Culture

Joycelyn Elders gets full credit for starting Masturbation May

By Maya Khamala

We’re hip-deep in Masturbation May everyone, and it’s about time we give a proper shoutout to the powerful black woman who started it all, wouldn’t you say?

(Minnie) Joycelyn Elders was the 15th Surgeon General of the United States for all of 16 months—from 1993 to 1994, under the Clinton administration.

While speaking at the UN AIDS conference in 1994, she was asked if she thought teaching children about masturbation might reduce unsafe sex, and she replied:

“I think that is something that is a part of human sexuality, and it's a part of something that perhaps should be taught.”

Shortly after, she was abruptly fired for her ‘controversial’ public views—namely that masturbation should be discussed in sex ed school curriculums.

Reminder: she was fired by Bill Clinton, the same president who felt it appropriate to insert a cigar into his intern Monica Lewinsky's vagina.

A sharecropper’s daughter

Elders grew up in a poor sharecropping family, the eldest of eight, and actually wrote a book detailing her journey, beginning with her humble beginnings. Sharecropping, for those who don’t know, emerged post Civil War, and was essentially a form of glorified slavery whereby a landlord allows a tenant to use the land in exchange for a share of the crop, ultimately encouraging them to produce the biggest harvest possible in order to ensure they remained tied to the land and unable to pursue other opportunities. 

But Elders never seemed to let her station in life (or the simple fact that she was a black woman) hold her back.

She earned a BS in Biology and an MS in Biochemistry; was a 2nd lieutenant in the Army; became a physical therapist and physician; and was board certified as a pediatric endocrinologist, all before going on to become Director of the Arkansas Department of Health in the 1980s (appointed by then-governor Clinton, no less). Not too shabby.

Yet when she was later nominated for Surgeon General, she was met with opposition. Elders believed this opposition was driven by sexism and racism.

“Some people in the American Medical Association, a certain group of them, didn't even know that I was a physician. They were passing a resolution to say that from now on every Surgeon General must be a physician—which was a knock at me. ... They don't expect a black female to have accomplished what I have and to have done the things that I have.” 

Her fearless life’s work

Elders was the second woman and first African American to serve as Surgeon General, and was a major advocate of comprehensive sex education, particularly among black girls and women. She was vocal in her criticism of old textbooks which claimed that only white women had a naturally regular menstrual cycle (!). She also called out black ministers who were calling birth control pills ‘black genocide,’ essentially trying to control and exploit black women’s bodies in the name of religion.

“If you can’t control your reproduction, you can’t control your life,” she said.

Elders became a powerful voice for the African-American community and was known to speak openly on the links between poverty and teenage pregnancy. In an opinion piece in the NY Times, she wrote that poor African-American teenage mothers are “captive to a slavery the 13th Amendment did not anticipate,” detailing the ways in which early pregnancy can perpetuate a cycle of poverty. This is also one of the main reasons she stressed the importance of teaching sex education in public schools.

During her time as Surgeon General, of course, Elders’ outspoken views quickly began to outrage the religious right. Rooted firmly in her pro-choice stance, she even went so far as to urge Americans to “get over this love affair with the fetus.”

Hell, she had to be doing something right: she was dubbed the “Condom Queen” by conservative political commentator Rush Limbaugh in 1994 because she favored the distribution of condoms in public schools. He meant it as an insult, and yet—personally I find that title kinda flattering. Sorta.

Bonus points: Elders also voiced her support of full drug legalization decades before it became a mainstream topic—as a way of reducing crime. Then, in a 2010 article, she clearly voiced support for the legalization of marijuana, writing, “I think we consume far more dangerous drugs that are legal: cigarette smoking, nicotine and alcohol ... I feel they cause much more devastating effects physically. We need to lift the prohibition on marijuana.”

Q: When do I get to have lunch with Joycelyn Elders?

Sticky Self-love

Elders’ unjust firing was part of the inspiration for Sticky: A (Self) Love Story, a 2016 documentary and comedy by Nicholas Tana which explores why so many people are afraid to discuss masturbation (trailer here). The film includes an interview with Elders herself about why she was fired by former president Clinton for her controversial statement on world's AIDS day. In it, Elders defends her comments:

“I felt it would reduce unintended pregnancy and reduce disease,” she says, clarifying that she was advocating for students to be introduced to the idea that masturbation is common and perfectly natural—not that they should be taught actual jerk-off or rub-out techniques. I, for one, a) hate that she had to clarify this at all, and b) dream of an educational landscape in which it’s even okay to teach basic techniques (especially for girls).

Other badass food-for-thought quotes from Elders’ interview:

“We know that 80-90% of men masturbate, and 65-70% of women masturbate, and the rest LIE; so what are we going to talk about?”

“We in America can't talk about sex. We can do it. But we can't talk about it.”

In the empowered spirit of Masturbation May, I leave you with this final meditation: What can you do but not talk about? What steps can you take to get more aligned with who you are and what you stand for?

Pro tip: Masturbate to clear your head before pondering these and other profound questions. <3

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