Wisdom Watch: Dr. Joycelyn Elders

This week's Wisdom Watch segment features Dr. Joycelyn Elders, the first African-American United States Surgeon General. The medical pioneer talks about the state of the nation's health and reflects on her time as America's chief health educator.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

Every so often, you want to talk over an issue with people who aren't just smart, but wise. So we came up with Wisdom Watch, where we ask some of our most-respected elders to guide us through some of today's most challenging and important issues.

Today, we're joined by Doctor Joycelyn Elders. She was the first African-American and the second woman to be appointed U.S. Surgeon General. In her 15 months in the post, Dr. Elders earned a reputation for speaking her mind on many issues, including distributing condoms in schools. She is currently a professor of pediatrics at the University of Arkansas Medical Center. She joins us from KARN in Little Rock, Arkansas. Welcome.

Dr. JOYCELYN ELDERS (Former U.S. Surgeon General; Professor of Pediatrics, University of Arkansas Medical Center): It's a pleasure to be here. Thanks for having me.

MARTIN: During your time as surgeon general, you were known for talking about, you know, taboo issues like masturbation and abortion...

Dr. ELDERS: Yeah.

MARTIN: ...and, you know, since then you've been continuing to talk about these issues. Do you think that anything's changed since you left in the willingness of the public at large to have these difficult conversations about sex and sexuality?

Dr. ELDERS: You know, we've come a very long way from when I first start talking about it. And I tell people all the time, you know, we have known about masturbation forever. We didn't talk about it because we were silent. We've been silent about sexuality issues and the fact that we could talk about masturbation as a form of sexual pleasure. You know, sex is for pleasure, 99.9 percent. I said that to a group the other day, and they said no, Dr. Elders, you didn't add enough nines onto that. It's for the pleasure, but, you know, very little of sex is really just for procreation only.

MARTIN: What were you taught about sex and sexuality as a young girl or a woman, and what do you wish you'd been taught?

Dr. ELDERS: I can say that I was taught not nearly enough. You have to remember I was born back in the '30s, when everybody was silent. And my mom probably taught me what she knew, but she didn't know anything. You know, we -as parents - haven't been taught, so we can't teach - the reason we don't teach our children more is because we don't know any more, and we're fearful. You know, they taught you, don't do it. You know, we act like abstinence is something that just came up. We've been teaching abstinence for a thousand years, and what do we have?

The highest teenage pregnancy rate in the industrialized world. We have a lot of adolescents - 50 percent of the HIV and sexually transmitted diseases are in our adolescents - these children that we swear do not have sex. And the fact that we would act like we've never heard of masturbation, when 90 percent of men masturbate, 70-plus percent of women masturbate, and it's felt that the rest lie. You know, masturbation has never gotten anybody pregnant, never made anybody go blind, never caused anybody to have a sexually transmitted disease, never caused anybody to go crazy. And I always say, you know you're having sex with somebody you love.

MARTIN: Okay. You're saying, though, that you're - on the one hand, you say that people don't know anything. But it seems to me in a way that there's more sex being discussed than ever before. It's part of the culture. It's part of advertising. It's part of, you know, daytime television. It seems like we're sort of immersed in sex.

Dr. ELDERS: Absolutely.

MARTIN: You still think that we don't know anything?

Dr. ELDERS: We use sex to sell everything from toothpaste to houses. And yet we don't feel we want to educate our children about sex. And we don't have sexual health. We talk about sexual disease, and we talk about, you know, let's - oh, just hush, hush. Keep it quiet.

MARTIN: What do you say, though, to parents who say that they just - for reasons of their own values - want to impart to their children a view about when and how it's appropriate to have sex, that they feel that sex should be restricted to marriage? I mean, those are legitimate values, aren't they?

Dr. ELDERS: Yes.

MARTIN: And why shouldn't parents be - I guess what I'm asking you is that is it impossible to have a conservative view of sexuality and still teach kids what they need to know about the mechanics and about everything that they need to know to stay healthy? Can you do both? Can't you do both?

Dr. ELDERS: Absolutely. You can do both. I feel that parents should educate their children about their sexuality and teach them the things they want them to know. But so often, what they're taught is what I was taught - to just say no. We have been taught abstinence only. We've been taught nothing about protection from diseases or anything. We've been taught nothing about contraception. And, you know, we say well, if we tell them about it, they'll do it. Well, if you've got the highest rates in the world, that says you're already doing it.

MARTIN: There's a new book out called "Unhooked" that's gotten a lot of attention. I don't know if you've seen it. It suggests that a lot of the sexual freedom that a lot of young women take for granted is causing them to become as callous about relationships as men have been thought to be over the years. And they suggest that we are - we, you know, we are teaching our kids about sex, but we're not necessarily teaching them about how to have healthy relationships. And I wonder, so, you know, you work with young people. Do you think that there some truth to that or not?

Dr. ELDERS: I think that we need to teach both our boys and our girls about sexual health. We need to teach them both to be compassionate and to respect each other and to protect each other. You know, it's not fair for all the burden to be pushed off on our women or the men, and I think women should really get involved in taking control of their bodies. If you can't control your bodies and your reproduction, you can't control your life.

MARTIN: Dr. Elders, in the last couple of minutes, we've talked today about how you feel about Americans have become more open about discussing important issues of sexual health over the years. But is there one thing that you think most Americans are still ignorant about, that you feel - that you would wish that we'd become more educated about in the sexual health realm?

Dr. ELDERS: I think that we need to look at health - sexual health - as a part of our overall health, and I don't feel that you can really be healthy unless you are sexually healthy. And I truly feel that we need to start educating our children about sex from kindergarten through 12th grade, so that they can respect their sexuality and protect their sexuality so that they can be - have sexual health throughout their lives. Other countries do it. Why do we have to have the highest teenage pregnancy, highest rates of STDs, the highest rates of HIV in our adolescents? It's because we feel that ignorance is bliss, and it's not bliss. We got to educate our young people.

MARTIN: Dr. Elders, maybe you'll come out of your shell one day, who knows?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Dr. ELDERS: Never can tell.

MARTIN: Okay, Doctor Joycelyn Elders. She was the first African-American and the second woman to be appointed U.S. Surgeon General. She's currently a professor of pediatrics at the University of Arkansas Medical Center, and she joined us from KARN in Arkansas. Doctor Elders, thank you so much for joining us.

Dr. ELDERS: A pleasure. Thanks for having me.

(Soundbite of music)

MARTIN: And that's our program for today. Remember, the conversation continues online on our blog at npr.org/tellmemore. I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

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