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The Answer Blog

The M-Word: Past and Present

I know that Leon Panetta is a fine public servant and that he’ll do an excellent job as director of the C.I.A. in the Obama administration. However, when I first heard of his nomination, my thoughts reverted to another moment: The December night in 1994 when, as former President Clinton’s Chief of Staff, Panetta called Dr. Joycelyn Elders to fire her from her post as Surgeon General of the United States. Why? Because she had used the M word. Since this is a blog for sex educators, I will use the correct word: masturbation. (Dr. Elders actually rebuffed Panetta’s attempt to fire her; insisting that the President call her himself.)

There wasn’t much video around at the time to show you the moment Dr. Elders used the M word, so let me set the scene: She was answering reporters’ questions at a United Nations conference on AIDS. A reporter asked her if she thought it would be “appropriate to promote masturbation as a means of preventing young people from engaging in riskier forms of sexual activity.” She replied: “I think that it is part of human sexuality, and perhaps it should be taught.”

Dr. Elders was not promoting a national policy. She was responding to a member of the press. She used qualifiers like “I think” and “perhaps” in her measured response. But those fateful words got her into big trouble with the White House. About the firing, Panetta said, “There have been too many areas where the President does not agree with her views. This is just one too many.” Dr. Elders went home to Arkansas.

Dr. Elders holds a medical degree in pediatric endocrinology and is an expert on childhood sexual development. As Governor of Arkansas, Bill Clinton appointed her director of the Arkansas Department of Health and, as President in 1993, he appointed her United States Surgeon General. She was the first African-American to hold the prestigious position.

Her frankness got her into trouble almost from the get-go. Before the masturbation controversy, she argued for the distribution of contraceptives in schools.

Fourteen years later, I wonder if teachers and public figures can talk about masturbation with any more confidence and without fear of reprisal. I wonder how many teachers use the actual word and how many school boards would back them up should a parent object. Even more importantly, I wonder how the recently designated Surgeon General, Dr. Sanjay Gupta, a neurosurgeon and CNN’s chief health correspondent, would respond if a reporter asked him the question that was put to Dr. Elders. How would the Obama administration react if the new Surgeon General gave an impromptu answer similar to hers?

To find answers to some of these questions, I asked Nora Gelperin, M.Ed., our director of training and Education here at Answer, for her thoughts on teaching about masturbation in the classroom. She responded in an e-mail:

“People are really afraid of talking about masturbation in schools because it doesn’t have any reproductive impact. It’s purely about normal sexual desire and pleasure—two topics that scare the pants off most schools for some reason. It’s much easier to talk about the ills of early teen sex or the perils of teen pregnancy and STDs, but we stop ourselves before we can talk about masturbation, which is a healthy, common way to help teens manage their sexual feelings.”

We haven’t come very far since Dr. Elders fell on her sword to help young people prevent unplanned pregnancy or contract HIV and other STDs. This makes me sad.

To try to equal Dr. Elders’ courage, I shall e-mail the new Surgeon General, after he has time to get his feet wet, to ask him for his views on teaching about masturbation in sexuality education classes. I’ll let you know if he replies. We can only hope that this new administration—headed by a 47-year-old who understands the scourge of HIV and high teen-pregnancy rates—may be more comfortable and courageous about using proper sexual language and teaching important topics to help young people.

We can only hope.

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