Former Surgeon General Dr. Joycelyn Elders Still Wants to Talk About Sex

America has made progress over the last twenty years, but honesty still isn’t our policy.
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America has made progress over the last twenty years, but honesty still isn’t our policy.
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Twenty years ago, Dr. Joycelyn Elders lost her job (Surgeon General) for entertaining the idea that sex educators could talk to teens about masturbation. Her boss (Bill Clinton) thought she’d taken the whole honesty about sex thing one step too far and showed her the door. But she’s not bitter about it - doesn’t seem to be anyway. She laughs off the public shaming that followed and the idea that it would change her views or diminish her desire to speak out on health issues. 

“I haven’t changed a bit,” she says.

Here’s what that means: Dr. Elders remains committed to the idea of a public dialogue about sex and committed to being part of it. She still thinks abstinence-only education doesn’t work and that Americans need to start thinking of sex as good for us. Intercourse is not, she’s quick to point out, a health crisis. It’s good stuff so long as we’re making smart decisions. The same – by the way – goes for marijuana.

Maxim talked to Dr. Elders about the progress America has made in talking about sexual health and how far we have to go.

You were relieved of your position at Surgeon General in 1994 for saying masturbation should be a subject in sex ed. That’s pretty wild. Do you think the public discourse around sex has gotten more reasonable and intelligent over the last twenty years?

We’ve come a very long way. We’ve learned a lot and our young people have learned a lot. The internet has taught us a lot, but we still don’t publicly talk about sex in regards to pleasure and in regards to it being an important part of life.

That said, we still wait for young people to make bad decision then criticize them. I’d like to start sex ed earlier and stop the criticism. The fact is that younger people are doing better than older people. They’re more likely to talk to their partners about health issues and use condoms. The place we’re seeing HIV and STD rates actually go up is in people over 50.

You just said that you think the internet is helping, which runs counter to a lot of concerns about information overload and, well, pornography. 

I think it can be helpful and it can be harmful, but, when young people use the internet, it helps get rid of some of the myths. The hope is to promote honesty, education, and empowerment and that young people get more information, accurate information.

Presumably, there is still a lot of inaccurate information circulating out there.

A lot of the myths are still out there. We see more disease and more pregnancy among people who aren’t educated, live in poverty – people who don’t have the internet. And we don’t treat these people well. You know how many hours doctors spend learning about sex in medical school? Five. We’re not teaching medical professionals to take sexual histories so they can’t know if their patients are having sex or what their preferences are so they can provide advice and education.

Obama’s policies have done nothing to separate political and healthcare debates. Does the continued merging of those conversations worry you?

I support the Affordable Care Act because it’s been helpful to millions of people, but we still need to focus on preventive care, keeping people healthy. And sex is healthy. Let’s talk about it.

You want to inoculate people with education.

I wish I said that.

I think you’ve made the point more than once. One of the other things you’ve been talking about over the years is drugs. Do you support the legalization of pot?

I started out supporting medical marijuana because it has real medical benefits, but now I support legalization. The reason is that having it be illegal has grown our jail system and hurt a lot of people, particularly young black men, and because, medically, I think it’s less dangerous than cigarettes. Don’t smoke cigarettes.

You see what’s happening in Colorado and Washington as a good thing.

I’d like to see it in more states. If I go out drinking a bunch of whiskey, I get crazy and hit someone with a car. That’s not how people react to marijuana. They get quiet and mellow. Marijuana has never killed anyone. No one has ever overdosed. I’m against legalizing cocaine and heroin, but those are very different.

Your son spent time behind bars. Does your support come from your personal or medical experience?

It comes from being a doctor and being a mother. My son is doing well and has been drug free for 15 years. I’m very proud.

I think more people are talking about legalization, but politicians feel they can’t be out there supporting it because the country isn’t there yet. We just need to look at the scientific facts that get buried in the politics.

It’s a bit off topic, but I’m curious what you think about doctors with TV shows. They seem to be an integral part of the public discussion now and to have a leeway that, let’s say Surgeon Generals, haven’t always had.

Any time there are figures or icons out there, they’re going to say things we disagree with, but for the most part these people are educating Americans. Have they made mistakes? Sure, but I like Dr. Oz and Dr. Drew

Until we begin to educate people on taking care of their bodies – sex and drugs and alcohol – we’re not going to have a truly healthy population.

Photos by Keith Philpott / Getty Images