I honestly don’t remember if I previously had ever heard the word spoken, or if I had, whether I had any notion of its meaning. What little I knew about sexuality at the time I had gleaned from reading between the lines in my family’s medical dictionary, or between the sheets, by flashlight, from a thumb-worn copy of Peyton Place that belonged to the older girl up the street, which she had gotten from the girl around the corner.
Today, as the twists and turns of life have unfolded, I am a human-sexuality educator. The world in which I work each day is light-years away from the world in which I grew up. I teach in schools, all in the private sector, where educators are encouraged, if not required, to deal forthrightly with sensitive and controversial subjects, including sexuality; for example, a middle school textbook which I have used since 1978 contains an entire chapter on the topic of masturbation.
It is now my eldest son who is the junior in college. He is the product of a much more restrictive kind of sexual education, in the public sector, and a witness to the controversies, increasingly vicious and ugly, which swirl just outside the seemingly safe periphery of my work. He called me recently one Friday night, having just heard on the radio a verbatim, bleep-free recording of the now-infamous conversation between Dr. Joycelyn Elders and her questioner at a medical conference.
There was urgency and apprehension in my son’s voice. How upset was I? How might the firing of the U.S. surgeon general and its repercussions affect me and my work? How did I feel about this escalating trend toward censorship and repression? What was I going to do?
“To tell you the truth,” I said, “I really don’t know whether to laugh or cry. As crazy as it sounds, I have the feeling it’s going to be a wonderful week.”
I was not to be disappointed.
The next morning, the Elders story was in every newspaper I was able to get my hands on; by evening, it was the lead comedy routine on “Saturday Night Live.” Sunday’s clippings were sticking every which way out of my mailbox when I arrived at school on Monday, with thoughtful notes from teachers and administrators who had saved them. By Tuesday, the newspaper editorials--conservative and liberal, pro and con, irreverent and solemn--were everywhere. A minor setback occurred midweek (no cover story in Time or Newsweek), but by the weekend, right on schedule, the best of the best of the political cartoons were being reprinted.
The “M” word was out.
I remember that I couldn’t wait to get to class that first Monday morning after the Friday before. “Hi, everybody!” I almost shouted, waiting out in the hallway and practically bursting with anticipation and unending questions. “Do you know about the Elders story? What did you hear? What have you read? What do you think? Did you have any interesting conversations about it with anyone? How about your parents? What did they think?”
We shared and compared, analyzed and argued, and the more we talked, the less we were sure that we really knew the facts.
More information, please--that’s what we needed. By Thursday, we had collected mounds of newspaper articles, opinion pieces, and snippets of TV and radio news reports.
As we considered each, interesting side topics and questions kept “distracting” us. Who is the surgeon general, anyway, and what does it mean to have a “bully pulpit”? “Condom queen"--what’s a condom queen--and, what exactly does the “C” stand for in C. Everett Koop? He was controversial, too? Why was that? What was the AIDS epidemic like (way back) in those early days? And by the way, what were those other opinions that Dr. Elders had expressed, to which the articles keep referring? Really? What is the difference between legalization and decriminalization? Is clean-needle exchange a good idea or a bad idea? And so on, and so on, and so on.
Soon enough, what really caught our notice was not the incident itself, but what was being spoken, written, and, asserted about it. Perplexity and skepticism quickly took hold: what to do about all the varying interpretations--not just about what Dr. Elders actually had meant, but even about what she actually had said. How can you know which interpretation is the “right” one, the students fretted, and how much can you believe about anything you have just read? And what about the politics and the timing of the thing. Surely, this comment wasn’t as “bad” as some of the earlier ones. Why did this happen now?
And, of course, interspersed throughout were all kinds of questions and conversations about the topic of masturbation--what it is, and why people do it; why it’s been such a taboo subject in our society; and why some people think it’s better not to talk about it in school at all. (Since we in fact were talking about it, in a school, at that very moment, we stopped to debate that point too.)
We shared laughter about the myths that people once believed about its consequences (blindness, insanity, pimples, hairy palms, and the like), and shared relief that we are all lucky enough to be living in a more enlightened age. We discussed modern medical opinion that masturbation is neither harmful nor unhealthy, and that it is normal behavior that some people choose to engage in and some do not. And, medical knowledge aside, we acknowledged respectfully that because of deeply held personal, family, or religious values, some people continue to believe that masturbation is morally wrong, or at the very least inappropriate. We agreed that parents and other trusted adults would be good people to consult if students had further questions, feelings, or concerns.
Girls and boys in one 7th-grade section were asked to pen “letters to the editor” expressing their views on some aspect of the Elders story. Wrote one outraged student: “Joycelyn Elders did not even bring up the topic. Someone else posed the question. I know she was warned by the White House to keep down the rhetoric, but everything she said was the truth. I don’t see why President Clinton fired her. She did nothing wrong.” Cool, practical reasoning moved another to say: “Mr. Clinton fired her because she went against what he said. You don’t do what the boss says not to.” Still another argued: “I do not think Joycelyn Elders is a good surgeon general. She has stated things in ways that angered other people. She has been pushing her luck too much. I am glad Mr. Clinton fired her, but the fact that she was fired for speaking about masturbation was not good.”
Having read a provocative piece in The Wall Street Journal, another student contemplated that “Dr. Elders was an African-American appointee who happened to have very strong opinions and was not afraid to express them.” Maybe Mr. Clinton did do the right thing, she allowed. “But did he have the right reasoning?”
Even Dr. Elders would not have known whether to laugh or cry. We had spent an entire week using her own story to prove the very point over which she had just lost her job--that education works.
I was excited to share the students’ good thinking and good work at a training workshop I was presenting at the time. But--lamentably--the details of the lessons were soon lost, made patently irrelevant by the reaction of the teachers present; they were absolutely incredulous about the openness my students and I are permitted, utterly stunned by the conversations I described. Constrained by policies which dictate strict adherence to extremely narrow and predetermined subject matter, they could never even have considered raising the issues, no matter how appropriate, important, or timely the teachers had determined them to be. I was sad and angry for them, and for their students--about this and so many other missed opportunities--and sorry that my elation had only contributed to their frustration.
“What about the parents?” they demanded to know. “Didn’t they call, weren’t they upset?”
“No,” I told them, feeling even more blessed. “They were the very best part.”
All week long, at the spontaneous invitation of their children (it had not been required), fathers and mothers had helped to gather information and to find articles. They had answered questions, and had discussed the issues. They had expressed honestly and openly their feelings, values, and opinions. The parents had not actually been in touch directly; the trust that we place in one another, and the partnership that we share in the education of their children, is most often simply taken for granted. But, it was easy to know how much they had been involved, because their thoughts and ideas cropped up in every conversation, and in every class.
These are parents committed to literacy of all kinds, including sexual literacy. They believe that the more often their children are provided opportunities to learn, hear, think, reason, read, communicate, share, and write about topics like sexuality, the more likely they will be to understand and manage their decisions, their relationships, and their lives in healthy, caring, and ethical ways.
To paraphrase the wise African proverb, they are also parents who believe that it takes a whole community to raise a sexually healthy child. And that it especially takes families and schools working together.
I called my son at college to report that it had been a very good week, indeed.
A version of this article appeared in the February 08, 1995 edition of Education Week as Using the News--and the ‘M’ Word