The Fifth Vital Sign is an educational duo composed of Emily Varnam and Kelsey Knight. This past summer they took a cross-country road trip to educate the American public. Learn more about their mission empower the masses with unbiased information about reproductive health care as a means of preventative care.
DE: What are your backgrounds? What got you both into sex education?
FVS: Emily is a birth and postpartum doula, midwive’s assistant, birth control doula, placenta encapsulation specialist, and holds a degree in counseling and mentoring. She has been working with newborns and families since age seven. Kelsey is a registered nurse who worked in labor and delivery, childbirth educator, birth doula, and lactation consultant.
In advertising our class, we often do describe it as “reproductive health education,” but a more accurate description of our curriculum would be body literacy and hormonal health education. We focus on and value the individual’s body first, before we consider bringing another body into the picture.
DE: At what point did you decided to establish The Fifth Vital sign in addition to your existing podcast?
FVS: At the end of 2015 it became clear that we needed to create something which spoke to a specific need. The podcast was and is a great way for us to highlight people’s stories but we wanted to be in-person with people, hearing their stories and sharing tools. The Fifth Vital Sign was born out of a demand–many people were asking Emily for her guidance in coming off of hormonal birth control, and we were both seeing the long term and widespread effects of not having informed choice and an adequate level of body literacy in our work as birthworkers.
DE: How far did you travel over the past summer?
FVS: We traveled 15,000 miles, by car, across 43 states. We taught over 100 classes and put on two panel discussion events.
DE: What did you notice was lacking in American sex education?
FVS: Intersectionality. Real evidence based information. Facts versus opinions. Informed choice versus shaming and fear mongering.
FVS: The classes cover the phenotypically female reproductive system, mechanics of menstruation, fertility awareness method, informed choice (specifically in regards to contraception), breast health, menstrual care product options, hormonal health and support and honestly, a ton more. We chose these topics because they seemed to all be linked, and there was not enough information out there about all of these things, and more importantly enough safe spaces to talk about our bodies. The most pressing reason we put together our curriculum and the reason it is successful is that there are some key underlying concepts. We believe people matter. We believe in having all options; we believe in empowering variation; we believe that how we learn and speak about our bodies matters; we believe that in a healthcare setting information cannot be substituted by opinions and that all people deserve MORE. Additionally, we do not believe that the body you are born into should block your access to any experiences or opportunities, and thus we try to challenge the idea that pain is normal as part of the menstrual cycle.
FVS: When we talk about and explain uterine malposition people often have a really profound reaction. It is something that may seem obvious but because we have for so long normalized pain as part of the menstrual cycle and pushed people’s qualitative experiences in their bodies to the bottom of the heap in terms of priority, the understanding of why, what it might feel like and how to address uterine malposition is always a high point of the class. The reactions range between feeling validated to feeling angry at not having had this information sooner. We created a class that speaks to what we all wish we were taught as 12 year olds.
DE: What are some of your top book recommendations for those interested in sexual health?
FVS: We always recommend The Period Repair Manual by Lara Briden. Christiane Northrup has written fantastic books as well. You can find a full list of our recommendations here: http://www.5thvitalsign.com/
DE: Why did you choose to provide your classes for free?
FVS: The simple answer is accessibility. There is such a lot of income based disparity in the provision of reproductive health care and we felt that this could not be addressed without making these classes readily available and accessible to ALL people.
DE: Any highlights from your trip?
FVS: The most memorable moments of the trip were the people, their stories and the moments of real hard work and collaboration. We got to offer something in communities but that meant that we also got to be in community with people and to hear about their lives and experiences. Early on we both realized how much we value being able to see how people love their children, partners, families and community. In terms of places, we loved seeing the Grand Canyon, Marfa, Texas was beautiful, and we enjoyed Baltimore, Birmingham, AL, and Detroit, MI.
DE: What do you think needs to change to allow for better sex education?
FVS: Current sex education is a product of our current society and while there are some fantastic resources out there we are still not providing something that is intersectional and empowering, and that is because there is still a lot of shaming and focusing on sexuality (which is up to the individual) rather than on body literacy and consent.
DE: How can readers support your continued efforts?
FVS: We are releasing a birth control doula as well as more facilitator trainings this year so look out for those. You can find classes in your area. You can buy one of our shirts and wear your support loud and proud and if you feel moved, and you can donate to help us keep bringing this work.