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.