Former Surgeon General Dr. Joycelyn Elders Combats Our Sex-Shaming Culture

I’m not lying when I say I’m excited to introduce every week’s guest on Unscrewed. It’s always a joy, if a fraught, white-knuckle-making experience, given how our society is mired down — like a filthy barnacled ship — with sex-based shame. It’s a wonder to me that we move forward at all, much less float sometimes.

But like a mud-loving sow, I enjoy wrestling with those problems on the podcast; it’s part of the joy. (Apparently, it also has me trotting out good-bad metaphors like my 4th grade English teacher.)

This week, it is not only my joy, but my venerable honor to introduce Dr. Joycelyn Elders — the former Surgeon General and the very first Black American to ever hold the position, who’s been on the front lines of sexual education and reproductive rights for more than 50 years.

In 1994, while serving as Surgeon General, Elders was speaking at an AIDS conference at the UN and was asked whether masturbation should be encouraged as an alternative to “riskier” sexual behaviors. She answered, “I think that 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.”

In short? The world — namely the right-wing and The White House — had a collective meltdown and forced her to resign. Elders’ head was already in the red-hot cross-hairs of Republicans who had been bellowing and bristling at her outspoken views on distributing contraception in public schools — imagine that! — as well as on abortion and legalizing marijuana. And her tune hasn’t changed. She tells Unscrewed host Jaclyn Friedman:

“Politicians need to get out of the reproductive health arena and spend their time worrying about how to protect our young people, how we protect our country from STDs, and how we make sure that our young people are healthy, dedicated, motivated, and have hope for the future. We need to provide honest information — educate and empower them. We need to make sure they have the resources to protect themselves.”

Basically Elders was from the future — touting nothing all the right answers and indisputable medical advice — but our lesser, ignorant brains couldn’t handle it, so we succumbed to our own fear of the Truth and banished a progressive badass back to Arkansas . . .

. . . Where she continued to fight the good fight, and still does as a professor of pediatrics and as a fervent advocate against abstinence-only sex education and teenage pregnancy.

Her dedication to revolutionizing an entire nation’s attitudes on sex, systematically dismantling more than 200 years of internalized shame, broken systems, and sanctioned illiteracy surrounding the human body, is more than enough reason to admire her greatly, but she’s also charming, funny, and chock full of candor.

She’s a hero. And she’s about to rescue you from the doldrums of your life. Dr. Elders is living proof that fundamental change can happen — for example, we’ve lowered teenage pregnancy by 50% since 1990, thanks in huge part to her doggedness.

Listen to her wisdom below.


Full new episodes of Unscrewed go live every other Tuesday, with quickiesodes boasting outtakes, advice for listeners who send in their sex/uality questions, and other delectable tidbits airing in between.

Have burning quandaries of your own? Tweet @jaclynf (use #Unscrewed) or drop her a line at And yes! You can even use your handy-dandy smartphone, personal computer, or laptop and record yourself asking your question; she may just include it in the next episode.


Lead image: Wikimedia Commons

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