Commentary Sexual Health

Never Shy: M. Joycelyn Elders, MD, On Sexual Health

Fred Wyand

A pediatrician. A university professor. Arkansas state health director. The 15th Surgeon General of the United States. An outspoken champion of “bringing sexuality out of the dark ages.” Ladies and gentlemen, I give you M. Joycelyn Elders, MD.

Editor’s Note: This article is part of a series developed by the American Social Health Association (ASHA) in celebration of Sexual Health Month 2012 during September. Rewire will be publishing articles by ASHA all month, see all the articles here and visit ASHA online throughout September for updates.

Cross-posted with permission from the American Social Health Association (ASHA).

A pediatrician. A university professor. Arkansas state health director. The 15th Surgeon General of the United States. An outspoken champion of “bringing sexuality out of the dark ages.”

Ladies and gentlemen, I give you M. Joycelyn Elders, MD.

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Dr. Elders has devoted her life to science in the pursuit of public health and social justice. Now retired but very active, her projects include developing a sexual health education chair at the University of Minnesota that will bear her name. As part of Sexual Health Month 2012, Dr. Elders chatted with us to offer her perspective on where we’ve been with sexual health, and where she hopes we’ll go.

The prescription is straight-talk and sanity. The good doctor is in.

Sexual health touches on many things: relationships, sexually transmitted infections, and matters of social justice. What should our sexual health priorities be?

I think our first priority should be that every person is allowed to enjoy their sexuality to the greatest extent possible, as long as it doesn’t come at the expense of another.

To me sex is about the three P’s: procreation, prevention, and pleasure. We have to procreate (but every sperm is not a baby meant to be!) but we want to be healthy and protect ourselves and others from infections. Of course, pleasure is one of the most important aspects of our sexuality.

Why are we so squeamish about sex? It’s easier to show graphic violence on screen than two caring adults making love.

I don’t think we’ve ever really learned to appreciate our sexuality, and it’s hard for me to understand why we don’t. We’re so secretive about sex; we’ve crammed it down in a hole and don’t like to bring it out. We need to get over our silence and be open and honest about our sexuality. Everyone should be aware of how important sex and sexuality are but more than that, we need to learn to value our sexuality. It’s important that we do that for ourselves, for others, and our children, too.

Keeping with the idea of valuing others and their sexuality, I’d like to ask about sexual minorities such as lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) individuals. How do we bring them more into the mainstream, especially with regard to healthcare?

It starts with education. There is a great deal of misinformation and stereotypes and we need to start early; we do far too little, too late. People just don’t have an understanding of what it means to be LGBT, so they live believing all the myths.

Outreach to health-care professionals is critical, as they have to be educated so they understand LGBT issues. It should start during their training: I was shocked to learn our medical schools spend an average of five hours of talking about, not just transgender, but all of LGBT. Think about that, all of five hours. When you consider we spend almost 30% of our health-care dollars on problems related to sexual and reproductive health, we really have to address it better in medical schools.

You mentioned that education about sexual health should start early. Thinking of young people: what should school-based sexual education programs cover, and when do we start?

I’m always talking about the need comprehensive sexuality education, which we often say should begin in kindergarten and last through 12th grade. However, I’d say it should start at birth and last until death! We need to educate our children early, so why wait until kindergarten? As soon as they can understand we need to tell them about their body parts, and we need to be honest with what we tell them. Children can learn; they might as well learn the right words as the wrong ones!

It’s not like sexuality has a switch that’s suddenly flipped at some magical age that is turned off somewhere down the road…

That’s right, it lasts a lifetime!

Masturbation: it’s something everyone does, it’s pleasurable, and doesn’t lead to any harm. Why would your comments on the subject be controversial at all?

That’s exactly my feeling. Nobody’s ever gotten a sexually transmitted infection or become pregnant because of masturbation. It won’t make hair grow on our hands; it won’t make us go blind or crazy. Some of that probably has root in the fact many mental patients are seen masturbating (speaking of which, that’s another group that’s ignored when it comes to sexual health education). It really makes no sense at all to me, especially when the data suggest something like 90% of the people will have masturbated at some time during their life.

I mean, if everybody who ever masturbated turned green, we’d be a green society!

The University of Minnesota is establishing the Joycelyn Elders Chair in Sexual Health Education. Tell us what that will involve.

The Joycelyn Elders Sexual Health Chair will be in the department of sexual health and family medicine to really provide further education, starting with healthcare professionals we’ll seek grants so faculty will have funds to do the kinds of studies we need to bring sexuality out of the dark ages.

It’s also important that we educate parents. I think parents would do a good job if we gave them the tools; they don’t want to make a mistake with their children and are so scared of doing something wrong they often just don’t do anything!

So it’s about educating healthcare professionals, parents, and children. If we do all that, we’ll educate our community!

News Sexual Health

State with Nation’s Highest Chlamydia Rate Enacts New Restrictions on Sex Ed

Nicole Knight Shine

By requiring sexual education instructors to be certified teachers, the Alaska legislature is targeting Planned Parenthood, which is the largest nonprofit provider of such educational services in the state.

Alaska is imposing a new hurdle on comprehensive sexual health education with a law restricting schools to only hiring certificated school teachers to teach or supervise sex ed classes.

The broad and controversial education bill, HB 156, became law Thursday night without the signature of Gov. Bill Walker, a former Republican who switched his party affiliation to Independent in 2014. HB 156 requires school boards to vet and approve sex ed materials and instructors, making sex ed the “most scrutinized subject in the state,” according to reproductive health advocates.

Republicans hold large majorities in both chambers of Alaska’s legislature.

Championing the restrictions was state Sen. Mike Dunleavy (R-Wasilla), who called sexuality a “new concept” during a Senate Education Committee meeting in April. Dunleavy added the restrictions to HB 156 after the failure of an earlier measure that barred abortion providers—meaning Planned Parenthood—from teaching sex ed.

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Dunleavy has long targeted Planned Parenthood, the state’s largest nonprofit provider of sexual health education, calling its instruction “indoctrination.”

Meanwhile, advocates argue that evidence-based health education is sorely needed in a state that reported 787.5 cases of chlamydia per 100,000 people in 2014—the nation’s highest rate, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Surveillance Survey for that year.

Alaska’s teen pregnancy rate is higher than the national average.

The governor in a statement described his decision as a “very close call.”

“Given that this bill will have a broad and wide-ranging effect on education statewide, I have decided to allow HB 156 to become law without my signature,” Walker said.

Teachers, parents, and advocates had urged Walker to veto HB 156. Alaska’s 2016 Teacher of the Year, Amy Jo Meiners, took to Twitter following Walker’s announcement, writing, as reported by Juneau Empire, “This will cause such a burden on teachers [and] our partners in health education, including parents [and] health [professionals].”

An Anchorage parent and grandparent described her opposition to the bill in an op-ed, writing, “There is no doubt that HB 156 is designed to make it harder to access real sexual health education …. Although our state faces its largest budget crisis in history, certain members of the Legislature spent a lot of time worrying that teenagers are receiving information about their own bodies.”

Jessica Cler, Alaska public affairs manager with Planned Parenthood Votes Northwest and Hawaii, called Walker’s decision a “crushing blow for comprehensive and medically accurate sexual health education” in a statement.

She added that Walker’s “lack of action today has put the education of thousands of teens in Alaska at risk. This is designed to do one thing: Block students from accessing the sex education they need on safe sex and healthy relationships.”

The law follows the 2016 Legislative Round-up released this week by advocacy group Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States. The report found that 63 percent of bills this year sought to improve sex ed, but more than a quarter undermined student rights or the quality of instruction by various means, including “promoting misinformation and an anti-abortion agenda.”

Roundups Politics

Campaign Week in Review: ‘If You Don’t Vote … You Are Trifling’

Ally Boguhn

The chair of the Democratic National Convention (DNC) this week blasted those who sit out on Election Day, and mothers who lost children to gun violence were given a platform at the party's convention.

The chair of the Democratic National Convention (DNC) this week blasted those who sit out on Election Day, and mothers who lost children to gun violence were given a platform at the party’s convention.

DNC Chair Marcia Fudge: “If You Don’t Vote, You Are Ungrateful, You Are Lazy, and You Are Trifling”

The chair of the 2016 Democratic National Convention, Rep. Marcia Fudge (D-OH), criticized those who choose to sit out the election while speaking on the final day of the convention.

“If you want a decent education for your children, you had better vote,” Fudge told the party’s women’s caucus, which had convened to discuss what is at stake for women and reproductive health and rights this election season.

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“If you want to make sure that hungry children are fed, you had better vote,” said Fudge. “If you want to be sure that all the women who survive solely on Social Security will not go into poverty immediately, you had better vote.”

“And if you don’t vote, let me tell you something, there is no excuse for you. If you don’t vote, you don’t count,” she said.

“So as I leave, I’m just going to say this to you. You tell them I said it, and I’m not hesitant about it. If you don’t vote, you are ungrateful, you are lazy, and you are trifling.”

The congresswoman’s website notes that she represents a state where some legislators have “attempted to suppress voting by certain populations” by pushing voting restrictions that “hit vulnerable communities the hardest.”

Ohio has recently made headlines for enacting changes that would make it harder to vote, including rolling back the state’s early voting period and purging its voter rolls of those who have not voted for six years.

Fudge, however, has worked to expand access to voting by co-sponsoring the federal Voting Rights Amendment Act, which would restore the protections of the Voting Rights Act that were stripped by the Supreme Court in Shelby County v. Holder.

“Mothers of the Movement” Take the National Spotlight

In July 2015, the Waller County Sheriff’s Office released a statement that 28-year-old Sandra Bland had been found dead in her jail cell that morning due to “what appears to be self-asphyxiation.” Though police attempted to paint the death a suicide, Bland’s family has denied that she would have ended her own life given that she had just secured a new job and had not displayed any suicidal tendencies.

Bland’s death sparked national outcry from activists who demanded an investigation, and inspired the hashtag #SayHerName to draw attention to the deaths of Black women who died at the hands of police.

Tuesday night at the DNC, Bland’s mother, Geneva Reed-Veal, and a group of other Black women who have lost children to gun violence, in police custody, or at the hands of police—the “Mothers of the Movement”—told the country why the deaths of their children should matter to voters. They offered their support to Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton during a speech at the convention.

“One year ago yesterday, I lived the worst nightmare anyone could imagine. I watched as my daughter was lowered into the ground in a coffin,” said Geneva Reed-Veal.

“Six other women have died in custody that same month: Kindra Chapman, Alexis McGovern, Sarah Lee Circle Bear, Raynette Turner, Ralkina Jones, and Joyce Curnell. So many of our children are gone, but they are not forgotten,” she continued. 

“You don’t stop being a mom when your child dies,” said Lucia McBath, the mother of Jordan Davis. “His life ended the day that he was shot and killed for playing loud music. But my job as his mother didn’t.” 

McBath said that though she had lost her son, she continued to work to protect his legacy. “We’re going to keep telling our children’s stories and we’re urging you to say their names,” she said. “And we’re also going to keep using our voices and our votes to support leaders, like Hillary Clinton, who will help us protect one another so that this club of heartbroken mothers stops growing.” 

Sybrina Fulton, the mother of Trayvon Martin, called herself “an unwilling participant in this movement,” noting that she “would not have signed up for this, [nor would] any other mother that’s standing here with me today.” 

“But I am here today for my son, Trayvon Martin, who is in heaven, and … his brother, Jahvaris Fulton, who is still here on Earth,” Fulton said. “I did not want this spotlight. But I will do everything I can to focus some of this light on the pain of a path out of the darkness.”

What Else We’re Reading

Renee Bracey Sherman explained in Glamour why Democratic vice presidential nominee Tim Kaine’s position on abortion scares her.

NARAL’s Ilyse Hogue told Cosmopolitan why she shared her abortion story on stage at the DNC.

Lilly Workneh, the Huffington Post’s Black Voices senior editor, explained how the DNC was “powered by a bevy of remarkable black women.”

Rebecca Traister wrote about how Clinton’s historic nomination puts the Democratic nominee “one step closer to making the impossible possible.”

Rewire attended a Democrats for Life of America event while in Philadelphia for the convention and fact-checked the group’s executive director.

A woman may have finally clinched the nomination for a major political party, but Judith Warner in Politico Magazine took on whether the “glass ceiling” has really been cracked for women in politics.

With Clinton’s nomination, “Dozens of other women across the country, in interviews at their offices or alongside their children, also said they felt on the cusp of a major, collective step forward,” reported Jodi Kantor for the New York Times.

According to, Philadelphia’s Maternity Care Coalition staffed “eight curtained breast-feeding stalls on site [at the DNC], complete with comfy chairs, side tables, and electrical outlets.” Republicans reportedly offered similar accommodations at their convention the week before.