By Charles Hallman
Editors’ note: The sensitive subject matter in this story may not be appropriate for younger readers.
Dr. Joycelyn Elders was U.S. surgeon general from 1993-1995 under former U.S. President Bill Clinton, who earlier chose her as director of the Arkansas health department in 1987 when he was that state’s governor.
Elders, an outspoken advocate of various health-related causes, including the possibility of drug legalization and distributing condoms in schools to help prevent sexually transmitted diseases, was fired by Clinton a week after remarks she made during a speech at the United Nations, where she strongly suggested that masturbation should be taught as part of human sexuality as a means of preventing young people and others from engaging in riskier forms of sexual activity.
“Nobody talked about it, but after I said it out loud, now everybody talks about it,” recalled Elders, who then returned to her full pediatrics professorship at the University of Arkansas Medical Center. “Every surgeon general goes in with a major issue that they want to work on. My major issue [was] that I really wanted to deal with the problem of teenage pregnancy and the prevention of sexually transmitted diseases. AIDS was raging at that time [as well].”
America “is a sexually dysfunctional society,” she strongly believes. “The reason why I say that is because when you look at the numbers of unplanned pregnancies, we have the highest teenage pregnancy rate in the industrialized world. We have millions of [people affected by] STDs every year, and 56,000 new cases of HIV every year. That says to me that we have a problem and we need to address that.
“We have the know-how and the tools we need to address that, but we refuse to educate our young people so that we don’t go through the same problems over and over again.”
It also bothers her that almost 40 percent of all healthcare dollars “are spent on sexual health problems, or sexually dysfunctional problems” by women of child-bearing age (14-54), said the doctor. Furthermore, too many young unmarried Black females are getting pregnant and “wearing it like a badge of honor,” observed Elders. “I don’t feel that they want to be pregnant, but we [as a society] have taught them against using condoms. But we got to educate and teach young people.”
The Arkansas native and eldest of eight children, “I never saw a doctor until I started college,” claimed Elders, who at age 15 was offered a college scholarship by a local church to attend Philander Smith College in Little Rock, Arkansas. There she met a Black female doctor.
“She was a medical student then and spoke at our [program]. I thought she gave this wonderful talk about the difference between the high roads and the low. All I could think about for the rest of my life — all I wanted to do was to be just like her.”
When she graduated at age 18, Elders entered the U.S. Army as a second lieutenant and was trained as a physical therapist. Later, through the G.I. Bill and her community support, Elders became the first Black woman in her class when she attended medical school at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences College of Medicine.
Elders did her internship in pediatrics at the University of Minnesota Hospital in 1960, which at a time was hard for women to get such positions, let alone a Black woman.
“Minnesota was supposed to have one of the best pediatrics internship in the country. For them to take a Black woman from Arkansas, it was really something. I was very grateful,” she admitted. “I never worked so hard and tried so hard to do well and be a success as I did that year.
“I always have been very endeared to Minnesota,” said Elders, who holds among her multiple honorary doctorate of medicine degrees one from the Univ. of MN Medical School granted in 1993.
Sexual health education “teaches [people] how to say no, when to say no and what to do to protect themselves,” Elders pointed out. “There are more than 60 billion acts of unprotected sexual intercourse by unmarried people between the ages of 14 and 65. Just [saying] no is not enough.”
But whose responsibility is it to learn and understand this: the female or the male? “We have to tell our young men that there’s more to being fathers than donating sperm,” said Elders. “We need to make them feel that they have a major responsibility.”
Then whose responsibility is it to talk about sexual topics: parents, the schools, the church or the community? “It’s all of them,” responded Elders. “We all have a responsibility. We walk around whispering all of the time when we ought to be screaming.”
Not educating everyone on the importance of sexual health “makes no sense to me,” added Elders, who has teamed with the U of MN Medical School’s Program in Human Sexuality (PHS) to advance comprehensive science-based sexual health education.
The school is also raising funds to establish the Joycelyn Elders Chair in Sexual Health Education. About $1.2 million has been raised thus far, with a June 30 deadline to reach $1.5 million, which would kick in an additional $500,000 pledge if the goal is met.
“Joycelyn is inspiring to me,” noted Dr. June La Valleur, a retired U of MN OB-GYN professor, who’s currently chair of the PHS Leadership Council. “I couldn’t think of another person to have this chair named after than her.”
“I can’t believe how flattering it is for any doctor anywhere to have their name put on a chair,” said Elders.
Like Elders, La Valleur also is an advocate of sexual health, and believes it should be taught “from kindergarten to graduate school.”
“Sex is a normal part of life,” she pointed out, adding that even doctors should always ask patients about their sexual health whenever they see them, especially adults age 65 and older.
“Sex is more than procreation,” added Elders. “99.9 percent of sex is about pleasure, and we got to start talking about that.”
She remains today as strong an advocate for comprehensive sexuality education, reproductive rights and sexual rights as ever before: “I’m going to keep on pushing to try to make sure that we have comprehensive health education in our schools — K through 12 — and that we provide primary preventive health care in schools.”
For more information about the University of Minnesota Medical School’s Program in Human Sexuality, call 612-625-1500 or go to www.phs.umn.edu.
Charles Hallman welcomes reader responses to firstname.lastname@example.org.