The Legend Who Put Her Career on the Line for Sexual Health
Let it be known that May is National Masturbation Month (even Rihanna confirms it, okay?). For observers and non-observers alike, the story behind this month deserves some serious recognition. It’s a reminder of the enduring taboos that we associate with masturbation, highlighting consequences of advocating for sexual freedom and reproductive rights.
The story begins with Dr. Joycelyn Elders, who was the first African-American surgeon general of the U.S. Dr. Elders spent six years running the Arkansas Department of Health before being appointed as US surgeon general by President Bill Clinton in 1993. To sum it all up, Dr. Elders was an absolute boss. To name a few of her accomplishments, she successfully reduced teen pregnancy and expanded availability of HIV services across the U.S.
Despite her major accomplishments in public health and medicine, Dr. Elders became notorious for her “outspoken views about drugs and sexuality.”
It was pretty simple: Dr. Elders thought that we needed to improve sexual education as a whole, and she was going to do something about it. She advocated for contraceptive distribution in public schools and believed in a woman's right to choose. Her concern for sexual health at the time mirrors today's comprehensive sex ed initiatives and more generally, the changing attitudes towards sexuality that characterize an increasingly sex positive generation. What would be considered a sound, harm reduction-focused outlook on sexual health today was an abomination to conservatives on Capitol Hill and elsewhere in the early ’90s.
The country proved it wasn't ready for Dr. Elders when she was forced to resign after making the following statement at a 1994 UN Conference on AIDS: "I think that [masturbation] is something that is a part of human sexuality and it's a part of something that perhaps should be taught. But we've not even taught our children the very basics."
Luckily, Dr. Elders had (and still has) some fans that were inspired by her statements. In response to the firing, the founders of Good Vibrations sought to continue the conversation she started around masturbation and sexual well-being. In 1995, they declared May National Masturbation Month.
Every year since, more and more people have jumped on the bandwagon in celebration of a month dedicated to flickin' the bean. Thanks, Dr. Joycelyn Elders. Thanks for giving us permission.
Related reading: What Does Great Sex Ed Look Like?
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