Sex education is a sensitive subject. But during nine years at the prestigious Dalton School on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, seven of which she spent as the director of health and wellness, Justine Ang Fonte seemed to be handling it with success.
She developed curriculums for students from kindergarten through 12th grade; hired three other health educators; and organized documentary viewings, discussions and workshops for parents. She also was a regular speaker at educational forums, like the National Association of Independent Schools’s People of Color Conference, and offered workshops and presentations at other New York City schools.
One of these was Columbia Grammar and Preparatory School on the Upper West Side, which in May invited her to teach two Zoom sessions, on pornography literacy and consent, to its juniors and seniors. (Bill Donohue, the head of school there, said, “there may have been confusion on our part about which course we would receive. We understood the course would be under the topic of ‘Healthy Sexuality Workshop.’”)
A couple of parents complained afterward, Ms. Fonte was told, but there had been about 120 students, many of whom gave her great feedback, so she didn’t dwell on it.
About a week later, she woke up to find herself featured in The New York Post: “Students and parents reel after class on ‘porn literacy,’” said the headline. That story was followed by another soon after: “Dalton parents enraged over ‘masturbation’ videos for first graders.” The articles included screen shots from Ms. Fonte’s lessons, a possibility in the Zoom-classroom world.
Versions of the articles appeared in The Sun, The Daily Mail and on Fox News.
Feeling that she lacked support from Dalton, whose headmaster recently said that he is stepping down after conflicts over diversity programs, Ms. Fonte resigned in early June.
In a statement, a representative for Dalton said that Ms. Fonte “helped to develop an exemplary K-12 health and wellness program” and that her work should not be “overshadowed by unwarranted misinformation and hateful rhetoric.”
Multiple sex educators interviewed for this article said there was nothing inappropriate about her classes there or at Columbia. All of it was in line with current National Sex Education Standards and the World Health Organization’s International Technical Guidance on Sexuality Education.
The national standards are also used in public schools in New York City, where students in grades 6 through 12 take lessons on sexuality as part of their health education. Parents can opt out of certain aspects of the program.
The material for her first-grade class never used the term “masturbation,” Ms. Fonte said recently. The lesson was about private parts being private and included a cartoon in which two characters use anatomically correct names for their genitals and say that sometimes it feels good to touch them. “It’s OK to touch yourself and see how different body parts feel, but it’s best to only do it in private,” the narrator tells viewers.
The W.H.O. guidelines state that between the ages of 5 and 8, children should learn to “identify the critical parts of the internal and external genitals and describe their basic function” and “recognize that being curious about one’s body, including the genitals, is completely normal.”
“I equip them with a way that they can exercise body agency and consent, by knowing exactly what those parts are, what they are called, and how to take care of them,” Ms. Fonte said. “That was paired with lessons around, what are the different ways to say ‘no’? And what’s the difference between a secret and a surprise? And why you should never have a secret between a grown-up and you. Because it’s never your responsibility as a child to hold a secret or information of a grown-up.”
Jennie Noll, a professor of human development and family studies at Penn State, is the principal investigator of the Safe and Healthy Communities Initiative in Pennsylvania. As part of the initiative, more than 14,000 second graders have been taught the names for their body parts and about healthy boundaries. “They learn what is safe, how to get help, and that it’s not their fault,” Dr. Noll said.
The work the initiative does is focused strictly on safety. “I don’t say, ‘You can touch yourself,’” Dr. Noll said. “I don’t know that kids need to be told that it’s OK to masturbate. But I don’t think kids need to be told that it’s not OK.”
Jennifer S. Hirsch is a professor of sociomedical sciences at Columbia Mailman School of Public Health and an author of “Sexual Citizens: A Landmark Study of Sex, Power and Assault on Campus,” a book that argues that campus sexual assault is a predictable outcome of several factors, including inadequate pre-college sexuality education. Ms. Fonte worked with Dr. Hirsch while completing her master’s degree in public health.
“First graders need to be taught that other people don’t have a right to touch their bodies,” Dr. Hirsch said. “And just as importantly, they don’t have a right to touch other people’s bodies. How many politicians have we seen in the news who never got that lesson?”
Ritch C. Savin-Williams, a professor emeritus of developmental psychology at Cornell University, said that Ms. Fonte’s lessons filled a necessary niche, but expressed concern “that parents were not part of the process of deciding what needs or should be taught.”
Though classes on literacy in sexually explicit media are not mainstream, many sex educators support them. Parents, policymakers, public officials and health experts have all expressed concern over the unrealistic expectations set by pornography and by the fact that it is a primary source of sex education for many young people.
And while parents may not want to believe that their teenagers are viewing pornography, many of them probably are, on purpose or by accident. A national survey found that the average age of first exposure to pornography was just under 14 for males and just under 18 for females.
Pornography literacy classes teach students how to critically assess what they see on the screen — for example, how to recognize what is realistic and what is not, how to deconstruct implicit gender roles, and how to identify what types of behavior could be a health or safety risk.
Al Vernacchio has worked as the sexuality education coordinator at Friends’ Central School in Wynnewood, Pa., for 24 years. Messaging about sexuality comes from television, from Instagram and TikTok, from OnlyFans, from YouTube, from advertisements, he said.
“Young people need to have the ability to critically examine those messages and to think about their own values and to make decisions about which of those messages they feel are really beneficial and which they want to question,” he said.
In its guidelines, W.H.O. has a section that describes the skills that young adults should acquire in regards to internet and social media use. For example, from 15 years old and onward, teenagers should be able to “acknowledge that sexually explicit media can reinforce harmful gender stereotypes and can normalize violent or non-consensual behavior.”
Debby Herbenick, a professor at the Indiana University School of Public Health, wrote in an email that “we cannot wait until adulthood to talk with young people about what they and their friends and sexual partners are already seeing, whether in pornography or on TikTok, where videos about choking and a whole range of rough sex behaviors are already prevalent.”
A new kind of sex education
Though Ms. Fonte’s experience may make it seem otherwise, sex education has come a long way since 1994, when Joycelyn Elders was forced to retire from her post as U.S. Surgeon General after she said that masturbation “is part of human sexuality and perhaps should be taught.”
While walking around the West Village recently, Ms. Fonte recalled her earliest memory of sex education, in fifth grade at a Catholic school in Cupertino, Calif., where her parents had immigrated from the Philippines. The boys and girls were divided into two groups to learn about puberty. When the teacher offered an opportunity to pose anonymous questions, a classmate of Ms. Fonte asked something along the lines of: If boys have erections, what do girls have?
“The teacher said periods,” Ms. Fonte said.
Her mother was a doctor who took her to the Philippines annually on medical missions. In high school, Ms. Fonte worked as a peer sex educator and interned at a drug rehabilitation program for teenagers. In her school planner, she used shorthand to identify where she had to be and when. “‘Drugs and sex, 7 p.m. to 8 p.m.,’” she said.
Was she always comfortable speaking about things that made others squirm and blush? “I think I was probably above average at conversational skills to begin with,” Ms. Fonte said. “I was that kid that ran for class president every year. I was always giving speeches.”
She went on to get two master’s degrees. The first was in education, from the University of Hawaii, and the second was in public health, from Columbia University in New York City, where she plans to remain, despite the recent contretemps.
Ms. Fonte is not an urban outlier. Across the country, priorities around sex education have expanded beyond the prevention of teen pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections to include unhealthy relationships, body positivity, sexual orientation, reproductive justice and gender identity.
National sex education standards issued since 2012 by professionals in the field have called for sex education to be L.G.B.T.Q. inclusive, to be offered from kindergarten through 12th grade, and to be “trauma-informed, culturally inclusive, sex positive, and grounded in social justice and equity.”
Teaching consent from an early age is crucial, today’s sex education experts argue. And in the wake of the #MeToo movement, more and more people agree, said Nora Gelperin, the director of sexuality education and training at Advocates for Youth, one of the organizations responsible for drafting the national sex education standards.
Twenty-four states and the District of Columbia now require sex education courses to include information on asserting personal boundaries and refusing unwanted sexual advances, and 37 states and D.C. require educators to cover teen dating violence and sexual violence, according to The Guttmacher Institute, an organization that researches sexual and reproductive health.
The thinking is that sex education that informs younger people how to be intimate, respectful, and self-aware can prevent some kinds of sexual assault.
Sex educators compare it to teaching math, or English, or even driver’s ed. “We don’t let the kids grab the keys when they’re drunk, turn our backs and say, ‘Gee, I hope it all works out,’” Dr. Hirsch said. “We put a lot of effort into teaching young people to drive in a way that doesn’t hurt themselves or other people. Sex education does that same work but related to sex. It prepares young people to emerge into young adulthood.”
Even Texas, a state long associated with abstinence-only education at the middle-school level, committed last November to begin teaching students about other birth control methods, beginning next year.
Melissa Pintor Carnagey is the founder of Sex Positive Families, an organization in Austin that offers sex education workshops and coaching. “There’s a majority that wants sexuality education for their young people to be representative of the diversity of humans, wants it to be consent conscious, and wants it to acknowledge young people’s rights to have this information,” she said.
Ms. Pintor Carnagey pointed to her organization’s Instagram following of more than 250,000. “There are tons of parents who want this kind of education,” she said.
But there are still plenty of parents who do not. Twenty-eight states require that abstinence be stressed in sex education classes, and six states require that only negative information be provided on homosexuality, according to the Guttmacher Institute.
Several states have recently made efforts to increase “parental rights” in sex education classes. For example, state lawmakers in Arizona tried to prevent students from learning about sexuality, gender identity and H.I.V./AIDS without an opt in from parents (on top of the opt-in that is already required from parents for their children to take sex education classes in the first place).
‘It cost me my safety’
The Post’s parent and student sources were anonymous, and it is unclear how many people directly connected to Columbia Grammar and Preparatory School and the Dalton School complained to administrators about Ms. Fonte.
But the complaints, however few or many they were, appear to be part of a broader clash in education.
The Post linked one of its sources to an Instagram account called @SpeakUpCGPS, which was created in May and has more than 100 posts targeting “diversity, equity and inclusion” and critical race theory. Earlier this month, the account’s Instagram bio included a link to a petition for parents, students, donors, trustees, alumni, faculty and staff at the school.
The petition complains about “programming that uses the oppressor-oppressed narrative and that employs collective guilt to shame white students.” It claims that employees of Columbia Grammar and Preparatory School are laying the “groundwork” for “a race-focused ideology.” As evidence, the petition points to anti-racist statements posted in classrooms, as well as the creation of an Equity Day and affinity groups.
Though Ms. Fonte is not referred to by name, the petition cites “the presentation of unorthodox sexual identity and sex education classes” as evidence of the school’s demise.
The @SpeakUpCGPS Instagram account appears to be one example of a broader culture war over how and whether racism should be taught in schools and universities.
In another example, in June, trucks plastered with billboards circled several private schools in New York City, including Dalton, where Ms. Fonte was still employed at the time, carrying statements like: “Diversity Not Indoctrination” and “Woke School? Speak Out.”
The group that claimed responsibility for the mobile protest is Prep School Accountability, which on its website says it is made up of “concerned parents.” Behind the group is the Center for Organizational Research and Education, a nonprofit led by Richard Berman, who in the past has led campaigns against the Humane Society and Mothers Against Drunk Driving.
On its website, the Center for Organizational Research and Education lists several other areas of pursuit, including “Uncovering the Truth About Big Green’s Agenda” and “Fighting Radical Activists One Fact at a Time.”
In an email statement, Mr. Berman said that the parents involved with Prep School Accountability “chose not to be identified right now for fear of retaliation or being ‘canceled.’”
Though Ms. Fonte weathered the recent attacks on her reputation, violent threats in her inbox and the experience of being doxxed, she expressed disappointment with Columbia Grammar and Preparatory School and the Dalton School for not supporting her publicly.
“I wanted to believe that Columbia Prep was a school that was ready to take on these issues in an educational, intellectual way and at least one person at that school trusted that I could do it,” she said. “And I did. But they weren’t ready to back it up, and it cost me my safety.”
Ms. Fonte is planning to write children’s books about inclusivity, produce podcasts, give talks in and outside of school settings and consult for TV shows. Doing what she does — teaching — but through other media, she hopes, will help her spread her message far beyond the Upper East Side.
“We think, condom on a banana, and that’s enough, and then we’re confused as to why there’s a consent problem,” Ms. Fonte said. “We’re still teaching the golden rule and we should be teaching the platinum rule: to treat others the way they want to be treated.”
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