If you're looking for reliable, accurate information about the female anatomy, the Internet probably isn't the best place to do it. If you look on Yahoo! Answers, for instance, you'll see tons of queries that are usually variations on the following: Is squirting really just pee? Does anyone else have unrelenting diarrhea with their periods? And what is "normal" vaginal odor, anyway?
Most of the answers to such questions are vague, misleading or just plain wrong. That's why a new period-tracking mobile app wants to make it easier for people with vaginas to ask the burning reproductive health questions they're too embarrassed to ask their doctors — and to find answers.
The free app, Ruby, was made by the same company that designed Glow, an app designed to help people who are trying to conceive keep track of when they're ovulating. Like Glow, Ruby tracks menstrual cycles, but it also offers information on birth control options and sexual health and wellness through its in-app community boards, making it a Reddit or Facebook of sorts for reproductive health information.
Ruby is one of a handful of news apps that are crowdsourcing health information for women. The concept of crowdsourcing reproductive health information isn't necessarily new. Apps like Period Tracker also feature discussion forums, and women have been using social media platforms like Reddit to swap info about birth control and their preferred menstrual products for years. But on subreddits like r/TwoXChromosomes, anyone can contribute to the conversation — which means that they can sometimes derail it. Ruby's community benefits from being relatively small and more focused.
On Ruby, users can access basic descriptions about the costs, benefits and drawbacks of various birth control options. But they can also take their questions to one of Ruby's many community boards, which features such queries as "Can I use a Diva Cup while I have an IUD?" or "Can the patch make my period longer?" Other Ruby users can then reply with their thoughts.
"It's definitely unique, because it's mostly women on there and I think because it's within the app and on your phone, it feels a bit more private than [asking questions on] Reddit or Facebook," one 20-year-old Ruby user, Alyssa Pedron, told Mic. "You can expect more serious answers because the people using this app are also interested in sexual health."
In addition to the birth control-focused forums, there are also pages for discussions on sex and sexuality, general health and fitness, and personal relationships. Some thread topics include tips for swallowing semen, whether or not pain after sex is normal and how to deal with your husband's overly involved ex-wife. ("Ignore the whore," one comment on the thread reads.)
Women are turning to the Internet to ask for health advice for a wide variety of reasons. Aside from the fact that they might be too embarrassed to talk to their doctors, many women are left uninformed about their own bodies thanks in part to United States sex ed curricula, which place a disproportionate emphasis on abstinence. When it comes to finding answers to basic health questions, such as what STI symptoms look and smell like or how to avoid a urinary tract infection, many women might feel like the Internet is their only option.
That said, crowdsourcing health information can get a bit dicey. When it comes to accessing information about contraception, such as the pill or intrauterine devices, the Internet offers many horror stories and misinformation. For every glowing review of hormonal birth control, you'll stumble across twice as many alarmist horror stories about the pill causing strokes and blood clots.
"The anecdote is the adversary to medicine," Dr. Tami Rowen, a gynecologist at the University of California, San Francisco, told Mic.
A quick glimpse at the fertility awareness method board on Ruby demonstrates the possible risks of receiving medical advice from strangers.
"5 months almost 6 going strong I use the symptothermal method of [fertility awareness method] which can be as effective as the pill if done correctly," one woman writes. But some data says that the method, which involves tracking your cycle to determine your fertile and infertile days, can have a failure rate of as high as 24%.
"If you're not getting pregnant [over time using fertility awareness], you should be concerned you have a fertility problem," Rowen told Mic, adding that she often sees patients who self-diagnose themselves with illnesses they don't have and demand tests and procedures they don't need based on unreliable information they found online.
The problem is that most people come to the internet to share their bad experiences, and don't bother sharing their good ones. For example, on threads about the hormonal IUD Mirena, which is both extremely safe and effective, you often see stories like the following on websites like essentialbaby.com:
Getting the mirena was one of my biggest regrets ever.
I am pretty sure I got pregnant briefly the month after I had it put in. I missed my period and got a very faint positive on a hpt [home pregnancy test] that disappeared the next day. My period came a few days later.
I still got my period every month, my mood swings were uncontrollable! I was bloated and headachey! And then to top it off when i'd had enough and went to get it removed they couldn't find the string ( my vajayjay ate it!!) I had to have a general to remove it!! Never again!!
But Ruby's creators told Mic that Ruby will be different. While some threads offer anecdotal evidence submitted by users, each birth control forum has a frequently asked questions thread sponsored by Bedsider, a website devoted to sharing reproductive health information for women. The hope is that it will make it easy for users to get comprehensive, thorough information about birth control all without ever having to leave the app, Jennifer Tye, Glow's vice president of partnerships and marketing told Mic.
But even though community-based apps like Ruby will likely provide a valuable resource for women who feel isolated and confused about their own reproductive health issues, Rowen cautioned that support and kind words from friends on the Internet will never be a substitute for IRL professional medical advice.
"I like that there are these forums. I like that women are talking about concerns that they have," Rowen said. But if you have a medical problem, "I would really ask a medical professional and listen to them."