TORONTO — Outspoken doctor and Goop critic Jen Gunter is known for her hot takes on vaginal health, abortion restrictions, and some of the more controversial Gwyneth Paltrow-backed wellness trends.
“My feature and my flaw is bravery,” Gunter says of her no-holds-barred tactics on social media and in interviews, adding she’s not afraid to “shame” those she feels are spreading misinformation and exploiting the vulnerable.
But while Gunter’s quippy delivery and online prowess have cast her as a firebrand, she insists she never envisioned that identity for herself when she studied medicine in Winnipeg and London, Ont.
“I was very impacted by the second wave of feminism and I think I really believed that at this point in my life as a 52-year-old woman that we wouldn’t be fighting for these things — we wouldn’t be fighting for bodily autonomy; we wouldn’t be fighting for access to all the types of health care that we need, and yet we are. So I felt that if people are listening to me that I have a duty to speak up.”
Gunter, now based in the San Francisco Bay area, does exactly that in a new docuseries for CBC’s streaming service Gem, in which she tackles women’s health in 10 episodes 12-to-15 minutes long. Topics include menstruation, the wellness industry and vaccines.
“Jensplaining” begins streaming Friday, while Gunter’s book, “The Vagina Bible,” came out earlier this week.
During a recent stop in Toronto, Gunter sat down at CBC headquarters to discuss her mission to be “an advocate for good health information.”
The Canadian Press: Doctors face backlash for speaking politically, but you seem unfazed by that.
Gunter: This idea that the health of the public isn’t a concern for physicians is incorrect. We care for people whether they’re in our office or globally. I mean we talked about vaccines — that’s the health of the public — we talked about seatbelts, that’s the health of the public, bicycle helmets. Incorrect information can harm us in so many ways. We see individual harm in the office but we also see people voting to have fluoride removed from water because of unfounded fears. This can affect us all in so many negative ways and I just kept thinking that if people were listening to me, I really had a duty to do it right.
CP: How do you handle social media backlash?
Gunter: I’ve had to get people involved at higher levels at Facebook and on Twitter — although Twitter doesn’t really take threats very seriously, unfortunately. Unless you’re somebody threatening a white man — and not even really making a threat — then that’s serious…. Fortunately, I don’t care what anyone thinks about me so that’s probably a positive feature. And I know who I am. I have a really good sense of self and I know what I’m doing is right.
CP: Where are we now in addressing vaccine misconceptions?
Gunter: People who are the hardcore (anti-vaxxers) are actually a minority and the most important thing that we can do is try to contain those views so they don’t contaminate the people that maybe don’t actually have all the information who are maybe more fear-driven.
CP: A lot of smart women know crystals aren’t magical but they enjoy having them. What’s the harm in that?
Gunter: A lot of people have used wellness as an excuse to have joy. So the analogy I always give is my shoes — I love high-end shoes (and) I don’t kid myself that those shoes help the health of my feet in any way…. If having crystals on your counter or having expensive jars of beauty products sparks joy for you that way, that’s OK. That’s totally fine. But there’s a big difference between saying, ‘I love all these different crystals, when I look at them it’s cool” (and) saying, ‘I’m going to spend $85 on crystals because I’m really worried about my health, and I think that’s going to help me get better.”
CP: But women are not getting the information they need. So who has failed them?
Gunter: It’s a global failure across the board. Medicine has long dismissed women. We have only had women in medicine, really, for 30 or 40 years and even then, I still have never had a female head of a department until recently in my whole career. I’m 52. I didn’t even meet a female surgeon in my medical school and that was in the ’80s, so I didn’t have a female mentor to look up to in my training in OB-GYN.
CP: And then there’s the abortion debate.
Gunter: I always say there’s no abortion debate, there’s an abortion discussion because a debate would mean one side’s wrong and there is no wrong side. I’m pro-abortion. I’m happy to say that. Being pro-abortion doesn’t mean that I’m hauling women off subways telling them that they should have abortions. I’m pro-abortion in the same way I’m pro-appendectomy, or I’m pro-C-section or I’m pro-podiatry. If you have a medical condition or a situation where that procedure is indicated, great, then you should have it. And if you don’t have a situation where that procedure is indicated then you shouldn’t have it.
Abortion is health care and in Canada, we’ve proved that. We don’t have abortion in the criminal code in Canada and women are not flocking to have buy-one-get-one free abortions with their best friends at malls. We can trust women and we can trust their providers. (And) we know studies tell us that laws … don’t change the abortion rate, all they do is change the safety for the people having abortions. To say that abortion laws are pro-life is the exact opposite because it’s affecting the life of the pregnant person.
CP: Tell me about “The Vagina Bible.” Are there any other wellness trends that get under your skin?
Gunter: The whole last chapter is dedicated to snake oil. Wellness is so funny — it’s trendy and health care is not trendy. So I think we’re done with turmeric and we’re done with charcoal. With CBD, we’re still stuck in that and there’s absolutely no science to say that it does anything useful. It might, we don’t know. It hasn’t been studied but I wouldn’t pay to put CBD in anything. But that’s me. I like the science.
— This interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.
Cassandra Szklarski, The Canadian Press