Recently I attended my first official sex conference, Catalyst Con – Sparking Communication in sexuality, activism and acceptance. Catalyst Con’s mission is to intersect a wide array of issues around sexual health and freedom. There were workshops on topics including sex and parenting, gender, body image, christianity, race, age, the media and ability (a more politically correct term for disability). Feminist porn, circumcision, the business of sex, inclusive education and sex positivity were also in the mix. Attendees included therapists, sex workers, educators, adult performers and those that were simply curious.
On the final day of the conference this diverse group of radical change-makers gathered into a room for the closing keynote speech. We were met by a small, eighty-year-old woman with friendly eyes and a large grin who, at first, seemed to be swallowed up by her oversized chair. The contrast might have seemed strange except that this woman was Joycelyn Elders, former US Surgeon General, a radical sex educator who is as fierce as she is sweet.
You may remember back in December 1994 when Joycelyn Elders was asked to resign from her post as Surgeon General by President Bill Clinton for her remarks about masturbation in sex education. Elders was only the second woman and the first African American to command the position of Surgeon General in the United States.
In 1994 I was too absorbed in my teenage years to have fully understood and appreciated what Elders was advocating for women and youth. Hearing her story now, under our current political climate, we can see just how bold and courageous she was. Elders was passionate about reducing teen pregnancy and outspoken on the topics of sex education, contraception and legal abortion. Since Elders’ time as Surgeon General, sex education in the US regressed with a large movement toward abstinence only education from 1996 to 2009. Women’s healthcare and sexuality rights continue to be under threat by conservative politicians.
It’s no wonder that when Joycelyn Elders emerged on the national scene in 1993 talking about comprehensive sex education for young people she received a backlash from the republican majority in congress. Her very appointment stirred controversy and resistance until pressure from conservative leaders led to her forced resignation. Elders did not enter office as a pawn in the political game, she entered as an advocate with a vision. She was committed to speaking her fundamental beliefs back then and says today she would do it all over the same way.
Unfortunately, even those who don’t sign onto the game, are often forced to play one way or another. At the UN conference on AIDs in December 1994 Elders was asked by an audience member what she thought about a more explicit discussion of masturbation to limit the spread of the AIDs virus. She responded that “masturbation is a normal part of sexuality” and that “perhaps it is part of something that should be taught.” Some members of the media turned this into “Elders says we should teach schoolchildren to masturbate” and thus the persecution prevailed. This time, they said, she went too far and so Clinton asked her to resign.
While the masturbation chapter of her life may have gotten the most notoriety there is so much that is remarkable about this woman. Her ability to speak with clarity, conviction and humor on sexual health is impressive alone not to mention in spite of the attempts to shame her into silence.
Her education and career accomplishments should have been virtually impossible in the time and climate she grew up in. Elders came from a poor family of sharecroppers in the south. She never saw a doctor herself until she was in college. In the early 1950’s she acquired a scholarship to college and upon graduation joined the army in order to fund her medical schooling. She went on to become the first pediatric endocrinologist in the state of Arkansas. In 1987 she was appointed director of the Arkansas Department of Health by then governor Bill Clinton.
Elders still carries her mission of education with her today and believes that this must be the foundation for improving health. She is working with the University of Minnesota to create the Joycelyn Elders Chair in Sexual Health Education in order to advance comprehensive science-based sex education.
Joycelyn Elders is a testament to what can be accomplished with dedication and determination. She said even if she could change only one person’s thinking in a room, she feels she is making a difference. Obstacles are simply things we must move around. She reminded me that there are radical thinkers in positions of power and how we must get behind these people. Most importantly, I share her vision of freedom and health through sex education. Imagine a world where pleasure is acknowledged as a fundamental component of sexuality and self-reliance is valued through celebration of the human body.