For today’s Extremely Online feminist, Dr. Jennifer Gunter is a household name. A board-certified OB-GYN, the California clinician rose to prominence through her acerbic blog posts about Gwyneth Paltrow’s lifestyle brand, Goop. (If you remember anything about the “vaginal egg” wars of 2017, it is likely thanks to Gunter’s scathing—and hilarious—criticism of the product.)
Gunter has since parlayed her skepticism into a highly successful personal brand, amassing more than 267,000 Twitter followers, a TV show, and a New York Times column. Fans are drawn to her no-nonsense attitude and quick wit, which she uses to condemn everything from abortion bans to natural tampons.
But in recent weeks, Gunter has taken flak from her fellow physicians and feminists. On Twitter and Facebook—and in a since-deleted op-ed in Scientific American—peers criticized her for “bullying” women and “gaslighting” survivors of sexual abuse. Critics wanted to know why she was so skeptical of alternative medicine, and so dismissive of the women who used it.
The anti-anti-Goop backlash had begun.
The first stone in the battle was lobbed by the editors of Our Bodies, Ourselves—a classic feminist tome first published in 1970, which drew on medical research and personal experiences to explain women’s health and sexuality. The book was widely seen as revolutionary for including women’s own experiences—not just a male doctor’s point of view—in a manual about their health.
But in interviews promoting her own book, The Vagina Bible, Gunter highlighted OBOS as a source of misinformation, noting that it was not written by doctors and contained suggestions like using garlic to treat yeast infections. “We [now] know a lot more about the clitoris, and other structures, and about sexually transmitted infections than we did then, and I thought women needed a physician to write a book for them,” Gunter told WBUR.
Judy Norsigian, the co-founder of the nonprofit Our Bodies Ourselves, told The Daily Beast she received numerous messages from colleagues and readers who were outraged by the comments. Together with editor Kiki Zeldes, she wrote a letter to Gunter about the book’s credentials.
Though they acknowledged the garlic information had, in fact, been incorrect, Norsigian and Zeldes noted that nine different editions of OBOS had been published since 1970, and that dozens of physicians and researchers contributed to the latest version. They also sent Gunter a free copy. “I agree with some of our colleagues that it is important to go on record with correcting her misstatements about our book,” Norsigian told The Daily Beast, “so that’s what we did.”
Gunter told The Daily Beast she hadn’t meant to slam the book, which she acknowledged was “very important.” Instead, she said, she meant to answer one of the most frequent questions she gets: “How can women be stupid enough to shove food up their vagina?”
“I say, ‘They’re not stupid,’” she said. “They went online or they went to a book and they found it in a source they thought was credible.”
Our Bodies, Ourselves, she added, is “a good example of how there can be misinformation along with good information.”
But it was more than Gunter’s opinion on a decades-old text that irked her peers. In September, California OB-GYN Jennifer Lang wrote an open letter to Gunter, opening with a reference to the jade egg that made her famous.
“I’m a GYN, and when I can remember to do my jade egg practice for more than a few nights in a row, I begin orgasming in my sleep,” she wrote.
The doctor went on to critique Gunter’s “lack of humility” in her approach to medicine, particularly when it comes to alternative practices. Running down centuries worth of failed medical advice to women—remember when doctors prescribed IVs of alcohol for preterm labor?—Lang suggested Gunter spend less time talking about being an “expert” and more time listening to her patients.
This month, science journalist Jennifer Block published an op-ed on Gunter in Scientific American, titled “Doctors Are Not Gods.” The article provided the longest and most in-depth critique of Gunter’s work, drawing on the history of groups like Our Bodies Ourselves to explain how women taking control of their own health—and occasionally rebuffing their doctors—can be a feminist act. (The story was later removed and replaced with an editor's note saying it did not meet the publication's editorial standards.)
Just like Lang’s adventure with a vaginal egg, Block wrote about experimenting with vaginal steaming—something Gunter has called “one of the core beliefs of the patriarchy”—and said she found it “warm, gentle, contemplative—all qualities I also happen to value in a healthcare provider.”
“There are, anecdotally, many women healing from sexual violence and cancer treatments, who find that steaming helped them regain sensation,” Block wrote. “Are you really going to argue with them? Isn’t that called gaslighting?”
Block’s essay was also shared favorably in some medical communities—especially among contributors to OBOS. (Block was an editor on the 2005 edition.) “High time for a little pushback,” commented Laura Weshler, an OBOS alum and member of the Society for Menstrual Cycle Research.
Gunter told The Daily Beast that she was not contacted for comment on the Scientific American article, and that she felt many of the quotes had been “cherry-picked” and taken out of context. But more importantly, she said, she felt her message had been misconstrued. She does not aim to tell women what to do, she said, but to give them accurate information so they can make their own choices.
“To me, telling people that vaginal steaming is great, that’s pandering to women,” she said, pointing to widespread—and unproven—claims that steaming can release toxins from the uterus. “That’s not saying, ‘Hey, here are all the facts so you can make your own choices.’”
She added that she refers to herself as “expert” strategically, when replying to Twitter trolls or other adversaries. (“I also used it when I responded to GOOP for calling me strangely confident,” she said. “I told them I was an appropriately confident expert.”)
It would be easy to chalk up the criticism of Gunter to a fight between female physicians, or even the inevitable milkshake-ducking of any internet celebrity. But the controversy over Gunter’s work illustrates a larger debate in modern feminism—one about exactly what role the medical system should have in women’s health.
As attacks on reproductive rights have escalated in the Trump era, many women’s rights groups have turned to science to support their positions. Dr. Daniel Grossman, an abortion provider and public health expert, has become a Twitter celebrity by using research to debunk right-wing claims about abortion. Groups like NARAL and Planned Parenthood often remind supporters that terms like “later-term abortion” and “infanticide” are not grounded in medical science.
But a growing number of feminists are doing the opposite: turning away from the medical model. In response to the skyrocketing U.S. maternal mortality rate, more and more women are choosing to give birth outside the hospital. Others say they find empowerment in ending their pregnancies on their own. And there are entire Facebook groups dedicated to women taking out their breast implants—some of which have been linked to certain cancers.
Sarah LeBlanc, an assistant professor of communication at Purdue University Fort Wayne, was one of the professionals who shared the Scientific American article. Her current research focuses on postpartum depression, and she said many new moms have told her they gave up on doctors who didn’t really listen to them. The debate around Gunter, she said, is “part of a bigger issue where a lot of women do not feel as if they’re being heard when they go to the doctors.’”
Instead of swearing off the medical system completely, however, LeBlanc proposed a compromise.
“We need to teach women how to be advocates for themselves when they’re in the doctor's office, but we also need to address how doctors are taught to communicate with patients,” she said. “If women feel they’re being listened to, they’re going to open up.”
Editor's Note: This story has been updated to correct the edition of Our Bodies, Ourselves that Jennifer Block worked on.