A new documentary explores the history and enduring taboo of masturbation, including the curious case of Joycelyn Elders, the surgeon general whose tenure ended abruptly after she suggested masturbation should be taught in schools.
appointed by president bill clinton in 1993, dr. Elders became the first African American to serve as the Surgeon General of the United States. His outspoken views soon began to outrage the religious right. On the issue of reproductive rights, the elders encouraged Americans to “get over this love affair with the fetus.” he suggested studying the idea of drug legalization two decades before he entered the political mainstream. And, as Newsweek reported in 1994, he preferred handing out condoms to public school kids, inspiring Rush Limbaugh to dub her “the Queen of Condoms.”
These statements drew controversy and the occasional rebuke from the Clinton administration, but suggesting that schools should encourage children to masturbate was the final straw. At a 1994 United Nations AIDS conference, the elders were asked if he thought teaching children about masturbation could reduce unsafe sex. Yes, she replied, “I think it’s something that’s part of human sexuality, and it’s part of something that maybe should be taught. But we haven’t even taught our kids the basics.” the conservative outrage circuit erupted and clinton promptly called on him to resign.
in sticky: a (self) love story, a new documentary that takes the revolutionary stance that touching oneself is not a cause for moral revulsion, elders make their case. “I felt it would reduce unwanted pregnancies and disease,” she says. her (she was saying that school-age children should be taught that masturbation is natural and common, not that they should be taught how to do it, she later clarified.)
Sticky director Nicholas Tana clings to the story of the elderly as a central example of America’s strange and enduring taboo surrounding masturbation. The film entertainingly recounts the recent history of this discomfort, from an Alabama law banning the sale of sex toys to the most recent suicide of a 14-year-old boy allegedly caught on video masturbating in a school bathroom. Along the way are colorful interviews with pro-masturbation celebrities like comedian Janeane Garofalo, ringleader of the circle jerks Keith Morris, and a San Francisco sex shop owner who declared National Masturbation Month in honor of her. to the elderly.
“the tragic firing of dr. joycelyn elders helped inspire the making of this film,” says tana via email. “As a modern nation, we still suffer from more teenage pregnancies and sexually transmitted diseases than most other modern nations in the world.”
and adds: “this is why she was fired by the very president who saw fit to insert a cigar into her intern monica lewinsky’s vagina! i’d be willing to bet that proper sex ed would have prepared a more appropriate bill clinton for her position of power. now bill clinton is campaigning alongside hillary and i’m appalled. i wonder what hillary clinton would say about that today.”
Clinton’s presidential campaign did not respond to an email from Newsweek asking about its position on teaching masturbation in schools. in 1994, congressional republicans applauded the firing of the elderly, with bill clinton saying that while he “held her in the highest regard… there have been a number of things where we just have different positions.”
elders now teaches pediatrics at the university of arkansas. In an exclusive clip from the film (below), she continues to be proud of her brief and turbulent tenure on the national stage.
“We in the United States can’t talk about sex,” she says. “we can do it, but we can’t talk about it”.