why do you make time for that?
There are lots of health reporters from BuzzFeed to USA Today who are always tweeting or emailing me and asking me questions and I really try to be available because journalists are communicators. You can take my crazy blunt phrases that I use and turn it into something that’s going to reach more people.
It’s not really about my ego. Sure, I love when a piece goes viral and I see that I got mentioned in People magazine. But at the end of the day, if I write it and only 10,000 people see it versus if I also talk to you, or somebody else, and then 100,000 or 200,000 people see it, then I’ve helped more people, and that’s awesome. And when it’s written well, I can print that out and hand it to a patient.
This interview has been condensed and edited.