Jen Gunter didn’t set out to be the Joan of Arc of vaginas, and though she had a keen sense of injustice, she wasn’t a crusader, either. She was just a San Francisco–based OB/GYN who kept up with celebrity health trends so she could answer the odd patient inquiry. But then came the jade eggs.
Yes, those eggs. The ones featured in a now-fateful 2017 post on Gwyneth Paltrow’s wellness website, Goop, in which actress-slash-healer Shiva Rose claimed that putting a $66 gemstone into your vagina could “balance hormones, regulate menstrual cycles, prevent uterine prolapse, and increase bladder control.” Gunter, who was alerted to the story via her Twitter account, was certain the so-called “yoni eggs” would do none of those things. So on her website, she wrote an open letter laying out what Goop had gotten wrong, from both a medical and a feminist point of view.
“The only thing your post got right is to check with your doctor before using one,” she concluded. “So let me give you some free advice: Don’t use vaginal jade eggs.”
The post went viral, and then it went legal when the Santa Clara district attorney’s office brought a lawsuit against Goop, alleging that it was selling “a series of women’s health products whose advertised medical claims were not supported by competent and reliable science.” In 2018, Goop settled, paying $145,000 in civil penalties — pocket change for a $250 million wellness empire, sure, but a significant symbolic win for Team Science.
Even before the jade-egg smackdown, Gunter had become internet-famous as the Goop slayer — the fiercest and most influential critic of Paltrow-endorsed junk science. Fans of her blog, which is called Wielding the Lasso of Truth, and her Twitter account, which has 189.6k followers, look to her every time Paltrow makes an extraordinary health assertion (ear seeds, anyone?). But if her rise to fame is inextricable from her famous foe, lately Gunter has been branching out. In addition to running a full-time practice, she writes two separate columns for the New York Times. (“The Cycle” focuses on reproductive-health issues; “You Asked” is an advice column taking on questions like the purpose of pubic hair and how your period changes with age.) Her book, The Vagina Bible, comes out in August, as does Jensplaining, a new web series devoted to debunking bogus health claims, which will air on CBC in Canada and is currently being shopped around in the States.
All of this positions Gunter as much more than mere Gwyneth antagonist, and maybe the celebrity doctor of our time: In the ’80s, Dr. Ruth taught repressed Americans to unclench and embrace their sexuality. In the 2000s, Dr. Phil brought mental-health dialogue into the mainstream. In the past decade, Dr. Oz has taught us that, well, we really need someone like Jen Gunter — fact evangelist in the fake-news era.
“You have no idea how many women still ask me about putting garlic in their vaginas,” Gunter says over Skype from her home in Marin County, California. She also gets asked about yogurt and, recently, cannabis (for the record, your vagina cannot get high). It’s easy to laugh, but Gunter is sympathetic. “That thing about garlic is [recommended] in Our Bodies Ourselves,” she says, referencing the seminal, seemingly authoritative health tome from the 1970s. “There is just so much fucking misinformation out there.” Her love of the F-word is unabashed: Her favorite morning coffee mug says, “Fuckity Fuck Fuck Fuck,” and in the background of our call, I can see a cross-stitch throw pillow that reads, “I am the fucking expert so I get to say that” — a gift from a fan. When we talk, she is just back from practicing her personal go-to wellness routine, a jog in the hills with her chocolate Lab, Hazel. She’s mostly an outdoorsy, low-maintenance type but loves a good pair of statement heels and her signature raspberry-colored bomber jacket.
Gunter thinks her reverence for facts probably traces back to her childhood in Winnipeg, Canada, growing up in a home where very little was reliable or predictable. Both her parents dealt with mental-health issues. “Let’s just say there were a lot of things in my house that were not as they seemed,” she says, “so it was important for me to be able to say, ‘I know this is true.’”
As a kid, she read Sylvia Plath and Margaret Atwood and refused to take typing because it was only for girls. At 16, she was protesting in support of reproductive rights. She decided to go to med school because she loved science. She decided to become an OB/GYN because she was “pissed off” that all of the lectures she received about her vagina were delivered by men. This was the ’80s. She had yet to meet another woman in her field.
In the ’90s, she passed the hours between delivering babies reading entertainment glossies like People and Cosmo, always with an eye out for the latest miracle cure (the cayenne-pepper cleanse) or medical conspiracy theory (asbestos in tampons). “I wanted to be able to answer my patients’ questions proactively,” she says. Back then, wellness culture had yet to intermingle so overtly with traditional medicine and was, in many ways, a sign of progress for women. “Before Jane Fonda,” says Gunter, “women were basically dead at 40.” The movement that would eventually give way to Goop, she says, initially gave women permission to talk about sex and their vaginas and themselves. It also identified an untapped market.
Gunter’s interest in making the medical system better for patients — and for women in particular — comes from 24 years as an OB/GYN, but more than that, it comes from the time she spent on the receiving end of health care. In 2003, she gave birth to three sons, one of whom died minutes after delivery. Her surviving preemies were on oxygen for a year, and one twin, Oliver, was born with a heart condition that has required multiple surgeries.
Even as a physician, she was overwhelmed and often horrified by the misinformation she found online. She spent hours in the middle of the night researching alternative formula ingredients and stem-cell therapies. As a doctor, she compared these miracle cures to magic beans, but as a mom — “these websites make it seem so science-ish and hopeful,” she says. “I know what it is to be desperate.” And by that, she means she gets it. She gets how fear and heartache can impair judgment. She gets why candy-colored cleanses are more enticing than diet and exercise, why fixing one’s relationship with “sex dust” might sound more appealing than addressing the underlying issues, and why blaming cancer on the underwire in your bra might be easier than confronting the random cruelty of human existence.
The whole reason she moved to San Francisco was she “got it in [her] head” that the climate would be good for Oliver’s health. She couldn’t find a doctor who would confirm that this was a medically sound idea (I couldn’t either) but says that there is more ambient oxygen at sea level and that, in the olden days, doctors used to tell people to “go to the coast to take the waters, so …” I tell her this sounds a lot like the sort of magical thinking she is generally so opposed to, and she admits that’s possible. “Maybe I was just trying to justify my desire to live on the Pacific Ocean. If some board-certified pulmonologist says, ‘You’re full of shit,’ I would totally accept that.”
Today her babies are 16 and doing well health-wise. Lately they’ve been counseling mom on her dating life. After ending a seven-year relationship last winter, Gunter has been experimenting with dating apps. She’s currently seeing one particular guy, though she isn’t interested in sharing details. (“I don’t want to jinx it!” she says. “How’s that for the least Jen Gunter statement ever?”).
Gunter first waded into the Goop wars by accident in 2015 when someone on Twitter alerted her to the phenomenon of vaginal steaming. A quick Google search directed her to the source of the trend, and her responding blog post “Gwyneth Paltrow says Steam Your Vagina, an OB/GYN says don’t,” became her first taste of viral fame. She has since weighed in on a number of GP-endorsed remedies and snuck into an In Goop Health Summit to bring her readers a fact-based (and extremely funny) account of the proceedings. She even reviewed the scientific claims of all 161 wellness products available on the Goop website:
“Both crystals and essential oils were given 100% on the woo scale. Nice smelling things are nice, but that isn’t health care … The Goop store is 90% quackatorium, and there was no evidence supporting Gwyneth Paltrow’s claim that Goop does not engage in pseudoscience as a commercial venture.”
She’s used to backlash (one Goop fan called her the “vaginal Antichrist”). Still, she was more irked than usual when one of Goop’s “medical experts” suggested she was “strangely confident” in her assessment of jade eggs. “I am not strangely confident about vaginal health; I am appropriately confident because I am the expert,” she retorted. The fact that we seem to be living in a post-expert reality (in medicine, in politics, in royal gossip) is not lost on Gunter and is a big part of what motivates her. The other part is all the positive feedback. “Women, complete strangers, will come up to me and thank me for something they learned from my blog,” she says. “My entire career has been about caring for women, and this is an extension of it.”
This may be the one thing Gunter and Gwyneth agree on: A lot of women aren’t getting what they need from our current medical system, which is part of what makes alternative options so appealing. As with space suits and crash-test dummies, the male body is still the default for the majority of medical research and testing. Doctors aren’t taught to validate symptoms, and a lot of female patients don’t feel listened to. It’s a problem, says Gunter, but snake oil (and/or sacred snake sex ceremonies) is not the answer.
Team Goop claims they are not in the business of prescribing, rather of “asking questions” and “starting conversations,” but Gunter finds the deflection disingenuous: “What is the ‘question’ when you say bras cause breast cancer? Telling women they need Vitamin B12 shots — that’s not helping them; it’s exploiting them!”
And in fact, it may be harming them. In a New York Times op-ed, Gunter referenced new research showing that curable cancer patients who seek out alternative medicine are more likely to die sooner. Not because there’s anything damaging about vitamin cocktails or infrared saunas or, you know, love (a cancer treatment endorsed at the In Goop Health Summit) but because these remedies often cause sick people to delay conventional treatment. Seeing women make decisions she disagrees with is something Gunter can accept; she just wants to make sure everyone has their facts straight. “If a woman who understands the biological purpose of pubic hair still wants to go out and get a Brazilian, more power to her,” she says.
It’s not that different from her recent splurge on a Gucci purse. “I have wanted for a long time. I love it, and it’s so pretty I’m almost too scared to take it outside,” she says. “But I don’t kid myself that it holds my wallet any better than my $20 bag from Target.”
In the intro of The Vagina Bible, Gunter lays out her “vagenda”: for every woman to have accurate information about the vagina and the vulva. Fans of her F-bomb-laden blog and celebrity Twitter scraps may be surprised by the book, which is not what you think it is. (Unless you think it is an accessible but largely academic resource on vaginal health with PG language and exactly zero mentions of you-know-Whoop).
Gunter’s editor, Esi Sogah, first reached out after reading her blog post titled “Don’t Put Ground-Up Wasp Nest Into Your Vagina” — a good example, says Sogah, of the “frankness + funny + facts” formula that makes Gunter such an influential figure: “So often conversations about women’s health are couched in all these euphemisms, which allows for a lot of misinformation.”
Sogah agrees that the Goop rivalry put Gunter on the map. With the book, though, she wanted to create something for all women: not just her large built-in fan base (a “rarity” for a first-time nonfiction writer) but also the women who pay big bucks to attend wellness summits and the ones in socially conservative communities who may know almost nothing about their bodies. “They’re not going to want to pick up a book that calls them stupid,” says Sogah, adding that those who love watching Gunter spar still have plenty to look at on Twitter.
“I think of Jen as being a courageous warrior,” says Esther Choo, one of the founders of the #MeToo health-care movement and unabashed Gunter admirer. “As someone who is also on social media trying to do a lot of health messaging, I can’t emphasize enough how difficult it is to do what she does with apparent ease. And she’s not afraid to go into places where people are going to go full-on attack.”
That’s good news given that Gunter’s latest set of opponents is a group that makes even the loopiest Goopies seem tame by comparison. Earlier this year, she published an op-ed titled “I Didn’t Kill My Baby” in response to the president’s implication that doctors who provide late-term abortion care are committing infanticide. Her request to come on The View to “have a real discussion about abortion” with Meghan McCain got her 25,000 likes and 17,000 retweets. She has been at the forefront of the fight to rename the so-called “fetal heartbeat bill,” which is based on medically inaccurate and misleading language. (A number of mainstream media are paying attention.) “There are very few women in medicine who are as heard as Jen,” says Choo.
And with the debate around reproductive rights unlikely to de-escalate in the lead-up to 2020, it’s safe to assume we’ll be hearing a lot more from her. “I think I’m in a unique position to fill some gaps,” she says. The infanticide lie in particular, she thinks, has become a key talking point for the far right — one she intends to combat by keeping facts in the foreground. “Every day there is misinformation, and it’s shiny object, shiny object. I don’t want to be the shiny object. I want to be the rock.”
This article has been corrected to show that Gunter has 189.6k Twitter followers, and that her analysis of the 161 products on Goop’s website was not peer-reviewed.