Proclamation of Masturbation: Joycelyn Elders Gives Masturbation Thumbs Up (Part I)
In 1994, then Surgeon General Joycelyn Elders, MD, proclaimed, “With regard to masturbation, I think that it is something that is a part of human sexuality and a part of something that should perhaps be taught.”
Masturbation being taught in schools? This statement is not one of shock, confusion, and contempt (or even a question) in countries where comprehensive sex education thrives, such as in the Netherlands, but in the United States, it sparked a nation-wide controversy that resulted in the termination of Surgeon General Joycelyn Elders.
So what was the fuss about?
Joycelyn Elders has been a strong, public advocate for comprehensive health education in schools since her days as a pediatrician in Little Rock, Arkansas, in the 1970s. As a chief pediatric resident, she combined a successful clinical practice with research in pediatric endocrinology, which lead her to work with juveniles with insulin-dependent diabetes. Over her tenure of 20 years, she recognized that diabetic females face a health risk if they become pregnant too young. These hazards include spontaneous abortion and possible congenital abnormalities in the infant. In order to limit these threats, Elders found it crucial to talk about the dangers of pregnancy to her patients and distribute contraceptives. The direct result of her doctor-to-patient education was that only one of her 520 juvenile diabetic patients became pregnant. This sparked Elders’ study of sexual behavior and involvement with public sector advocacy.
With these experiences and her passion to address the issue of teen pregnancy, she broke new ground by advocating for in-school clinics that included contraceptive services. Elders was successful in opening 18 school-based health clinics, with some distributing condoms, and expanding sex education throughout Arkansas. Yet, Elders’ work did not stay within state borders, because she understood that there were thousands of young adults in the United States whose sexual behavior went unmonitored and whose irresponsible, uneducated actions were contributing to the country’s notorious reputation of having the highest rate of teenage pregnancy in the industrialized world. Moreover, the rate of sexually transmitted diseases was on the rise, with the scare of AIDS frightening all sexually active people. This unhealthy, apprehensive sexual climate fueled Elders commitment to comprehensive sex education and demand for bolder government involvement and an intense public education campaign.
However, a black woman cannot publicly talk about sex in America for too long without upsetting certain groups and making a few enemies. Elders’ progressive work was catching the eye of both political conservatives, who criticized her effort to increase the government’s role in the private sexual lives of U.S. citizens, and members of some religious groups, who feared that the distribution of condoms would increase sexual activity and rejected sex education in schools as sanctioning abortion.
Elders contested these outrageous claims by stating that abstinence education does not work because, in the real world, young people will continue to have sex, and that is it the job of adults and the government to turn an irresponsible action into a responsible one. She maintained that this could be accomplished through education: sex education would help prevent unwanted pregnancy from ever occurring, counteracting the practice of abortion.
Even with her courageous and logical retorts to her critics, by the time Surgeon General Elders made her approval of masturbation known at the United Nations World AIDS Day in 1994, the political climate was against her favor. Her suggestion that masturbation was a healthy part of sexuality and should be taught in schools enraged both conservatives and moderates alike. As a result, President Clinton, who personally nominated Elders for the position of Surgeon General of the U.S. Public Health Service only a year earlier, forced her to resigned, stating that she demonstrated values that were “contrary to the administration.” To the conservatives, Elders was warped, dangerous, and a lunatic because she was a rare public official who could actually speak lucidly, heroically, and fearlessly about what people didn’t want to hear.
But Elders’ words were exactly what the country needed to hear and to think about. Masturbation is a healthy part of human sexuality and a valid activity to help reduce risky sexual behavior, and it was about time that everyone realized sex education needed to be talked about openly and honestly for the sake of America’s youth and their sexual health.
The U.S. government was afraid to take a stand with Elders in fear of the public perceiving it as perverse and immoral. Yet in reality, in the absence of comprehensive sex education, the abundance of advertisements, television shows, movies, etc., that are laden with sexual innuendo, even some with blatant sexual references, is itself perverse and unjust to all youth.
Young people are bombarded by sexual media, but when seeking answers to their questions about their sexual health and sexuality, the resources are scarce and often completely unavailable. Some phone-text-based sex eduction sites have recently come on the scene and are a good step toward connecting youth directly with answers to their pressing questions.
Elders symbolizes knowledge, education, and truth. She was not afraid to address these issues and answer young people’s questions, which made her powerful as well as threatening and fearsome to the government, conservatives, moderates, and some religious group. And what do people typically do with what they think is threatening to them? Get rid of it. Unfortunately for Elders’ opponents, they could not get rid of her so easily, and she is now breaking new ground at the University of Minnesota Medical School’s Program in Human Sexuality with the Jocelyn Elders Chair in Sexual Health Education.