How to search for answers to your sexual health Qs online — according to 'The Internet's Gyno' Dr. Jen Gunter
Which sources to trust, and which tabs to close fast
ICYMI, tampons aren't toxic, the pill probably won't kill your libido, and what you eat is not going to reset your hormones or change the smell of your vagina. And chances are you did miss it because, despite providing unparalleled access to knowledge, the internet can be a cesspool of bad advice and misinformation — especially when it comes to women's health.
So how does a person who wants to be empowered about their body wade through all the crap?
Dubbed 'The Internet's Gynecologist', Dr. Jen Gunter uses her decades of clinical medical experience and her massive online presence to set the record straight on weird and unfounded wellness claims.
"Health and power are linked, and power and information are linked," says Gunter, whose own search for reliable information upon the premature birth of her sons drove her to want to disseminate health advice more broadly.
Recounting the first years of managing her sons' health, Gunter says she remembers thinking "this just shouldn't be this hard" and feeling dismissed by medicine.
"I really started to see how knowing the words, knowing who to talk to helped a lot, and how hard it is when you don't have that."
In the ensuing years, Gunter built up an online following on Twitter and her blog, and became one of the internet's go-to experts on women's health and the wellness industry. Her new web series, Jensplaining (airing on CBC GEM starting August 23), and book, The Vagina Bible, extend her reach even further and provide women with a reliable set of tools for understanding and navigating their own health.
But let's face it, sometimes the lure of the internet's instant answers is too great. So before you pull up Dr. Google, ask yourself what would Jen do?
1. Figure out your 'bother factor'
Gunter tells her patients to start by figuring out what's bothering them about their health, or the way things are right now, and then work backwards from there to see what they can do about it.
Are you experiencing side effects from your birth control? Are you too old for the HPV vaccine? Are you concerned about irregular periods?
2. Start with a professional medical society
Once you're clear on your question, the key to getting a good answer, is looking in the right place.
"The first piece of information you get is probably the one that's going to stick with you the most," says Gunter.
You can make sure that information is sound by going to a source that's vetted. For women's health-related questions in Canada, Gunter recommends starting with The Society of Obstetricians and Gynecology of Canada.
Professional organizations often have public resources and fact sheets on a variety of topics like endometriosis, choosing the right contraception for you, pubic hair removal, and navigating menopause. If a resource seems too technical, ask your doctor to explain it.
3. Beware of biased, scientifically unfounded information
According to Gunter, it's sometimes easier to tell what information not to trust. "If they're selling a product, just close the browser," she says.
She also warns against sources linked to homeopathy, anti-vaccination or miracle cure claims.
Once you're armed with all the information (and you've talked to your doctor), Gunter says, "Only you can weigh your personal risk/benefit ratio… but you can't possibly even decide what your personal risk/benefit ratio is if all the information you have is contaminated."
4. Talk it over with your doctor
Ultimately, before you do anything, Gunter says to talk things over with your doctor, and if they're not someone you feel you can talk to, she suggests finding someone else.
Not only can a doctor confirm whether the information you've found is sound, but they can also help you track whether any changes you make are working, or if you have to try something else.
If you don't have a doctor, most provinces have resources on their websites to help you find one. You can also search whether a provider is licenced or check to make sure they haven't had any complaints of professional misconduct, but beware the accuracy of other rating sites, which aren't always objective.
Gunter says she believes that self-education and individual action can only go so far, however, and if we're to ensure that everyone has equal access to the type of knowledge that can ensure their health and empowerment, we need to have more diverse leadership.
"Until half the research chairs, half the chairs of universities, half the politicians — until half of everybody who's in a position to control how we fund, how we study, how we learn these things, is a woman, we're not going to have that information."
She says too often women's health is reduced to pregnancy and family health. "Why are we distilled to our reproductive system and men are not?"
Eva Voinigescu is a freelance journalist and producer. She writes about health and science, careers, and culture.