Joycelyn Elders

Part 2: Proclamation of Masturbation: Joycelyn Elders Gives Masturbation a Thumbs Up

previous Surgeon General Joycelyn Elders

(También en Español)

“We must know that if we want to have a sexually healthy society, it’s about education, education, education,” says Joycelyn Elders, MD.

With 9.5 million teens obtaining a sexually transmitted infection (STI) and 750,000 becoming pregnant per year in the United States, it is no wonder why Elders asserts that comprehensive sexuality education is the key to a sexually healthy world. In order to help remedy this, Elders teamed up with the University of Minnesota Medical School’s Program in Human Sexuality (PHS) to advance sexual health education not only in America, but globally. Together, Elders and PHS established the Joycelyn Elders Chair in Sexual Health Education. The Elders Chair will work with PHS to create comprehensive life-long sexual education curricula, increase the number of health care providers trained in sexual health care, and expand scientific research in sexuality education. However, Elders will not hold the chair position herself, but will still be involved with the program. Elders currently gives on-campus lectures, including her presentation entitled, “Revolutionizing Our Sexually Dysfunctional Society: Are Americans Ready to Talk, Listen, and Learn?”

Perhaps Americans are ready to talk, listen, and learn.

In 2008, the California State Board of Education developed and passed California’s (CA) first set of health education standards, which included comprehensive sex education. Under this Sexual Health and HIV/AIDS Prevention Act, K-12 sex education programing must cover topics about STDs, contraception, condoms, pregnancy, and violence. Furthermore, instruction and materials must be age-appropriate, medically accurate and objective, and representative for students of all races, genders, sexual orientations, ethnic and cultural backgrounds, and pupils with disabilities. Sounds great, right?

If you take a closer look, CA is still coming up short. CA received the rating of C+ in Young People’s Sexual Health from Amplify, a project of Advocates for Youth, a well-known organization that champions efforts to help young people make informed and responsible decisions about their reproductive and sexual health. Why? Because compared to the national average, CA has a high teen pregnancy rate (15th highest in the nation), while its AIDS rate tracks with national rates and STI rates only slightly lower than the national rate. Although this act has brought CA a monumental step closer to achieving the goal of a sexually healthy youth, there is more room for improvement.

You might be wondering, “Why only California? What about other states? If the goal is to have a sexually healthy nation, then why aren’t there national standards for comprehensive sexuality education?” Well, that’s because the bill is still sitting in Congress. On November 2nd, 2011, Senator Frank Lautenberg and Representative Barbara Lee told the federal government to stand up and participate in the legalization of comprehensive sex education for the nation: they introduced the Real Education for Healthy Youth Act (H.R.3324). This act lays out a comprehensive, age-appropriate, and holistic vision for sex education policy in the U.S.

This act recognizes that young people have a right to sexual health information–the first federal legislation ever to have done so. Through the federal government, this act creates national standards for sex education that have profoundly positive effects on the sexual health of American youth. First, it prepares young people to make informed, responsible, and healthy decisions about relationships and sexual health. Second, this act also includes grants for comprehensive sex education programs for adolescents and young adults in institutions of higher education. Third, it requires all funded programs to be inclusive of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender (LGBT) and heterosexual youth and meet the needs of young people who are and are not sexually active. Finally, this act highlights the importance of and provides resources for teacher training. (Other highlights not mentioned in this article. See full description here.)

To assert further that a national standard for sex education can and should be adopted, in January 2012, Future of Sex Education (FoSE) Project launched the National Sexuality Education Standards for K-12, which set the new gold standard for sex education in America. Founded by Advocates for Youth, Answer, and the Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States (SEICUS), FoSE aims to create a national dialogue about the future of sex education and to promote the institutionalization of comprehensive sex education in public schools. Moreover, FoSE developed these standards to address the inconsistent implementations of sexuality education nationwide and the limited time allocated to teaching the topic. Hence, having national standards throughout schooling provides students with the knowledge needed to make the right decisions about their sexual health, no matter where they happen to live in the U.S., in a way they can understand and utilize as they go through different developmental stages.

Abstinence-only propaganda in direct opposition to Elder’s message of sexual health education as being key to a sexually healthy society. CC-image: phauly

As California State Board of Education, the Real Education for Healthy Youth Act, and FoSE have shown, comprehensive sexuality education is an ideal that can be reached not only on state levels, but also on a national level. Yet, as everyone can see, much more work still needs to be done to achieve the positive sexual health outcomes that other industrialized nations with already established national comprehensive sex education standards realize, such as the Netherlands.

Americans need to stand up for their sexual rights and demand the comprehensive sex education they deserve from their communities, schools, families, and government. Many notable people and organizations have worked hard to provide us the research, curriculum, and discourse on behalf sexual education and sexual freedom, so now Americans need to take these tools and fight for what is rightfully theirs and what Elders dedicated her life to: a sexually healthy nation.

Proclamation of Masturbation: Joycelyn Elders Gives Masturbation Thumbs Up (Part I)

(También en Español)

previous Surgeon General Joycelyn Elders

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.

Just as the single sperm lead to the population of this world, comprehensive sex education should be the single method of sexual health education to teach Earth’s population about sex, sexuality, and sexual health.

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.