June 2nd, 2016
by Ashton James
“I am amazed at how many women think cervical mucus is a sign of infection,” Chloe Skerlak says. “One woman told me that, for quite some time, once a month she would take antibiotics for what she thought was an infection, until she realized that this is a normal part of her cycle.” Near ovulation, the cervical crypts secrete a clear, stretchy, lubricated type of mucus that acts as an alkaline channel for sperm to travel to the uterus, she explains. For those unfamiliar with intricacies of the menstrual cycle, this change in cervical fluid may be difficult to differentiate from a vaginal infection.
Skerlak is studying to become a Holistic Reproductive Health Practitioner (HRHP) through Justisse Healthworks for Women, a holistic reproductive health network and college. As part of her practicum, she co-facilitates the Fertility Awareness Charting Circle of Edmonton (FACC), a supportive space offering fertility awareness education.
The Justisse Method of fertility awareness was founded by Dr. Geraldine Matus in Edmonton in 1987. Growing out of the Catholic natural family planning practice, fertility awareness is a secular alternative that includes conversations on condoms and other barrier methods, abortions, and gender and sexual diversity.
Fertility awareness is a set of skills to better understand all stages of the menstrual cycle, including first menstruation and menopause, by tracking bodily signs of fertility. Changes in cervical mucus is one of these signs, but people practicing fertility awareness also track changes in basal body temperature and cervical position. By observing these signs, people can accurately determine when they are fertile (and when they are not) to achieve or avoid pregnancy. “It’s like learning to read your body,” Skerlak says.
Fertility awareness isn’t just for people who identify as women. “We’re talking about anybody with a menstrual cycle who can benefit from this,” Rose Yewchuk says. Fertility awareness is also valuable knowledge for people supporting loved ones with uteruses.
Yewchuck is an Edmonton-based HRHP and faculty member with Justisse Healthworks for Women. She has been providing fertility awareness education through FACC since it was founded in 2005, as well as through her private practice.
Fertility awareness can be used as a highly effective method of non-hormonal birth control by abstaining from procreative sex or using alternative barrier methods on fertile days. A 2007 study published in Human Reproduction reports that, with accurate use, fertility awareness is 99.6 percent effective as a method to avoid pregnancy – a rate that rivals the effectiveness of the birth control pill, but without the pill’s side effects like intermenstrual spotting, weight gain, mood changes, and difficulty conceiving after prolonged use.
For many, hormonal birth control is becoming an increasingly difficult pill to swallow. Fertility awareness advocates are interested in increasing people’s understanding of their bodies and the options available to them. “For those who aren’t ready to have a baby, they’re often told that the birth control pill or some other hormonal contraceptive is their only option, if they want a reliable method,” Yewchuk says. “Bodily illiteracy is keeping generations of young people on contraceptive hormones without letting them know they have another choice.”
Current conversations on contraception create an illusion of choice. People can choose the pill, the patch, the shot, the hormonal IUD, the implant, the vaginal ring. “But really, it’s different delivery mechanisms for the same process, which works to prevent pregnancy by stopping ovulation, by disrupting the endocrine cycle,” Yewchuk says.
Disrupting this cycle has implications. The cycle of estrogen and progesterone has benefits for overall health like contributing to bone density, cardiovascular health, and hair growth. “Synthetic hormones stop this cycle completely,” Skerlak says. “With that, you miss out on all the other benefits of having this cycle happen in your body every month.”
Despite concerns, medical practitioners are slow to catch up with people’s complaints, and inquiries about fertility awareness are often dismissed. Many worry that it’s “too difficult to learn” – a sentiment expressed by Skerlak’s gynecologist. “I think it’s an old argument,” Yewchuk says. “It was too complicated for women to vote, to read, to enter the workplace. I think it’s an old argument in our culture that is used in a lot of ways to limit women’s access to power.”
Fertility awareness places control in people’s bodies. “Fertility awareness has the possibility for a much richer, wilder, more empowered sexual expression,” Yewchuk says. In order for it to work, sexual partners must consent to using barrier methods or avoiding procreative sex on fertile days. That requires a certain amount of cooperation and respect in the relationship, she explains. “Which opens up the potential for more communicative relationships and ultimately more enjoyable sexuality.”
Fertility awareness can also be used as a tool to better understand overall health and diagnose hormonal imbalances, such as detecting thyroid disorders, vitamin deficiencies, subfertility, and polycystic ovarian syndrome. As it is connected to and influenced by many factors, the health of the menstrual cycle is an indicator of what’s going on in other areas of the body, Yewchuk explains.
Fertility awareness is a holistic practice. What is happening in our emotional and spiritual lives shows up in our bodies, Yewchuk explains. “I think there’s a rich potential for healing on a deep and fundamental level,” she says. “If you check your mucus every day, it’s going to change your relationship with your body.”
Ashton James is currently moving and shaking on Treaty 6 land, where she writes on food, feminism, and community organizing (and checks her cervical mucus daily).