The campaign to fund the nation’s second academic chair in sexual health was almost as lively as the woman after whom the chair was named: controversial former U.S. Surgeon General Joycelyn Elders.
University of Minnesota leaders launched fundraising in 2007, at the start of a recession, and found themselves traveling with Elders to living rooms across the country to scrape up $2 million for the endowment.
Support came from atypical sources, including the sex toy company Adam & Eve.
“Took us a few years,” said Eli Coleman, director of the U’s Program in Human Sexuality, “but we did it.”
Now the chair is funded to carry on Elders’ mission of opening up talk about sexuality in the United States. Appointed to the chair is Michael Ross, a researcher creating curriculum to educate medical students and physicians about discussing sex.
In an event this month with three other former surgeons general, Elders said inhibitions about discussing sex prevent communication with young people that could help them make good decisions and avoid consequences such as sexually transmitted infections.
“You know, we want to do it, but we can’t talk about it,” she said. “We can’t talk about it in school, we can’t talk about it at church, we don’t talk about it with parents. Even married couples don’t talk about sex with each other.”
Discussing sexual health has been an occupational hazard for many surgeons general, but Elders’ firing by President Bill Clinton in 1994 was memorable.
The administration uneasily tolerated her statements favoring condom distribution in schools, but removed her after a United Nations event on AIDS at which she said she’d be open to discussion about promoting masturbation as a means to prevent young people from engaging in riskier sexual practices.
Time hasn’t diminished the advocacy of Elders, 81, who served her medical internship at the U.
Inadequate sex ed leaves young people at risk for teenage pregnancies and other problems that can doom them to poverty, Elders said. “Denying them the opportunity for this education, I consider that child abuse.”