9 Apr 2019

Dr Jen Gunter: why we need to challenge pseudoscience

From Afternoons with Jesse Mulligan, 3:08 pm on 9 April 2019

Dr Jen Gunter, AKA Twitter's gynaecologist, wants women to know their vaginas are fine, they’re "self-cleaning ovens". No jade eggs required. 

Dr Jen Gunter

Dr Jen Gunter Photo: https://twitter.com/DrJenGunter

She has made it her mission to debunk the kind of pseudo-science advice and products peddled by Goop, Gwyneth Paltrow's lifestyle brand.

In fact her latest book, The Vagina Bible, published in New Zealand in late August, is intended to be an old-fashioned textbook where women can go for verified, scientifically proven advice.

She is trying to do her best to clean up “my little corner of the internet,” she told Jesse Mulligan.

“I’m still debunking the same myths now that I did 29 years’ ago when I started in OB-GYN.

“I’m still telling women today that there’s no asbestos in tampons, never has been, there never will be – but that myth is still there.”

Centuries of shame about women’s bodies is a boon to the snake oil monger, she says.

“We’ve had a culture of shame about women’s bodies since the beginning of time, women’s menstruation has been labelled as toxic, women have been kept out of schools, out of religious services, they’ve been marginalised because of their periods.

“Vaginal health has been labelled as toxic, full of bacteria and things that can harm you - and of course there’s good bacteria and not a lot to harm you - but that’s been weaponised.

“When you have that culture of shame, it’s a lot easier for people to slide in and present this information.”

The very words used by the celebrity, lifestyle, wellness industry are sinister, she says.

“If you think about the words pseudo-science people use; like pure and natural and organic many of them are similar to the words we use when we talk about controlling women’s bodies; keeping women pure, keeping women clean, keeping women virginal."

Pseudoscience is the patriarchy’s handmaiden, she says.

“If you want to control women using inaccurate terms, that is a good way to do that. What you do is you think you’re empowering women, but you’re actually dis-empowering them.

“When you tell someone you can improve your vaginal health by putting a jade egg in your vagina that can be recharged with the energy of the moon, you’re not giving anyone facts with which you can make good decisions about your body.”

The jade egg is a “modern grift from California” she says.

And while the jade egg may be harmless but useless, Goop peddles much more dangerous misinformation, Dr Gunter says.

“They sell products and supplements that are potentially harmful, many of the people selling jade eggs, or vaginal steaming, or coffee enemas are also anti-vaccine or anti-fluoride. 

“The more you see a piece of misinformation, the more you believe it to be accurate and that’s called the illusory truth effect, we all mistake repetition for accuracy.”

In her native Canada, she says, some communities are voting to remove fluoride from the water because, “snake oil travels faster than science.”

The celebrity allure of websites such as Goop can gloss over some dangerously “nonsensical” advice, she says.

“They have a medical medium who as a child was blessed with the ability to commune with someone called Spirit, she just has one name, like Cher I guess.

"Spirit helps him tell people what’s wrong with them.

“He’s the one who’s behind this whole celery craze, a vegetable that’s basically useless, it’s a great garnish for drinks.

“But it was everywhere, it was the new cure-all because he had discovered a cluster salt, which is a nonsensical term, in celery. Supermarkets were selling out of it.”

Dr Gunter attended a Goop conference, quite openly she says, which was also attended by celebrities such as Gwyneth Paltrow, Chelsea Handler and Bryce Dallas Howard.

“I heard people saying death wasn’t real and you could come back from death with your love and your dead brain.

"I listened to a woman speak, who is a physician and an AIDS denialist.”

And she doesn’t see it as just harmless fun.

“It’s not harmless to tell women they can cure non-existent parasites with a goat’s milk cleanse.

“I don’t understand why a celebrity would use all that amazing privilege that they have, and not use it for good.”

If she could dispel one myth forever it would be that the vagina needs cleaning, she says.

“Your vagina is a self-cleaning oven, it doesn’t need any help, we have good protective bacteria there that take care of it.”  

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