Remember That Time Bill Clinton Fired His Surgeon General for Encouraging Masturbation Education?

Joycelyn Elders served as surgeon general of the United States from 1993 until her firing in late 1994. Sticky: A (Self) Love Story

A new documentary explores the history and enduring taboo of masturbation—including the curious case of Joycelyn Elders, the surgeon general whose tenure came to an abrupt end after she suggested that masturbation should be taught in schools.

Appointed by President Bill Clinton in 1993, Dr. Elders became the first African-American to serve as surgeon general of the United States. Her outspoken views soon began to outrage the religious right. On the subject of reproductive rights, Elders encouraged Americans to "get over this love affair with the fetus." She suggested studying the idea of drug legalization two decades before it entered the political mainstream. And as Newsweek reported in 1994, she favored handing out condoms to public-school children, inspiring Rush Limbaugh to nickname her the "Condom Queen."

These statements sparked controversy and the occasional rebuke from the Clinton administration, but suggesting schools should encourage kids to jerk off was the final straw. At a 1994 United Nations conference on AIDS, Elders was asked if she thought teaching children about masturbation might reduce unsafe sex. Yes, she replied, "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." The conservative outrage circuit erupted, and Clinton promptly asked her to resign.

In Sticky: A (Self) Love Story, a new documentary that takes the revolutionary stance that touching yourself is not a cause for moral repulsion, Elders defends her position. "I felt it would reduce unintended pregnancy and reduce disease," she says. (She was saying that schoolchildren should learn that masturbation is natural and common—not that they should be taught how to do it, she later clarified.)

Joycelyn Elders, pictured in her official portrait. National Institutes of Health/Public Domain

Sticky director Nicholas Tana latches on to Elders's story as a core example of America's weird, enduring taboo surrounding masturbation. The film entertainingly chronicles the recent history of this discomfort, from an Alabama law banning the sale of sex toys to the more recent suicide of a 14-year-old boy allegedly videotaped masturbating in a school bathroom. Along the way are colorful interviews with pro-wanking celebrities like comedian Janeane Garofalo, Circle Jerks frontman Keith Morris and the owner of a San Francisco sex shop that declared National Masturbation Month in honor of Elders.

"The tragic firing of Dr. Joycelyn Elders helped inspire the making of this movie," Tana says via email. "As a modern nation, we still suffer from more teenage pregnancies and STDs than most any other modern nation in the world."

He adds: "For this she was fired by the same president who felt it appropriate to insert a cigar into his intern Monica Lewinsky's vagina! I would be willing to bet proper sex education would have more appropriately prepared Bill Clinton for his position of power. Now Bill Clinton is campaigning next to Hillary and I'm appalled. I wonder what Hillary Clinton would say about it today?"

Clinton's presidential campaign did not respond to a Newsweek email inquiring about her position on teaching masturbation in schools. In 1994, Republican congressmen applauded Elders's dismissal, and Bill Clinton said that though he "held her in the highest esteem…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 remains proud of her brief and turbulent tenure on the national stage.

"We in America can't talk about sex," she says. "We can do it. But we can't talk about it."