Nonfiction reviews have been rare sightings on my blog lately, but hopefully they will become a more regular presence now that I’ve concluded my four-month commitment with this book!
Dr. Jen Gunter’s The Vagina Bible is a medical textbook for the layperson, its focus apparent in the title. This is an incredible resource that I wish every person with a vagina would have access to, but I want to be careful about how I’m recommending it because it’s not the typical sort of narrative arc that I praise here.
The Vagina Bible is a bit like a first aid kit, in that you shouldn’t expect to use everything at once, you shouldn’t expect “having fun” to be your primary aim or response while looking through it, and yet when/if you need it, it’s invaluable to have on hand.
“I want every woman to have the power that comes with knowing how her body works and how to look for help when her body may not be working as she hoped it would. I want all women to know when there is bias and medical subterfuge, when there are lies, and when the patriarchy is just invested in keeping them frightened about their own normal (and I might add, glorious) bodily functions.”
The book is divided into chapters grouped by when you might be looking for certain information. Some of the chapters can be read at any time, and are great for general and everyday use- points on hygiene, menstrual products, contraception choices, Kegel exercises, and more. There’s plenty of myth debunking- Is white underwear better for your health? (No.) Can you prevent urinary tract infections by peeing after sex? (No.) Do you really need to worry about toxic shock syndrome? (Probably not.) Gunter also includes a section in which she reveals which products she keeps in her own medicine cabinet, and what she’d throw away immediately if she looked into yours. These are the bits that I think most people will take the most immediate interest in.
There are also more specialized sections that some people will never need, and others will only need at certain times- information on surgeries and hormone treatments for trans men and women, on the causes and effects of menopause, on what happens to the vagina during and following a pregnancy. There are whole chapters devoted to specific sexually transmitted infections and vaginal/vulvar conditions. Some of this content will likely never be applicable to you, and though some of it may be applicable throughout your lifetime it won’t all apply at once. For this reason, I don’t recommend picking up The Vagina Bible with the intent to read cover to cover, unless you’re really curious about the vagina from a medical standpoint.
But even if you don’t have that level of curiosity, I still think this is an important volume to keep on your shelf and flip through as needed. Gunter will tell you what you should expect in a visit to your local gynecologist, how to talk to her about what’s bothering you, and what you can do to advocate for your health and make sure any concerns you have are being asked and addressed. She goes over which issues can be handled over the phone, which require an exam and/or test (some of which can be done at home!), and what the next steps should entail if your provider is handling the matter appropriately- or when to look for a new provider! There’s advice on medication options (including OTC products) and general routines, information on how much you can do to take care of yourself before and when any issues arise, and statistics that make many of the infections and conditions covered feel a lot less shameful if they do happen to enter your life. It’s all handled very professionally- Gunter reserves her judgment for the patriarchy and validates your every possible feeling and reaction to whatever condition your vagina may be in.
“If you are going to have sex, you are almost certainly going to be exposed to HPV. This doesn’t make you dirty or bad or promiscuous, it just makes you human.”
“Almost everyone has one or more herpesviruses in their body.”
“In supposedly monogamous heterosexual relationships, approximately 23 percent of men and 19 percent of women admit to sexual infidelity. Whether a chlamydia infection was acquired recently, months ago, or years ago is not possible to know. How you interpret that data in the context of the infidelity statistics is up to you.”
Clearly a lot of work went into this book- Gunter mentions trying different products or practices in the name of research, and she’s looked up countless studies in order to provide the best, most accurate advice. She’s honest when she doesn’t have a firm answer and clear when she’s giving an opinion or anecdotal evidence in the absence of accepted fact (medicine doesn’t have an answer to every question, unfortunately). She’s easy to follow and uses both official and accessible terminology to provide readers with the full truth, in an understandable way. There are images and diagrams where necessary. The chapters, all laid out by subject with corresponding page numbers at the front of the book, are further subdivided with bold headers between points to guide readers directly toward specific questions they might have. When content from one chapter relates closely to matter discussed in another, Gunter tells the reader which chapter to check for more information. (This is one of the reasons Melanie’s review of the audiobook ends with the advice of picking up a physical copy instead! You’ll want to be able to go back and forth easily between different sections of the book.)
But while there’s a ton of useful and very accessible information here, I can’t pretend it’s the only medical advice you’ll ever need, even in women’s health. It is worth noting that this is a book covering vaginal and vulvar topics- it doesn’t talk much about uterine health at all, including pregnancy. If those are the subjects you’re interested in learning about, you’ll have to look elsewhere. And if you don’t have a vagina and don’t expect ever to have one, unfortunately I think you’ll find very little of personal interest here, unless you have a medical interest. There’s some information on contraceptives and STIs that may be useful even to those without a vagina, and certainly men could benefit from learning what advice not to give the women in their intimate lives, but as those aren’t this source’s primary intent I wouldn’t necessarily recommend it for those purposes, as they’re not explored fully here.
Personally, I did read The Vagina Bible cover to cover, over the course of four months, and I’m glad I did even though it’s not the method I would advocate for using with this book. I took something interesting and new-to-me out of almost every chapter, and even the ones that didn’t apply to me right now made me feel better about understanding the range of what’s “normal,” and where I can look for more information when/if I need it. This is definitely a resource I’ll be returning to over the years of my life, though I doubt I’ll ever need all of the content. It’s an empowering and informative read that was a lot more helpful than the one week my tenth grade health class spent on sex ed. I’m in good health at the moment, but even so there are pieces of advice on habits and products that I’m going to put to good use thanks to Gunter and this book. If you had a better education than I did or have a reliable source you can go to for firsthand advice, maybe you don’t need this book. But if you get an itch or a pain etc. and want to know what it is and whether you should make an appointment, The Vagina Bible is the place to turn.
“You can’t be an empowered patient and get the health outcomes you want with inaccurate information and half-truths. You also can’t be empowered when you are getting correct information but the person or source informing you is making you feel bad or is not listening to your concerns.”
My reaction: 4 out of 5 stars. I rate based on enjoyability; satisfying my curiosity and increasing my knowledge on a relevant topic is something I enjoy, though it’s certainly no well-crafted fictional narrative. Based on content alone, this would be a 5-star read. I’m thrilled it exists and hope it will be a comforting guide for a lot of people who are misinformed or unsure about vaginal health. I can’t recommend it highly enough to that audience. (And if I haven’t convinced you yet, be sure to check out Ren’s incredible review, which convinced me!)
The Literary Elephant