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Demystifying menstruation: Gynecologist's new book tackles the basics of bleeding

Gynecologist Dr. Jen Gunter, author of Blood: The Science, Medicine, and Mythology of Menstruation, is speaking at the Victoria Conference Centre on Saturday
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Dr. Jen Gunter is the author of the bestselling Vagina Bible and The Menopause Manifesto. TALIA HERMAN

When obstetrician-gynecologist Dr. Jen Gunter brings her message about the patriarchy’s adverse influence on women’s health to Vancouver Island this weekend, she’ll also be looking for a home.

“I’m super excited about coming to Victoria — I love the Island,” said Gunter, who will appear in conversation with University of Victoria gender studies professor Thea Cacchioni at the Victoria Conference Centre on Saturday.

“My husband and I are looking for some property there,” said Gunter, who lives in California. “We’ve been up a couple of times looking. We’re hoping to get a place on the Island.”

The author of the bestselling Vagina Bible and The Menopause Manifesto says she will see more homes following the book tour for Blood: The Science, Medicine, and Mythology of Menstruation.

If it looks like Donald Trump could be elected president, however, she said that house-hunting visit will definitely be moved up.

Like her previous books, articles, TED Talks and blog the Vajenda, Blood is based on the idea that people need facts to make informed choices about their health care and to advocate for themselves.

The problem, she argues, is that medical studies have been based on men and merely “retrofitted” for women, resulting in insufficient education about how the female body works.

Gunter, a gynecologist since 1995, writes that she knew another book was needed to challenge the misinformation that spiked on social media during the pandemic.

“When I scroll Instagram or TikTok, I’m horrified at the disinformation about the menstrual cycle and associated medical conditions that is perpetually propagated,” she writes in Blood.

Sometimes those spreading that misinformation are women, said Gunter, who blames internalized misogyny and the profit motive. The worst drivers are video platforms and their algorithms pushing fear-based propaganda, she said.

One of the saddest forms of this fear-mongering is dissuading young people from being vaccinated against HPV, which can cause cervical cancer, she said.

Blood, a no-nonsense 422-page guide to reproductive anatomy, answers every conceivable question about menstrual bleeding, with summary notes ending each chapter.

It’s all laid out in precise medical terms with no euphemisms — it turns out there are about 5,000 euphemisms for menstruation, everything from Aunt Flo to Carrie.

Gunter explains that menstruation is a rare phenomenon in the animal kingdom, experienced only by humans, most primates, a few species of bats, the elephant shrew, and the spiny mouse.

She also notes that reproducing a human is a massive biological effort — on par energy-wise with the limits of the most extreme sports. And while the menstrual cycle is a marvel that makes it all possible, it can also bring pain and suffering.

Blood would be a dense read if not for Gunter’s humour, personal anecdotes and direct talk.

She recounts her younger self’s Judy-Blume-informed knowledge of periods, trips to the pharmacy for a 48-pack of tissue-box-size pads, and how she once had to school a male Grade 9 teacher on a girl’s need to change pads throughout the day.

“Imagine if it were socially acceptable to say when someone asks you how you are doing, actually, it feels like I have a hot poker in my vagina and I still made it to this meeting that absolutely could have been handled by email,” she writes.

The book lays out how much more work needs to be done, but at the same time, Gunter had much praise for B.C. when it comes to the province’s provision of free contraception and menstrual products in public bathrooms.

“To me, making contraception free, making cervical-cancer screening easier to get, demanding menstrual products be available in all buildings free of charge, these are ways to help level that playing field,” she said.

Gunter called B.C.’s distribution of HPV self-screening tests for cervical cancer “fantastic,” saying: “There’s no reason that people need to come into the office for cervical-cancer screening.”

There are more than 200 types of HPV, but two types cause about 75 per cent of cervical cancers, the fourth most common cancer among women worldwide.

One thing she’s not about to get worked up about, however, is ingredients in tampons, a subject she addresses extensively in her book

She says it’s illogical to worry about chemicals in tampons while ignoring greater sources of exposure to these and other more dangerous chemicals. She says the fear-mongering is the result of ignorance, purity culture and listening to organizations such as the Environmental Working Group, a U.S.-based non-profit.

“Many people are selling natural or organic products — they’re trying to scare you so you buy something else, but there’s not one study that’s ever shown that natural, so-called organic products are safer,”said Gunter, who also doesn’t pull any punches when it comes to naturopaths.

For those who see naturopaths because they can’t get a family doctor, she says the answer to not being able to get good care isn’t to seek “lower-quality care.”

Gunter likens the belief in naturopaths to a religion or cult, calling naturopathy a belief system — “it’s not medicine” — that revolves around recommending supplements that are “unstudied, untested.”

Health Canada slaps approvals on supplements based on the information submitted by the supplement company, she said. “Health Canada does not have your back and there’s no reason this couldn’t be fixed.”

After her conversation with Cacchioni, Gunter will take part in a question-and-answer session and book signing. Things could get lively.

Tickets can be purchased at eventbrite.

ceharnett@timescolonist.com