Four days after publication, journalist Jennifer Block’s op-ed “Doctors Are Not Gods” was retracted from Scientific American after severe backlash. The piece critiqued doctors who come across as all-knowing, specifically targeting influential ob-gyn Dr. Jen Gunter, who doesn’t hold back when informing Twitter users about evidence-backed medical advice for women. Block argues that Gunter’s dismissal of alternative treatments may invalidate women’s lived experiences. The debate continued on Twitter where many, Gunter included, felt that it was a hit piece. Emily asks Block: why did you write this piece?
Image screenshot via Scientific American, illustration by Empowered Health
Show Notes + Transcript
Emily Kumler: I’m Emily Kumler and this is Empowered Health. This week on Empowered Health, we’re covering a story that sort of blew up on Med Twitter (Editor’s note: This is one of the first tweets from Jennifer Block. There are many tweets and threads off of this that can be found on both Jennifer Block’s twitter, @writingblock, and on Dr. Jen Gunter’s twitter, @DrJenGunter) over Thanksgiving. A reporter named Jennifer Block, who is a feminist health reporter with an extensive background covering women’s health, wrote a story (Editor’s note: This story has since been removed. This is a link to the archived version) in Scientific American, which is sort of the gold standard for science news, but like sort of consumer friendly science news, I guess I would say, and she wrote it about Dr. Jennifer Gunter, who is sort of known as the OB/GYN of the internet. She has a huge following on Twitter. She also has a New York times column. She’s the bestselling author of The Vagina Bible, and she has I think about 270,000 followers (Editor’s note: Gunter had 272,060 followers at the time of this podcast’s publication) on Twitter and she’s really well known for trying to, or exposing sort of inaccuracies in women’s health and debunking things like Goop, the Gwyneth Paltrow brand, like Goop’s claims about products that are supposed to help your vagina. But, the Scientific American piece was, I think, attempting to expose holes in the credibility of doctors who maybe aren’t listening to their patients. In some ways, it was sort of calling Dr. Gunter a bully. The title of the piece was actually “Doctors are not Gods.” And so we wanted to get into this a little bit because my initial reaction was these are two women who are both trying really hard to move the needle on women’s health. And they’re really both, in many ways, fighting the same cause. And yet they’re also sort of going at each other in this way that I’m not sure, and maybe that’s a part of progress, but maybe it’s not, or maybe there’s a better way to have this kind of dialogue. And so we’re going to get into the specifics of the story, but we’re also going to sort of talk about the state of women’s health at large. You know, how women do often feel disregarded. And how does that manifest itself when you’re trying to find good advice about your body or about medicine or about treatments or even products that are sold, and who do you turn to? And we have this sort of credibility crisis, both in medicine and I would say in journalism, that are feeding into this and leaving women really feeling uncertain about who they can turn to. So we asked Dr. Gunter to join us. I felt like it was really important to have her voice in this story. And she’s a source who we had reached out to before about other things. And so hopefully we will have her on the podcast at some point. But she did decline to talk about the story. So I’m sure that she’s just decided that she doesn’t want to give it any more attention, which is understandable. So, we’re going to spend this whole episode instead just talking to Jennifer Block about her story and about some of the criticism that I had of her story and where this leaves us all.
Jennifer Block: My name is Jennifer Block. I am a journalist and author. I began my career at Ms. Magazine almost 20 years ago, where I kind of became the health editor, unofficially, and got all the health related mail and that sort of sent me out on this beat. So I was writing about, you know, contraception and abortion and a story came across my desk about maternity care and the rising C-section rate and the increasing use of labor induction. And that story eventually turned into what became my first book, Pushed. I continued focusing at this intersection of health and feminism. So I wrote about surrogacy. I wrote about the politics of breastfeeding. I wrote an investigative piece about the contraceptive Essure that came out a couple of years ago in the Washington Post magazine and I think contributed to the product ultimately being taken off the market. My latest book, Everything Below the Waist: Why Health Care Needs a Feminist Revolution is about the failures of the health care system more broadly and the unfinished business of the feminist health movement of the 1970s.
Emily Kumler: We are so excited to have you on because I feel like there’s a lot to talk about. And you have been in the news recently in a way that I’m sure has been somewhat overwhelming, but you wrote a piece for Scientific American that was a criticism of, people are calling her the most famous doctor on Twitter, she is an OB/GYN, Dr. Gunter, who has taken a stance, a very strong stance, against misinformation regarding, you know, Goop, and other places that sort of maybe are preying on women. I would think that’s sort of her stance and that reinforcing the need for good medical care that is evidence-based. And so this podcast is really about trying to do just that, which I actually think you’re both doing. Right? And so the idea that you’re trying to get women information that’s well-researched and that’s knowledgeable and that allows them to make the best decisions for their own bodies is something that’s very much in line with our mission here. We spend a lot of time going back to primary sources and data collections and redoing statistical analysis and like just really getting into the mud of how do people come to this decision and how much advice is given to women that’s actually been only researched on male bodies or the priority has been on male bodies. And even looking at things like the maternal mortality rate, which you know a lot about, and how that really is the kind of thing where there is a judgment being made, I would say, on like the value of a woman’s life versus the value of a baby’s life. Like there’s a lot of really interesting stuff there that we could definitely talk about, but what I want to get to first is just sort of this piece which has caused all this controversy so much so that the publication actually took it down, which as a journalist is sort of, you know, unbelievable to me. I don’t know about that, and I think that’s worth exploring too. Just to start. It would be helpful to know why did you write this piece?
Jennifer Block: You know, I’ve followed Dr. Gunter’s work for a long time now and I appreciate a lot of it. I appreciate that she’s open about being an abortion provider. That’s a really brave thing to be in our country right now. And she’s open about her, her own personal experience. And I think you’re right, that we do share a lot of the same interests and values that, you know, we both, I think would agree that the health care system is failing women. And I think we probably agree about the ways it’s failing women. But I wrote this piece because, you know, she does have this extremely large profile. She’s called, you know, the Internet’s OB/GYN. The book that she wrote recently, the Vagina Bible, has become a bestseller. She’s been getting a lot of attention. And I’ve noticed an approach that she has, maybe it’s a blind spot, maybe it’s an inconsistency, but she’s very, very critical of anything that might fall under the umbrella of “natural.” And so I understand the criticisms of Goop and share them. You know, I think Goop is luxury capitalism at its worst. You know, I just looked at the site recently and saw a $95 morning energy drink. You know, it’s absolutely ridiculous and they, you know, it makes outlandish claims about the benefits of the products. I think we’re all in agreement there, but I think she has, I’ve seen her conflate Goop with women wanting to use yogurt to treat their vaginal yeast infections with women turning to treatments that are folk remedies like home remedies, like vaginal steaming, for which there is no evidence. But I’ve seen her take the stance with people on Twitter where she shuts them down for doing something like that and claims that it’s anti -scientific or pseudoscientific. I think that that’s a harmful approach. You know, and it’s not, and it’s not scientific. If there is no science or the science isn’t complete and people are having an experience that’s positive and the thing that we’re talking about is not, you know, sticking bleach up your vagina or you know, something that clearly is risky. I think it’s a physician misusing their authority when they tell someone not to do that. I think it’s one of the things that’s driving people away from doctors and contributing to the distrust between patients and doctors. The reason I wrote the piece, I mean I’ve been following her work for a while, I’ve responded a couple of times on Twitter. I’d never really gotten into it with her on Twitter. I’m not, previously to this, I have not been really high profile on Twitter. I don’t participate much. But recently, in conversations she’s had on the radio, in person, at events, and also in print, in interviews for print media, she looped in Our Bodies, Ourselves into this umbrella of pseudoscience and misinformation and myth. She said that, you know, because things like yogurt get mentioned in the book and even garlic, you know, as a way to balance vaginal flora, because those things get mentioned in the book, and because the book wasn’t written by doctors, this book is one of the reasons why she deals with so much misinformation coming back at her from patients. And I felt that that kind of crossed a line. And I felt like she crossed the line into like, what I’ve been reporting on and in my new book.
Emily Kumler: Well, and you worked on that book, right?
Jennifer Block: I did work on the book. But I want to be really clear. I think I worked on the book three editions ago, so it was the 2005 edition. I believe there was another one in 2010, (Editor’s note: The most recent edition of the book came out in 2011) I may be wrong about that, it might’ve been 2016. But anyways, this was three editions ago. I was one of dozens of editors. I was assigned to look at two chapters. I was part of a group of many cooks in the kitchen.
Emily Kumler: What were the two chapters that you worked on?
Jennifer Block: I think I worked on the abortion chapter and the contraception chapter. (Editor’s note: In this edition, Jennifer Block worked on three chapters: Safer Sex, HIV and AIDS, and Abortion)
Emily Kumler: You didn’t work on the yogurt stuff?
Jennifer Block: No.
Emily Kumler: Okay. Just from an outsider, and please correct this if it’s wrong, but it sounds like you’ve sort of been watching her Twitter feed and her media profile grow. While you agree with some of what she’s saying, when she sort of stepped into an area with the book that you helped to work on, well, you know, albeit somewhat removed, she started stepping into a domain in which you actually know about. And so that was a chance for you to then say, I don’t think this sounds off, this is off, or this is now becoming something that you know more personally. Is that accurate?
Jennifer Block: Well, what I mean by stepping into my work is really more my recent work, my recent book, in which I look at the history of the feminist health movement. Really not my little bit of editing that I got paid like $800 for in 2004. You know, I mean that, it was such a long time ago, I’m surprised that this has become such a talking point that I didn’t more prominently disclose this. It was right in my bio and it was such a small piece of work that it didn’t even, you know, I thought it was worth mentioning for this reason, but I didn’t, I did not expect that this would become a major talking point. It was so long ago. I’m wondering like what is the disclosure requirement for researchers in journals for, you know, taking payments from a pharma company? I think it’s like a five year statute of limitations or something.
Emily Kumler: Well I mean, I don’t think that’s a good standard either. So I feel like we should have a better standard for that.
Jennifer Block: Perhaps not. But it was right in my bio.
Emily Kumler: Yeah. I mean I think the reason that people take, not offense at it, but I think people have latched onto it because you do talk about that in the article, right? Like you bring up her critique of the book. And so it feels like it could have been a personal thing, which is why I wanted to know what parts, like had you worked on that part of the book? Like you know, how close to home was this? So, I’m glad you’ve clarified that. I think that makes more sense. Talk a little bit about the work you’re doing now and why that’s more relevant.
Jennifer Block: Yeah, no, my, I mean, my point was that, you know, the feminist health movement challenged this authority, this authoritarianism that medicine had very explicitly at the time. You know, it was male dominated. It was paternalistic. It was pat you on the head, we know what’s best for you. Listen to us, we’re the experts. Don’t worry your pretty little head about that. Don’t know your body, don’t touch your body. Right? And we know what’s best. The movement behind Our Bodies, Ourselves, and it wasn’t, there were other books that get less attention. Our Bodies, Ourselves was interestingly like the East Coast book, the West Coast book, A New View of a Woman’s Body is actually much more scientific and anatomical and it didn’t get as much attention. But anyway, the sentiment behind that movement was, hang on, you’re saying you’re the experts of us, but you are all men. I mean, at the time, right? You’re all men, you’ve got your textbooks. But those textbooks are not objective. There are values behind that. And now we look back and we see like the clitoris was deleted from the 1940s edition of Gray’s Anatomy. (Editor’s note: It was the 1948 version of Gray’s Anatomy) You know?
Emily Kumler: Well, and I mean I think more important than anything in terms of like, you know, what kind of sexism was underlying during that time period. For me, the big thing that I feel like a lot of people still don’t know is that from 1977 to 1993 women of childbearing ages were not allowed, legally, to be involved in clinical trials. So any research that came from that time period does not include women. Right. And so anything that’s based on those is not necessarily, I mean you can’t say one way or the other. Like you just can’t say anything conclusive about that block of time. Right?
Jennifer Block: Right. And you know, in my new book, I look into the history of obstetrics and gynecology and you know, it’s a dark history to be very honest. There’s a lot of ownership of women’s bodies and a lot of undermining of female physiology and a lot of white supremacy, and racism, to be very honest, in this history. And the women of the 70s, you know, said, well, hang on, we’re going to get together, we’re going to sit in rooms, we’re going to talk about our experiences, we’re going to look at our own bodies, we’re going to take this medical tool, the speculum, and use it on ourselves and look at our own bodies and get to know them, and we’re going to create a new literature. And that’s what they did. That’s what Our Bodies, Ourselves represents is this new literature that you know, as best as they could, right? And they’ve updated, updated, and updated it and they’ve involved physicians, as Our Bodies, Ourselves wrote to Gunter. So Our Bodies, Ourselves did contact me to say like, you know, Gunter has been saying this stuff. We are writing her this letter, here’s a copy of it. And when they sent me that I thought, okay, like, well now this is kind of a story because Our Bodies, Ourselves is a big, you know, it’s one thing to be tussling with people on Twitter, but to publicly be, you know, discrediting Our Bodies, Ourselves as promoting misinformation and myths and not being written by doctors. Of course it wasn’t written by doctors in the 70s. That was the whole point. That was the whole point, that women could be experts also and that women had expertise. And so I think that idea is really important. And I think we’ve lost it a little bit. And that’s part of the thesis of my new book is that there is science and then there’s personal experience and lived experience. And we don’t, the point of science, right, is to try to determine what’s happening, and we don’t have all the answers. So I’ve talked to countless women who use yogurt and even garlic, even though there’s research, you know, that suggests garlic doesn’t work. But I’ve still heard the anecdotes. Even someone called me two days ago and said, I just want you to know, I use both of them when I have a yeast infection and they work. And I said, that’s your experience. I can’t, you know, I can’t really argue with that because the science doesn’t exist definitively to argue with it.
Emily Kumler: And I think we need to stick on this for a minute, because I think for me this is part of the crux of what is so, I think upsetting and lost in the warfare, right? It’s like there are a lot of similarities between journalists and scientists, right? And this idea that you have a hypothesis, right? Usually is generated from anecdotal information and then the scientist is supposed to go out and design an experiment that will test their hypothesis, right? And then they’re supposed to refine that experiment and come back and keep refining it until they realize something that they can actually say, this might be conclusive until we can come up with some other way to prove it false. But this idea of constantly refining and correcting and being self critical. I mean there’s the Richard Feynman quote, right? Which is like the first rule of science, and I’m going to butcher this, but like the first rule of science is like always be skeptical or something. Right? And like you are the easiest person to fool. (Editor’s note: The Richard Feynman quote is: “The first principle is that you must not fool yourself and you are the easiest person to fool.”) And I think that is so true both in journalism and in science, right? So journalism has a very similar process. You might hear something from somebody or read something that inspires you to go out and look into it more. Then that sort of, you know, hypothesis generating pitch, whatever you want to call it, from a journalism perspective, you then go out and you try to gather as much information as you can and you try to talk to the people who don’t agree with that and you try to refine the idea until you get down to something that you actually think is useful to share with the public. These are not that dissimilar. I mean it’s sort of funny, when I got a Master’s in journalism from Northwestern, and when I graduated and I got an MS, my husband was also getting an MS and he’s a scientist, right? And so he was sort of like, wait, hold the phone. We have the same degree. We did totally different things. And I was like, well not really, because the process is actually quite similar, right? If you believe in the scientific method as a way to, you know, sort of really boil down information to try to get to something that you can believe in, the process is actually very similar. But we have an incredible, I guess like crisis of credibility in both of these fields. Right? What you’re saying is like, hey, yeah this is all anecdotal. These are women sharing their stories of things that have worked for them. There is no clinical trial, right. There is not good research. That doesn’t mean that it doesn’t work. Right? But it does mean proceed with caution and I would say that’s exactly the same as what we say on the podcast all the time about people who are, you know, told to take Aspirin, which is one of the best double blind clinical trials ever done on men, but not on women. (Editor’s note: There is more research available now regarding the way Aspirin affects women) Right? Same with statins. A lot of that research has not been done on women. Does that mean that statins are bad for women? Kind of unclear. In some ways, when I sort of first caught wind of the argument between you and Dr. Gunter, there was a part of me that was like, wow, you know that you guys, you actually seem to really agree, but there is so much vitriol, right, in the platform of Twitter itself. I mean I am not a big Twitter person. I feel like it’s where I go or other people go when they’re really angry. But, I do think it’s a great way to connect with people. And I applaud her for, you know, sort of having her voice. And so just to go back to this idea of like a scientist’s first job is to be skeptical and to be mostly skeptical of themselves, right? Because you’re the easiest person to fool. And it’s the same with a journalist, right? Like you get attached to a story. I know this has happened to me, where you become like close with sources. It’s really hard to keep your objectivity, right? And so you have to constantly be checking yourself, which is really the job of a good editor, right? It’s the job of your support crew to challenge you a lot. And so for me, I feel like Dr. Gunter has done a wonderful job of challenging people and saying like, whoa, hold the phone, we don’t have evidence for that. Or, you know what? That sounds really weird. And her like looking into the jade rocks and all that stuff. I feel like all that stuff is really important because at the very least, it’s saying to women, you don’t know, don’t assume that these people are telling you the truth. And you know, we also know that things like the FTC are so overwhelmed with social media that they are literally expecting women and men to self-report when they have had a bad experience with a medical device or a supplement. Right? That’s not regulated by the FDA. So it’s like our consumer protection is gone, right? We just don’t, the government is not filling that role that maybe it once did a better job of, it’s not anymore. It’s just not there. So then we are left to this place of trying to find who are our trusted authorities? And I think what’s interesting to me about this debate, and which is really like what makes me, you know, why I wanted to talk to both of you on this episode is because I do think the idea of being skeptical is essential. You cannot be in either journalism or science or medicine and not be deeply skeptical if you’re doing your job well. However, I also think women are challenged and doubted, right? So much. I respect Dr. Gunter’s, you know, sort of take no prisoners approach to like, fuck off, I’m the expert, right? Because we talk to researchers all the time who basically say to us that it was really hard for them to get money to do the research that they’re doing on sex differences and that they had to work in the sort of status quo and be the best of the best so that they could then move forward and demand money for this other research project because they had sort of so much credibility at that point that people wouldn’t not fund them. And I think, you know, that barrier to entry, both in credibility, in funding, and all of these other things wears you down. And when you’ve gotten to a certain point, which I kind of feel like I’ve gotten to, you know, in my own career, where it’s like, no, I don’t want to prove anything anymore. Right? Like I’ve proven myself. Now is the time for me to say like actually like I’ve done enough at this stage of my life that I feel pretty confident that this is worth exploring. Right? And maybe Dr. Gunter takes that to the extent that you’re making the point of, where she’s actually alienating women and that’s where there’s this sort of nuance, right? Where it’s like if you show weakness, then you will be attacked. But you’re not a good scientist unless you’re poking holes in your own theory. So how do you, as a woman, move up in the ranks of credibility of, you know, I would say fame in some ways, right? If you show any self doubt, then people are going to be like, well she even said she wasn’t sure. Well she shouldn’t be sure. Right? Most of this stuff is like pretty inconclusive. It’s interesting. We should all be looking into it more. But what’s so fascinating to me is that like what she is doing with her platform is trying to help women. And what you have done in your career as a journalist is to try to help women. And now you are giving her feedback, let’s say, about things that you think she’s gotten wrong in a very public way. And she has responded with a sort of, you know, army of people demanding the story be taken down for factual errors or inaccuracy, which the magazine as far as I know has not come out to point out that there is anything factually inaccurate in your story. Is that right?
Jennifer Block: Right. They’ve been inconsistent as Slate reported. They changed the editor’s note. So now it says something about citations and sourcing, which to me sounds like things that could easily be corrected. You know, I did make the argument to them that I’ve seen the archived link, it was captured by the web archive and people are sharing that. So you know, it’s still out there, but why not put it back out there with the proper corrections.
Emily Kumler: And what do they say?
Jennifer Block: They haven’t responded.
Emily Kumler: Okay. When you pitched them the story, what was the pitch?
Jennifer Block: Basically what I told you. I mean, look, like I think that I’ve seen a lot of confusion online over the last few days about the difference between science and evidence and anecdote. There seems to be this confusion that anecdote is uncredible, like the anecdote has no credibility. You know what you were saying about the work of science and the work of journalism. Well, the work of journalism is with people’s stories, right? And we bring in what we can, when we can bring in scientific evidence, we can bring in expertise, right? We talk to people, we talk to experts, we bring in the literature, we bring in the research, but right, our work is with people’s experience. And so there’s been so much confusion like, well that’s not valid. And this came up with a story that I bring up in my piece. There was this, I thought, excellent story, excellent reported piece in Cosmopolitan about LEEP procedures. The possibility that LEEP procedures, you know, surgical excision on the cervix to remove cervical dysplasia. The one possible adverse effect from them is to cause sexual problems that women have reported, you know, being numb, not being able to have orgasms, you know, losing their, their sexual sensation that they had before. Yes, of course those are anecdotal reports at this point because we don’t have the data. No one’s looked at it in that big way, but that’s still a valid story because she did her due diligence. She spent a year reporting it. She’s looking at, you know, Facebook groups where thousands of women are finding each other and sharing these stories and finding commonality. It may turn out that it’s a very, very rare outcome. It may turn out that it’s less than 1%, it may turn out that it’s bigger than that. No one knows. But I think that it was excellently reported because it was put in that context. It was said, this may affect your sexual function, and I think that’s important information to put out there because LEEPs are not the only thing you can do if you have cervical dysplasia. There are other procedures that are perhaps less harmful. And one of the fascinating things about that article was that she talked to people who are researching the nerves in the cervix, and this is something, I mean I really had reporter jealousy when I read this story because I really wanted to do that work. I had heard these stories also, but I didn’t have the bandwidth. I covered a lot in my new book and I didn’t have the bandwidth to go down that rabbit hole. And I’m really glad she did because what she found were thousands of women’s stories. Again, that’s not science, but it’s anecdotal data. It’s journalism. And it means that we should be asking those questions and it means that researchers should take notes. And I think it also means that physicians should take note. Well, hang on, wait a minute. What about those nerves in the cervix? The training that we got to do these LEEPs, did it take those nerves into account? Are we trying to do nerve sparing cervical treatment the way that men get nerve sparing surgical treatment on their prostates? I mean, this is like a disparity that I point out in my book that you know, the clitoris was only recently mapped out in this way that can inform surgery. So for all this time we’ve been having surgery, you know, to treat incontinence or doing hysterectomies. No one’s been paying any attention to the clitoral context because it wasn’t even mapped out in the literature. But the response that I saw online to this article and it happened on Instagram, it happened on Twitter, I think to a lesser extent on Facebook. There was a real backlash against this Cosmo article that seemed to be led by Med Twitter. And Gunter was a part of it. And it was very much like, that’s not true. That’s not happening. We have research that hysterectomy has no impact on sexual function. This is dangerous. This article’s dangerous. This is a lifesaving procedure. You’re going to scare women from getting pap smears now. And again, I just think that’s, it’s not very open minded.
Emily Kumler: Well, it’s infantilizing also, right? Because you’re basically saying like, you know, women are going to hear that they’re not going to orgasm and that’s going to make them decide to not have a procedure that could save them from cervical cancer. Right? That stuff drives me crazy because it’s like let’s give women the information and then allow them to make an informed decision. And I think to your point, this is a great example of the difference, because this is not a double blind clinical trial, right? It is not a gold standard, or anything other than a reported piece on women who are experiencing something that maybe should inspire a trial, right? Or inspire somebody to develop a hypothesis about 10 different aspects of that story that deserve further investigation. Right. And I think this really for me is so important for listeners to understand because it’s not that people are going out there and they’re being like, they’re trying to be malicious, I guess. I feel like everybody is really coming at this from the right place. And what’s so hard about it is that from my perspective, it really feels sad. Like it feels like every woman is so desperate for somebody to help her understand her own body. And we have all of these sort of conflicting or competing players in the game who are trying to say like, no, you’re wrong, you’re wrong, you’re wrong, because we have this idea that sort of taking a hard stance on something makes you an expert. Right? When really actually the most sort of, I would say impactful experts, are the doubters, right? Like they’re the ones who are sort of like, wow, that’s really interesting. I haven’t heard of that. In my practice, I’ve performed hundreds of thousands of LEEPs and I’ve never had a patient complain. I wonder if I should’ve been asking that question in the follow-up appointment. Like, have you noticed any change? I’ve never asked that of a patient. Huh, that’s something that’s really easy for me to incorporate into my, you know, sort of post-op protocols or like post-procedure protocols. But instead, it’s like everybody’s so defensive that everybody goes in their corner and they, you know, sort of line up their armies and they say like, tell this person to stop bothering me. And it’s like, what the hell? We are trying to make progress, not go into our corners. That’s not going to move the needle.
Jennifer Block: Yeah. I mean I think science is being wielded around in a very unhelpful way and inaccurate way. And you know, I mean I think like for me as a journalist, the experts that I go to, the experts that I find most credible, are the ones who tell me what they don’t know. The ones who tell me like, well this is what we know, but you know what, the science isn’t that strong there. It may be true that there are side effects that we’re not seeing. Those are the experts who are most credible to me. I mean, one of the doctors who I interviewed when I was working on the Essure story had inserted hundreds of them, and he actually had the same attitude that you kind of modeled like, you know, I inserted hundreds of them and I never had a patient complain. But when I started hearing these reports, I started to offer removals because, you know, if someone’s telling me that this thing that we’ve inserted into them is causing them misery, then we should be responsible and take it out. You know? And I just think like part of the problem here is that it’s echoing this problem that we’ve had in medicine all along, that women feel like they’re not listened to. They’re not getting the treatments they need because a lot of the treatments don’t exist yet because we haven’t been doing the research. So many women I talk to, it took, you know, a decade for them to get a diagnosis of endometriosis and they’re not getting effective treatment. They’ve worked so hard to find the right surgeon and there are only like under 25 in the country who are doing the excision surgery. So many women I talked to were suffering from pelvic pain or hormonal issues and the answers, the treatments that they’re being offered are just, they’re not very sophisticated. You know, they’re being told well just take the pill or they’re being told like, sorry, we don’t, you know, maybe you should see a psychiatrist. I’m sure you’ve heard that, too.
Emily Kumler: Yeah. Like on every episode. Yes.
Jennifer Block: Right. And so, I mean, I think like this is a big problem. I’m not the only one who’s documented this. Maya Dusenbery has a great book about this, Doing Harm. So this is a big problem. And so if you’re a high profile, if you’re the internet OB/GYN, and you’ve got this high profile and you have this opportunity to listen, you know, Twitter is…
Emily Kumler: But you know, I would push back on that a little bit because I actually think like she may be that big of a profile because she is one of the few women who is not doing that. Right? I mean I think men are so comfortable being sort of cocksure, right? Like that’s probably why cock is even a word. And then it’s like, you know, they really, there’s a sense of, I know I’m right and don’t challenge me on it. That is pervasive in science and men, right? I don’t want to speak for Dr. Gunter because I don’t know her at all and I’ve never talked to her. But, my instinct from having interviewed a lot of female doctors and scientists is that at some point maybe she said to herself like, sure, I’m going to doubt these things or I’m going to question these things. But once I’ve made up my mind, I’m going to, you know, move forward just the way that all my male colleagues, you know, present papers without like sort of exposing their own uncertainties. And I think what you’re saying is like, well that’s actually not the whole story. And then if you dig a little deeper, like if you go beyond the character limit of Twitter, perhaps she would, you know what I mean, like share more or say like, yeah, you know, like this LEEP thing. It’s dangerous to not have a LEEP. If there’s cervical dysplasia, it means you’re probably at risk for cervical cancer. This isn’t a choice. Right? And doctors are constantly making those kinds of tough choices of like recommending something that may come with very serious side effects. But the ultimate calculation is that the risk outweighs the harm. I think that there’s a part of her stance that I really respect because it’s basically saying like if I were a dude, no one would be trying to, you know what I mean, like this kind of attitude would be accepted and that’s not a good argument for like don’t be skeptical, don’t be, you know, sort of self aware of like alienating vulnerable women who are, you know, telling you their stories as telling them that they’re wrong. Right? But, you know, it’s interesting to me of all of the people in this space, that your piece really did focus, I mean exclusively on her. There is some sort of like mean girl language in there that feels a little bit like take-downey. You know, again, I sort of feel like it’s one of these things where I don’t think that your point of like, hey look, you’re going around being really critical of other people. Can you take it as much as you can dish it, right, is off base. Like I think actually like in some ways great scientists kind of welcome that feedback in a probably more private setting. But I do think it’s a kind of no-win situation. Like if we’re going to be really honest, you have to be kind of dogged and self-assured in this environment in order to develop that kind of audience.
Jennifer Block: Well, you know, I would push back on that because I think that’s modeling the worst of patriarchy. And I think, you know, feminism has to be more than just wanting to be like men and just do the things men have always done and have their, you know, their authority. Like, a bigger feminism, a more expansive feminism, a more progressive feminism, is going to be one that has a different model. It’s not just, it’s not just becoming the men.
Emily Kumler: Well, no and I think that that’s probably why. And I totally agree with that. I mean on all fronts. I think that’s right. And I think women are obviously, I think women are fantastic, and like can rewrite these things in our own language, right? Like it’s like the age old expression of like, forget the glass ceiling, build your own house. I’m totally on board with that. But I do think people have different jobs to do. And so like, I think the idea of being open or I guess more vulnerable in a way, to some of these things is probably the more progressive approach, right? That like women can have these dialogues and we can share information and we can be critical of each other and we don’t have to all fall apart. But then it’s like, I look at the situation between you two and it’s like, it does sort of feel like there’s people in, you know, restaurants around America who are talking about this over dinner and they’re like, yeah, women just can’t get along. Right? Like these two women are working on the same thing and they can’t come together. And it’s like, that drives me crazy.
Jennifer Block: Yeah. And you know, I do think that I should have brought in this piece. I admit that. I think focusing it on Gunter was, you know, this is about something that’s much bigger than her, that the health care system is failing women and it’s not her fault. And this attitude problem is not just her. I do think she exhibits it, but it’s not just her. And so I think I did, I think going back, maybe a good editor would have suggested this or any editor might’ve like pushed back and said, hey, you know. I take that criticism and I think that’s valid. And I think, you know, there were some other mistakes, there were some other mistakes that I freely acknowledge and would correct. And I think going back, I also would have called her. Not because I had an ethical responsibility to, because I wasn’t, you know, I wasn’t doing, you know, a front page story. I wasn’t being a reporter in that way. I was writing commentary and I was commenting on her public rhetoric. I don’t know how…
Emily Kumler: I’m just going to pause you there for a second, because I think this is actually a really good opportunity. I think a lot of people, like even on Twitter, seem to be confused about this. And it’s like, again, it’s like one of these points of education, right? Where it’s like when you used to read a newspaper, you’d open it up and there would be an opinion page and it would be very clear that this is not the news section. And so like when I worked at newspapers, like the opinion writers are in a different room or a different building or a different floor, like they’re not intermixed with the news department and the news department has to have certain standards, sort of journalism ethics, that involved talking to both sources, that involved fact checking with two sources or more for each thing that you say. There are really hard rules for good reporters about how you go about writing a news story. When you write an opinion piece, it’s often very well-informed, right? So like the best columnists talk to lots and lots of sources, but then they boil that information down into what they think are the most credible or interesting or ways of them forming an argument. So a good opinion piece is really like an argument. They’re making an argument, they’re taking a stance, which you would not do in a reported piece. And I think that got lost in this conversation. Your piece was an opinion that you were putting out there, that was your opinion, and you were backing it up with things, some of which have been criticized, but this was your voice coming through. And I think that’s another reason for me why the fact that Scientific American took it down, it feels really lame.
Jennifer Block: You know, I didn’t know, that there is no editor in chief right now. I don’t know if you read that. I think that might be a big part of what happened because yeah, typically, I mean I’ve made mistakes in my career. I’ve had to get on the phone with the editor-in-chief and my editor and talk through something. That’s happened before. It happened early in my career with The Village Voice. I made a big mistake and my piece actually got held for a week. You know, it got stuck in a process and like I had done something, you know, I had made a mistake and the editor-in-chief got on the phone with me, with my editor, and he was like, how are you doing? Yeah. You know what? This is part of it. You’re young, you’re a cub. Like this is part of it. Go buy yourself a drink on me. You know? I mean that’s what like a good publication does. They get on the phone and they get the hierarchy like to take some responsibility. That never happened here and the fact that they’ve not answered questions to other reporters. I mean I’m very grateful that Slate and the Daily Beast have been interested in this because you know, actual journalists are looking at this and making the distinctions you are and saying like, okay, this wasn’t an ethical violation. You know, this may have been a strategic error or you know, yes there are things that need to be corrected, but like let’s stay on point here.
Emily Kumler: I think your point of like this is still circulating, right? So like if there were any errors in there, now it’s circulating inaccurately, whereas it could be corrected and then people would have the accurate version. So it’s doing a double disservice. I also think, when newspapers, I mean I’ve had corrections posted, too. I think it’s a pretty normal thing that journalists do, right? You’re working on a lot of different stuff. Sometimes you get something wrong or you misquote somebody and you have to kind of eat it, right, and it sucks and you feel really terrible. I mean, I remember getting something wrong early in my career and feeling like I was going to throw up. Like I was so upset about it and it was like a spelling error, but I knew from, you know, grad school, and work, and whatever that like sometimes that’s the only time somebody has their name in the paper and if you get it wrong that time, like they’re not, we’re not going to reprint the newspaper. That’s their clip for life. And I just felt so terrible about it. And I think people don’t realize that like when you write something, it’s like you’re producing a work that is, you know, something that you’ve thought about, that’s a part of you. So if you get it wrong or it doesn’t come across the way that you thought you wrote it, that’s another one that’s really personally hard. Right? But, the point is that newspapers take facts seriously. And this is another big point for me. Newspapers, like media outlets, have to post corrections because people make mistakes. We are all flawed. We all make mistakes. They’re not intentional usually. Right? But they happen. And when you correct it, you show people this is an ongoing process of education and we take the information we’re sharing with you very seriously. So if we find out there’s an inaccuracy, we correct it. We do not take the story down unless it’s like plagiarized. Right? Or like there’s some really big reason for it. And even in those cases, I think it, you know, in terms of like public good, it does the public good to say like, wow, they really took that seriously and they took action against it. And like, you know, even if it was a plagiarized piece, I feel like you could make the argument for like, keep it up and have a big warning at the top and like highlighted passages that were ripped from somebody else and say like, you know, we never worked with this writer again. We don’t take this lightly. Like we are all missing this credibility in the news. And so when they just take it down and people are like, oh, they took it down because so many people complained about it, it’s like, whoa, whoa, that is not okay. This mob mentality is like, for me, it is everything wrong with how we are handling our establishments that are essential for democracy.
Jennifer Block: It’s not the world I want to live in. It’s definitely not the world I want to live in where you know, if people don’t like something it can be erased and, yeah, I don’t think Scientific American is taking responsibility, proper responsibility for it right now.
Emily Kumler: So do you think you’ll ever write for them again?
Jennifer Block: I don’t know. I guess we’ll see who the editor is. But yeah, I think they owe everyone an explanation. I think they owe me an explanation, but I think they owe everyone an explanation at this point because you know, there were some like bigger concerns about it when they initially told me they were taking it down for review. But those have pretty much evaporated.
Emily Kumler: What were they?
Jennifer Block: I think it’s detailed in the Daily Beast. I don’t really want to reiterate. The Daily Beast covered this well and I don’t want to like continue to perpetuate things that aren’t true that are definitely vetted now and not true.
Emily Kumler: Well, it’s just that when you said that there were some more credible concerns that made me think that there was something that you realized that you should have changed.
Jennifer Block: No. I mean, I stand by my characterization. I think one of their big concerns was that I had mischaracterized Gunter, that this is not how she behaves, that she, that she only shuts down anti-abortion trolls. That’s what she told them. And I believe that she convinced them of that. She convinced them that that’s not her. But, I think that there are plenty of examples now that people have posted on Twitter and I have retweeted only to show that that like I wasn’t just imagining this.
Emily Kumler: Because now your credibility is being challenged.
Jennifer Block: That’s right. It’s terrible to have a piece retracted. It’s like the worst possible thing. It’s never happened to me before. So, yeah. So I feel like, you know, I have not been getting in the mud, I don’t think. You know, I spent my holiday weekend mostly with family and friends and did not spend it online. And I have not been like responding to every criticism and I’ve not been responding to criticisms that I don’t think are worthy of responding to. But I have gotten online to, you know, address the mistakes that I made. One question was did I read her book? I did read her book. I wrote like a seven tweet review of it. That was a big one that I had mischaracterized her, that she really only behaves this way with trolls. And plenty of people have come out now, including other journalists, who have said, no, she’s blocked me, shut me down, insulted me. You know, one journalist, I don’t know, she got trolled because of the fact checking, like the fact checking process. I’m not even sure what happened there, but yeah, but that’s all like if you want to follow all that soap opera on Twitter. So I think, you know, that kind of, that evaporated. And you know, the only thing that I’m left with, the only clue I’m left with, from the conversations I’ve had with the one editor, is that they became scared that this piece was going to associate them with pseudoscientific, you know, anti-science communities and that, you know, they stand for science obviously. And I recall that the editor said something like, you know, we also stand with medicine. Like this piece is being seen as anti-medicine. And I just think that’s a misunderstanding and I think that’s a mischaracterization of what I was saying because I have a lot of respect for science. I have a lot of respect for experts. I don’t want a world without experts. But I was commenting on the notion of expertise and how it’s wielded and the different expertises, right? Like a scientist has an expertise, a doctor has an expertise, and a person has an expertise about their own body that I don’t think we can ignore. And that I don’t think doctors should ignore. And if they are ignoring, which many seem to be, according to women I talked to, not all of them, of course, you know, I’ve met and interviewed lots of amazing, wonderful, physicians, but as a trend, as like a feeling that I hear a lot from women, they feel like their personal, their lived experience of their bodies, is being ignored and dismissed and sometimes even called, you know, a psychological problem. And I think that’s a big problem.
Emily Kumler: Right? And so like for us on this podcast, like we literally have talked to, you know, the CEO of Dana Farber and the head of the Joslin Diabetes. I like major, these are not fringe organizations. And I think, in every single episode, we hear over and over again, like, you know, either we didn’t realize this was such a big problem until women called it to our attention or demanded better care or there was a news story about it, or a woman went to med school and had this issue and then realized nobody was talking about sex differences in med school. And so she then decided this was going to be her thing when she got to the place where she could get enough money to do it. So, I mean, I concur with all of that and I don’t know that, I guess for me, I don’t know that there’s any problem with any of that. If we respect the fact that the job of the journalist is to push back and to speak for people who don’t have a voice. And the job of a doctor is to be curious and to help care based on all of their training and their extensive knowledge and all of their experience. That does put them in a very different category than you or I. Right? And we need to respect that because without that, we are on our own. And that’s not a good situation. And I think a lot of women feel that way, right? I mean, just the lack of OB/GYNs in this country puts a lot of women at risk for really serious things because they are left to care for themselves. But I think for me it’s like this, again, it’s like almost like it feels like in-fighting. Do you know what I mean? Or like this disdain, that’s the part that is still bothering me with this specific conversation. Doctors are not all knowing, they are not. Right? And so you can say like, I’m an expert in this because I’ve treated hundreds of women for that problem. I’ve researched it. I, you know, have a Google news alert and I read everything that’s ever come out on it and I am part of these Facebook groups that have these women and I just don’t see this. So it’s interesting that there’s this group of outliers. Maybe it’s because of this other variable, right? Or maybe it’s because those women all live in the same town and they all are drinking the same water and there’s something wrong with the water, right? There are probably all kinds of multifactorial things with the LEEP information that should be questioned. But I think to outright discredit it is probably not the right approach either. And so I think what’s interesting is that she is a bulldog, and you came at her like a bulldog, and she responded. Right? And so to your point of like the more feminist evolved approach would be to be open to these things. Right? But that’s not the approach you took either. This is the part where I’m like, can we all get together and hold hands and be like, dude, we’re all in this together. We have to figure this out because women are counting on us to make these differences.
Jennifer Block: Are you saying I acted like a man? I mean, maybe I was.
Emily Kumler: No, I don’t know you. I really don’t know you. So I don’t want to presuppose, but like my reading of this was that you thought you needed to act like her and so you came at her way she might come at Goop or somebody else.
Jennifer Block: Yeah, I mean maybe I’m trying to absorb that criticism. Like was I…?
Emily Kumler: I don’t know if it’s criticism. I think it’s sort of a strategy in a way. Right? And we all do this, where you sort of think about like, okay, here’s this person. I think maybe they got something wrong. How am I going to call them out in a way that’s going to make them think differently?
Jennifer Block: Well, I definitely failed in that. I definitely failed in calling her out in a way that was going to make her think differently, in a way that she could hear it, you know. I guess there’s no way to know if things had gone differently if I had called her.
Emily Kumler: Have you ever met her?
Jennifer Block: I’ve never met her. I’ve never met her. And I think that’s like, that’s not the point, right? I think one of the arguments she makes in the letters she was writing to Sci Am, or the emails, you know, that she screenshot was like, you know, anyone who has spent time with me knows I’m not like this. And that may be true. I mean, I totally believe that could be true. She may be lovely in person, she may be absolutely lovely with her patients, but that’s not what I was commenting on. I was commenting on her public rhetoric, her public interactions on Twitter. I think it’s the responsibility, you know, we were talking about the responsibilities of journalists and doctors. I think it’s also the responsibility of a public facing person like this, someone with a huge platform, to respond to the criticism. And I think instead she has, I mean, she’s out there, you know, she’s called me a liar. She’s called me a stalker. She has tweeted at my part-time employer. She’s really gone on a personal attack that I don’t think, I didn’t mean it personally. I was really like commenting on her public persona. I don’t know who she is, right? Yes, she’s been a bulldog. Maybe I was a bulldog. And now we can evaluate like how we both responded to this. I’ve been willing to have, I was hoping that this would start a public dialogue with her. And when I pitched it to Sci Am, the first thing the editor said was, I like it. You know, we’d have to let Gunter rebut if she wanted to. And I said, great. And so that was kind of what I was imagining that we’d kind of go article to article. That is absolutely not what happened, of course. And I can understand feeling like, no, I’m not even going to deal with this, like I am not going to rebut this. This isn’t worth my rebutting. I can understand that reaction and it’s not the reaction I wanted. The other thing that Scientific American offered, that I suggested, was that I answer her questions to me. She’d sent me an email with a list of questions on Thanksgiving and I, you know, I felt like we should talk, we should do this publicly. Like, I will answer your questions and we should do this publicly. So like I’m going to suggest to Scientific American that they, you know, let us have a back and forth online. She wasn’t interested.
Emily Kumler: Well I think she must feel a little bit like she has this huge platform and you’re latching onto it. Right? And that like, you’re trying to promote yourself through her by trying to take her down. I mean that obviously is one of the ways you could read this narrative or her response to it, which is that like, you know what, I’m big, I’m credible. Nobody knows who you are. And like, so how dare you come and you know, try to take me down. I’m not going to engage in this anymore. I mean I think we had asked her for an interview about other things before and I hope that at some point, maybe she will come on this podcast, although maybe she won’t after this episode. I don’t know. But, I sent her an email yesterday saying that we were going to talk to you and that I would really love to include her voice and she just wrote back like, I’m sorry Emily, I have to decline. And I think, you know, from a perspective of a TV producer, like I’ll put that hat on, I used to work at 2020 and Primetime, and I think there oftentimes are, you know, people will say like, I don’t actually really want to answer that because I don’t want to give this any more attention. Like, I kind of just want it to go away. Or I feel like I need to protect myself. And I think her going to them and saying, hey, look, talk to anybody who knows me, is such a personal response, right? That means that she feels like her character has been attacked, which is how you’re feeling, right?
Jennifer Block: Yeah. I mean, she definitely felt that way. She definitely felt like this was, you know, she wrote to me and said, you clearly have a personal vendetta against me, you know, and also took issue with my mentioning her personal loss, which I mentioned in a paragraph that was supposed to be giving her credit for her work because she’s been very open about that and I think it gives her unique credibility to talk about abortion. So it kind of confused me that people thought that I was like, you know, that that was mean-spirited or intending to her, it was not at all. That was not at all my intention with that.
Emily Kumler: Well, so I mean I think there were things in the story. I mean like when I read the thing about like the Wonder Woman lasso being thrown over to her on her show. Like that may all be true, but it does sound a little like making fun of her. Right? I mean like it’s a little cheeky.
Jennifer Block: I mean, look, like, I think the title, you know, “Doctors are not Gods.” I mean this has been a problem in medicine. It’s a problem in medicine, it’s also I think a problem for people, because if we give our authority over our bodies away, then we regret it if something goes wrong. I mean, I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard from women who have just listened to their doctors, right? You know, not really questioned something, not researched something. And then something goes horribly wrong and they say, wow, I wish I had thought about this more, or I wish I had done more research, or I wish I had listened to that little voice in my head. You know? And so I think it’s a problem if we give our authority away and we treat doctors as if they’re at the top of this hierarchy of knowledge about bodies and health. It’s not good for us. I mean her show is called Jensplaining and her book is called the Vagina Bible. You know, her posturing in many cases has been to tell people what to do and what not to do. And, you know, I couldn’t help but noticing that and I felt like, you know, I’ve been looking at it for awhile, I’ve been following her for awhile and I’ve noticed it and it’s bothered me. I’ve had lots of conversations about it and I’ve had the conversations where people tell me, oh, but like I really like her work and she’s done this and this and this, and I perhaps should have heard them more clearly and thought about that more when I wrote it. But I think the larger point still stands.
Emily Kumler: Just to interject for a second, I totally agree with that. And I think everybody in this space agrees with that. You have to, right? I mean like just the fact that women weren’t involved in clinical trials for a significant chunk of modern history is bananas and that they’re not represented at equal levels to men, still, and that pregnant women are still not in clinical trials. I mean like some of this stuff is very factual. But I also think that the feminist in me thinks, and maybe this is how I feel about myself personally, that like when I was younger, I think I was often confused for being, I don’t know if it was really ditzy, but I’m blonde and I had boobs, and you know like, I kind of played the part. It was offensive, but I also was like, wow, you’re telling me a lot more about you, because if you look at me and you’re judging me that way and you’re not taking the time to get to know me. Or why am I being sort of silly with this particular group of people rather than being, you know, very academic or putting on more of my, I guess intellectual face, right? Like women are so wonderful because of our differences. And there are a lot of differences, both in approach to problems and in presentation of who we are. And so that was the part of your piece that I felt like, that was hard, because it’s like, wait a minute, like now we’re attacking her as sort of like this bubbly, like silly character, and at the same time attacking her for being kind of masculine. And like none of that actually gets at the heart of what I think you’re really talking about in this interview, which I think we all agree with, which is that women have been so marginalized in medicine that when we go to the doctor, we often don’t know if the information that we’re getting about what we should do for any given diagnosis, treatment, whatever, has actually been tested on people who look like us at the very baseline. That’s nuts. If men went to the doctor and found out that like the medication they were being put on had only been tested on women, they would like burn the hospital down. Do you know what I mean?
Jennifer Block: I think that my bigger point, too, is about like what are our priorities, right? We have really big problems in women’s health. We have a rising maternal death rate. We have these diseases that are wrecking people’s lives that don’t get enough attention. And we do have this problem of women being dismissed and you know, demeaned, and called a psych issue in doctor’s offices. Like these are the big issues. And so why are we going after yogurt? Why are we talking about Jade eggs? Like, I mean, there’s not, there’s not one documented instance of anyone being harmed by a Jade egg. I mean, it’s true. It’s true that there’s no ancient story for them apparently, that they’re totally a Goop product or they’re, you know, actually Goop won’t sell them anymore.
Emily Kumler: But I think the problem is that when there’s a medical claim about a product that hasn’t been tested, then that’s not okay. Right? I mean, so like if people are spending all this money on Jade eggs being told that it’s going to do something, I mean for me that’s like fairness and advertising laws aren’t working because you’re lying about your product. The yogurt thing for me, I sort of feel like, you know, I don’t know, maybe it’s not harmful, but I actually don’t know enough about that to make any kind of conclusion. But like also this idea of like, yeah, try putting food up your vagina and like probably it’s fine. No, maybe not.
Jennifer Block: But I wasn’t saying that to people.
Emily Kumler: No, I know.
Jennifer Block: And I’m not saying that doctors should tell people that they should use yogurt if it’s not right. There’s no evidence for them to do that. But my point was like, look, people are using these things and they’re feeling better because of them. For whatever reason, it could be placebo. I don’t know. But the point is that when someone tells me that they, you know, were raped three years ago and since then they’ve had trouble being sexual and having trouble, they’ve gotten numb in places, and when they started doing vaginal steams, it started helping them regain sensation in their vulva. Like that’s pretty powerful. That’s a powerful personal experience of their own bodies. Why would I tell them not to do that? Like as a doctor or as a journalist, right? I’m just going to listen and go. Okay. I mean, are you being safe and making sure you’re not going to burn your labia? You know, fine. That seems like a fair warning. But the warning about, you know, you might burn yourself is just kind of funny. Like, should we all stop cooking, you know? I mean, do we not, do women not deal with hot things all the time? And is there like an epidemic? I mean like, the woman who spilled coffee on her lap, you know, the famous case, you know? I mean we don’t tell people not to drive and drink coffee. These are risks. We all take risks in life. And I think there’s like a misunderstanding of what this vaginal steaming thing actually is that’s perpetuating the talk about it being like a burn risk. But again, what are we focusing on? Like what are we spending time on and what are we spending our time on when we talk to women, like why should a woman feel ashamed for doing that if it helps her feel better?
Emily Kumler: Well, and this is also where I feel like there’s some sort of schism, right? Where it’s like if a journalist wrote this story, right? If somebody, if you wrote that story you just shared with us about, you know, somebody who was raped, who regains some stimulation and maybe like emotional release, right, of like using this device and it’s helpful to her in that way. And you write that piece that is so one person’s experience, right? And you would probably write in that piece like there is no research behind this. It’s like this is one person who decided to try this and it worked for them. And that’s sort of interesting. In the olden days, you know, if I was somebody who had been raped and was looking for some traumatic release and like that resonated with me, I would either try it and not talk about it, or I would go to my doctor and I would say like, hey, is there any risk in doing this? Like, you know, I’ve tried all these other things and nothing’s really worked and I’m curious about this and I would have a conversation with my doctor, and like that to me is part of the problem. It wouldn’t be that I’d go on Twitter, I’d go on, you know, Google or whatever to try to figure out like how do I help my vagina regain sensation after being raped? I would have a conversation with somebody who knew me, who knew my experience, who knew my body, and could help me process and decide, sure, go ahead and try it. Just be careful. Don’t hold it any closer than six inches away from your vagina. Right? But we don’t have access to doctors that way anymore. I mean, that’s another part of this, right? You go to your doctor for an average of seven minutes a year or something ridiculous. And most of that is like, they’re trying to diagnose you for very serious illnesses within that time. There’s none of this conversation happening. Right? That’s a massive, that’s like a theme that you guys are both getting to, right? Where she’s feeling like people don’t have time with the doctor. I mean, I don’t know what she’s feeling, because I don’t know her, but like I could imagine, she would be feeling like, hey, people are coming to me all the time asking me like, is this right? Is this wrong? We launched this podcast series with an episode that we weren’t intending to do, but I kept seeing the story about keto crotch and how women who are on the ketogenic diet were experiencing this really disgusting smell coming from their vaginas. So we started looking into it and it turns out there were, I can’t even remember, like 28 stories within 24 hours that came out on this and there was zero behind it. So there were 10 people, maybe, on Reddit like five years earlier who had mentioned and had asked a question about it. That was where it all stemmed from. There was a Forbes reporter who cited a clinical trial. He calls it like a clinical trial. Right? And he’s like a professor and he basically in the piece, you know, cites this study, which makes it sound very much like there is actually clinical research behind this. So I of course went and looked up the study. No, the study wasn’t, the women were not on a ketogenic diet. They were on like a super high carb, high fat diet. And they were also like low income women living in a rural area. I mean like there were all kinds of confounders. Right? And so when I called him and asked him about it, I was like, you know, why did you include that study that had absolutely nothing to do with the diet that people were talking about but you sourced that as though this was backup for it. And he was like, oh, I was really clear. Like this is, you know, this was an interesting study and not quite the same. And I’m like, no you didn’t. And nobody reading that article online is going to go back, right, and like actually look up the study the way that I did. That did a huge disservice. It was really interesting because when I was talking to him, I realized this story caught on, right? And then like probably everybody was told like, oh, hey, can you do a piece on keto crotch? Like, it’s so disgusting. Well, what was it doing? It was like definitely shaming women into like, oh, your vagina smells. Right? Which is already something that I think women think probably far too much about.
Jennifer Block: And to Gunter’s credit, that’s something that she’s really battled. She’s tried to combat that. So.
Emily Kumler: Yeah. And I think, for some of this stuff, we need to have watchdogs here, right? And we need to have people who are like, whoa, hold the phone. Is this actually a problem or not? Because with that, it was not a problem. And like there are tons of keto women Facebook groups we found where they were all basically saying like, my vagina’s never smelled better. Like I don’t know what this is about. And nobody was quoting them. Do you know what I mean? And like all of these experts who wanted to sell books who were happy for their publicists to line them up with a piece in, you know, Women’s Health Magazine writing about this. Like, I mean I think you are a good reporter. You have journalistic standards, you know how to tell a story. You have a history of being a feminist and really caring about this stuff. And that’s different, right, than some of the, especially like sort of blogosphere stuff that I would say we see out there. But the problem for me, the crux of it, is that we just don’t know who to believe. And I agree with you, I don’t think doctors are God. And I think most doctors that I talk to, who are sort of coming up in the ranks, are more aware and more open to the fallibility of what they are learning, maybe because of the internet. Right? Maybe that’s one of the great things about the internet is that they realize there are all these different theories about this stuff. Right? And we know like precision medicine is becoming a big deal. Integrative medicine is a big deal. These are doctors, right, who are like, hey, yeah, you know what? Acupuncture actually does make a big difference. And I think that’s really interesting because that industry is super masculine and super hierarchical. And so I have a tremendous amount of respect for female doctors who have worked their way up. But to your point, I also think like anybody, for me, who says, you know, I’m 100% sure about this, I’m like, hold the phone. Like that’s a good story right there because nobody should ever be 100% sure about anything, as far as I’m concerned. Right?
Jennifer Block: Right, right. Yeah. No, but I agree with you. I think that hopefully the folks who are more humble and have some humility about medicine and the body, that they will lead us into a more progressive age. What I was hoping the message would be to Gunter, would be that I want her to be part of that. And being part of that is I think being a little more humble.
Emily Kumler: I just, I think she’s in a hard spot. I mean, I feel for both of you, I really, I think it’s really hard to be a public figure, you know, and trying to push the needle on something and be humble. I feel like unfortunately, like I don’t think that is something that is valued the way that you and I would agree it should be. And it sounds like from her response, to the magazine anyway, of like feeling personally attacked that she actually values it too, right? I mean, I don’t know anybody who would say like, I don’t value being humble, but I think you, there is a part of me that feels like sometimes you have to put on your armor and get out there. Right? And just like sort of stand by who you are so that people take you seriously, because as a strong woman it’s very clear that sometimes that’s harder than you might think. Anyway, I am so grateful for your time. I feel like this has been a really interesting conversation and I think really informative on a number of levels. So people who are listening who have never, you know, haven’t heard anything of the controversy will get something out of this because I want everybody to always feel like they can be their own advocate. Right? And that you can, you know, experiment, and that you should respect your doctor. But that also like ultimately, you need to be as pushy as you need to be. Whether that’s being a public figure and trying to, you know, move the needle, or whether that’s being a woman going to the doctor and being told like, no, it’s in your head and you don’t think it’s in your head. That sense of self awareness and enough confidence to be able to speak up for yourself and like give voice to that, which I think is what you know we’re trying to do as journalists.
Jennifer Block: Yeah, and I do think, look back to the feminist health movement and embrace this idea of autonomy, that you know, what happens to your body, you should be up to you, ultimately. You take in the advice and recommendations of experts, but it’s also about what you need to do for yourself because you are going to ultimately live in that body with the consequences. So it has to be up to you. We cannot give away our authority.
Emily Kumler: Right. I agree completely.
Jennifer Block: I appreciate you, I appreciate you pushing back. I am trying to learn from this, you know, gather the feedback and take what’s reasonable criticism, and you know, not listen to all of the other crap that I’ve seen on Twitter, because I think there’s been a lot of crap. But I think there’s been some reasonable criticism and I’m trying to listen to it and learn from it. And then I’m trying to work on writing something about this.
Emily Kumler: So to wrap up this episode, I think my big takeaways are that I just was saying to Jill, I feel sad. I feel like this makes me not angry, it makes me feel sad. It makes me feel like women need help. We’ve got really great, powerful women trying to give voice to women. We’ve got doctors and researchers who we profile every week who are moving things in the right direction, and yet it seems like this kind of debate or whatever can, I don’t know, leave us all feeling a little demoralized. I think the big takeaway for me is that journalism is supposed to be out there telling stories. And opinion pieces are meant to sort of form an argument. Right? And in a lot of cases, opinion pages on newspapers are designed to create controversy so that people have conversations in their homes about these topics. So, maybe this has served that purpose. I do think the other really big theme for me that came across loud and clear in conversation was I think we all want to have more of a relationship with our doctors. And that if you don’t have a doctor who you can talk to regularly, which most of us don’t, then you are left to sort of find doctors online or find researchers online that you then follow on social media. But, you still have to be your own sort of guide or judge of what parts of those things resonate with you or what attitudes do you like, what personas are you following? And remember what you see on social media is like, you know, just a little teeny tiny part of the person who’s behind that profile. So again, I think we make these sort of sweeping conclusions about other people, which I think in this case both of these women have done, which is, you know, kind of also inaccurate and maybe not so kind. So I just wish we could all be a little bit kinder and be working on this together moving forward. And maybe that’s very Pollyanna of me because things don’t get done when you’re being really kind and nice or whatever. But I do ultimately feel like these women are both doing good work and we should support their work and they should find a way to give each other constructive criticism and learn from it and move forward. Okay. One more thing. I know I said that I was done, but I’m not really done. I was thinking about this a little bit more and I realized that like something about the yogurt thing and I just think like there is something about putting food up your vagina that like isn’t without risk. And I think from a reporting perspective, the way that I feel about that is that if you find a cohort of people, right? So like some population of people that has been using this as a remedy for a long time and it’s a large group of people, then it would be worth reporting that story. But if I have a friend or two who have used yogurt to treat their own, you know, yeast infections and it’s worked, that is not actually a story that I would report because I’d want to have more corroboration that this wasn’t dangerous and that it really was effective. That’s one sort of shade of gray that I think is nuanced here. And they sort of, I guess journalism standards are really important, right? So like if I went to an editor and I was like, oh hey, I put yogurt in my vagina and it’s never smelled better, the editor is not going to let me write a story about that unless it’s a humorous story that’s about me doing that, right? In some way. And so I think with books like Our Bodies, Ourselves, those are really important because they are women sharing stories, but they’re not necessarily medical advice. And that is another one of these sort of distinctions that I think we’re not, we’re not talking enough about. They serve a purpose, but that’s a different purpose than going to a doctor with a raging yeast infection and wondering what the best treatment for you is. And so I sort of feel like you should always do research and you should be always open to new ideas. But as a journalist you also have to sort of, you have to fact check yourself, right? So just way I said about scientists should be constantly skeptical of their own work, so should journalists. I’m Emily Kumler and that was Empowered Health. Thanks for joining us. Don’t forget to check out our website at empoweredhealthshow.com for all the show notes, links to everything that was mentioned in the episode, as well as a chance to sign up for our newsletter and get some extra fun tidbits. See you next week.