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Holding Back
train tracks
Holding Back
Joycelyn Elders

by Tasha Eichenseher

By December 1994, Joycelyn Elders had already outraged Congress with a liberal agenda that included support for abortion, the legalization of some narcotics and the distribution of condoms in schools. When the 15th month of her job as U.S. Surgeon General came around, she was on a tightrope, juggling fiery issues in a circus tent of conservatism. Advocating masturbation as a part of sexual education was the end of the line.

On Dec. 1, 1994, at a conference on AIDS sponsored by the United Nations, Elders opened up the floor to discussion after her speech. A conference participant asked about her views on “more explicit discussion...of masturbation” as a means of slowing the spread of AIDS.

Elders’s reply promoted “comprehensive” sex education at a school-age level. She said that masturbation “is something that is a part of human sexuality and it’s a part of something that perhaps should be taught.”

President Clinton had supported Elders in her progressive take on health issues until the very end, when her comments about masturbation were about to go public in the Dec. 12 issue of U.S. News & World Report. Apparently for Clinton, Elders had gone one step too far. Before the story was available on newsstands, Clinton insisted on Elders’s resignation, later saying that he had not fired Elders for political reasons or to appease Congress. Clinton cringed at the taboo word masturbation and made it clear that if Elders did not resign, she would be terminated.

On Dec. 9, 1994, Elders lost her job as Surgeon General but not her stance on the difficult issues involving family planning and disease control. In a Dec. 11 interview a few days after her resignation, Elders said that she did not regret her actions while serving the Clinton administration. In other interviews she clarified that she was not advocating that children should be taught how to masturbate, but rather that sex education should include information about it.

Before her appointment as Surgeon General, Elders was director of the Arkansas Department of Health (from 1988–1993), another job Clinton had given her when he was governor of Arkansas. After her resignation, she returned to the work she had done until 1987 as a professor of pediatrics at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences.

Elders’s resignation, or firing, evoked both shouts of joy and anger from Republicans and advocacy organizations. House Speaker Newt Gingrich said Elders’s dismissal was “good for the country and good for the president.” Criticism of the president’s decision appeared in the editorial sections of newspapers and magazines across the country. A column in the Dec. 18 issue of The New York Times defended Elders, stating: “The cheered Surgeon General was fated for a fall in Washington, where black women who speak their minds are now routinely vilified with racial epithets spun off from that popular coinage of the Reagan era, ‘welfare queen.’

In the end, the firing of Joycelyn Elders probably says less about Elders’s position on masturbation and more about the oversensitivity of many Americans about matters of sexual activity. Masturbation is not only harmless, it’s actually healthy and—in the age of AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases—potentially life saving. Unfortunately, however, fewer people will be informed about these benefits if we continue to be too uncomfortable to talk about it.