DALLAS (NNPA) — Dr. M. Joycelyn Elders, The first Black surgeon general of the United States under Pres. Bill Clinton, won't keep silent about America's unhealthy relationship with sex. Speaking to a crowd of 500 people last week at a World AIDS Day luncheon held at the Hilton-Anatole Hotel in Dallas, Texas, Elders called for better sex education for children and teenagers and a more honest discussion of sexual matters.
Stating that America has a sexually unhealthy society, Elders emphasized the fact that humans are sexual beings, yet, she said we don't talk about sex enough.
"We walk around and we say, well, ignorance is bliss and we misinterpret ignorance for innocence. We've got to start educating our children," she said, introducing her "ABC" list for sexual education. "A – abstinence; B – be faithful; C – condoms, D – do other things, i.e., masturbation"
Appointed in 1993 by then President Bill Clinton, Elders was embraced throughout the country for her fresh perspective on health, medicine and equality, but her fearless truth telling and frank approach soon caused controversy.
Elders raised the ire of conservative Americans with widely published and televised statements about abortion, sexuality and drugs – all controversial issues in the 90s.
At a 1992 Arkansas state rally, Elders was quoted as saying, "We would like for the right-to-life, anti-choice groups to really get over their love affair with the fetus and start supporting the children." Promoting birth control, which included government-funded condoms and abortions, Elders stated she was more concerned with quality of life than she was in bringing children into a life of poverty, lacking medical care and facing neglect and abuse. Ironically, Elders, who grew up in poverty, without even the luxury of running water, admits to not having seen a doctor herself until she attended medical school. During her term, she also argued for the legalization of drugs, and was an advocate for gay rights.
But the last straw for the American public was oddly over an issue that might barely raise an eyebrow today. The issue was that of masturbation. During a World AIDS Day event at the United Nations, December 1994, Elders was asked if she would consider promoting masturbation. According to the US News & World Report, Elders responded by saying, ''masturbation … is something that is a part of human sexuality and a part of something that should perhaps be taught."
Apparently, America wasn't ready for Elders and the backlash from the statement moved the previously supportive Clinton to request her resignation in 1994, after only 15 months in office. She was allegedly fired for, "values contrary to the administration." Ironically, Clinton would later be impeached by the House of Representatives for perjury and obstruction of justice charges related to his sexual misconduct with Monica Lewinsky.
But the question remains, was Elders totally off-base or was she merely ahead of her time? Would Elders' recommendation about promoting condoms and teaching masturbation in public schools have stemmed the tide of this growing disease?
While researchers have made great strides in the detection and treatment of HIV/AIDS, it remains a pandemic. Today, according to a report by the Kaiser Family Foundation, there are 1.2 million people living with HIV/AIDS in America. And as of Dec. 31, 2005, there were reported to be 13,472 persons living with HIV/AIDS in the Dallas Metroplex, as reported by the U. S. Department of HUD.
Could greater sexual education have helped to reduce those numbers for what is known to be a preventable, primarily sexual disease?
While AIDS can be transmitted through intravenous drug use, it remains largely a sexual disease. In fact, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, just 23 percent of new AIDS cases reported in 2003 were attributed to injection drug use and/or sex with an injection drug user.
Before the Dallas World AIDS Day luncheon, which was hosted by AIDS Arms and nine other Ryan White-funded AIDS organizations, guests were allowed to visit the exhibit where the famous quilt dedicated to those who have lost their lives to AIDS was displayed. It is the largest ongoing community arts project in the world. In the United States more than 550,394 people died from AIDS related complications during the period of 2001 – 2005.
Elders has remained an advocate for the prevention and intervention of HIV/AIDS. Despite her termination as surgeon general, she continues to stand by her early statements, repeating many of her views during the luncheon and receiving a standing ovation following her speech.
She said the most important thing she wanted attendees to take with them was that HIV/AIDS is a disease that is still with us. There is no cure and it does not discriminate. She said 51 percent of the new diagnosis last year were people who looked like her, emphasizing that the faces of the disease has changed since the days when it was considered a largely gay White male disease.
Citing statistics of those suffering with the disease who do not have appropriate medical care, Elders said America has "absolutely the best sick care system in the world, but no health care system."
During her term as surgeon general, Elders advocated the distribution of condoms in public schools. In response to the argument that condoms break, Elders responds, "Vows of abstinence break far more often than latex condoms."
Elders still suggests that masturbation be taught in schools as part of sex education, the goal being to prevent teenage pregnancy and the spread of sexually transmitted diseases, including HIV/AIDS.
Masturbation, Elders says, is normal and healthy: "80-plus percent of women and 90 percent of men masturbate and the rest lie," she told the audience at the luncheon. In light of the HIV/AIDS scare sweeping America, she advocates masturbation as the safest form of sex — guaranteed to prevent infection.
According to statistics from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 47 percent of high school students have had sexual intercourse, — 7.4 percent before age 13. And about 5000 young people were diagnosed with HIV infection or AIDS in 2004.
African American youth are disproportionately affected by HIV infection; accounting for 55 percent of all HIV infections reported among young people under 25.
Elders said everyone can do something to stop the spread of HIV/AIDS.
"It may be reading to somebody, it may be taking them a meal or offering them a warm blanket or getting up and speaking out during difficult times. But whatever you do, make sure you do your share."
Emphasizing the need for churches to do their part in addressing the disease, she said, "We certainly [need to] educate, motivate and involve our churches. We can't allow them to continue moralizing from the pulpit and preaching to the choir.
"Our silence is becoming deadly," she told the audience. "Just saying no is not enough."
—Special to the NNPA from the Dallas Examiner