Those of you who have been reading the Sex Educator Spotlight series know that I always ask my interviewees about their sex ed superheroes. Back in the spring, Al Vernacchio gushed about the glories of Justine Ang Fonte. About a month or so later, Fonte ended up in the news when she was the target of a smear campaign from those angry about her lessons on pornography literacy and consent. Fonte was really put through the wringer there (understatement of the year), so I feel grateful that she was willing to chat with little ol’ me and to share so much of her story with you.
Let’s do this! Give me the lowdown on what brought you into the sex ed space in the first place.
I entered the sex ed space via an eighth-grade math classroom in Houston, Texas, which is where I was assigned to start teaching. I had 24 students in that class, and two were already parents and two were currently pregnant. And this is eighth grade.
It was not hard to figure out why there were so many struggling students because there were so many public health issues that were being neglected. But there was one particular student who really planted the seed for this passion.
There was a student named Maria who was absent for two out of the five weeks I was teaching this summer school program. When she returned, she told me she was really sick. I said, “What happened?”
And she said, “Well, I was bleeding a lot.”
And I was like, “Oh my god, are you okay?”
And she said, “Well, it happens every month, and it just hurts a lot.”
And I said, “Where?”
And she said, “Down there.”
I came to find out it was her period, but she didn’t know what a period was. And she had failed eighth grade at least once already, and I asked her how long this had been happening and she said since sixth grade.
And so, I told her, “There’s nothing wrong with you. This is your body becoming an adult.”
I went to the principal later on and said, “You have a 15-year-old student in the eighth grade who has not been coming to school for half the year, the last four years, because she has a period.” And I asked, “What does the health ed program look like here?”
And he said, “We don’t have any; it’s an abstinence-only state.”
And I said, “You don’t even have a biology class? You don’t have any science curriculum?” I
“It’s a slippery slope.”
And I said, “Alright. I have a week left with these students. I’m teaching sex ed the last couple of days.”
And she says, “Okay, but you can’t say the words ‘contraception,’ ‘homosexuality,’ or ‘abortion.'”
And I said, “Wow, you have that listed. I’ve got a thesaurus. Let’s go.”
It really impacted my academic and teaching experience, seeing that we need to make health ed a part of academia in schools. After doing two years of this teaching program as a middle school math teacher, I got a Master’s of Education and, through that process, decided I wanted to pursue public health, and that’s how I made my way over to New York City, got a Master’s of Public Health at Columbia, and then landed this great job at the Dalton School, who really trusted me in building a comprehensive health program in the nine years I was there.
When you’re in a situation where you’re not allowed to say “contraception,” “abortion,” or “homosexual,” how do you walk that line between following those rules but also giving students the information they so clearly need?
Yeah, there are two answers to that. The smart-aleck one is that I meant it when I said that I’ve got a thesaurus. That I can do this.
But the bigger answer is that I want to believe that the way I teach comprehensive sexuality is inclusive of all religions and cultures where I want students to experience safety, fulfillment, and pleasure. And that it works throughout the lifespan, whether or not it’s a platonic relationship, a familial relationship, or a romantic or a sexual one.
And so, I think that mantra really works for all of them. Because I really want them to be able to make decisions that are in service of those three things. And that doesn’t mean intercourse, it doesn’t mean having to do things before marriage… it just means you are exercising scrutiny in your behaviors and who those behaviors are with.
I see you also do workshops for parents, and I was wondering if you could speak to that and tell me why you find that aspect of the work to be such an essential part of all of it.
In most schools, they don’t have health classes at all. And so, if I’m afforded that, I want to make sure the conversation extends beyond the 45 minutes I have with students. And that won’t happen if parents don’t feel equipped to carry on those conversations.
I also want to be transparent with parents around what is being discussed in the health classroom. I want them to know the language, the content, and I want them to have some tools to make that everyday conversation a sex ed conversation. And so, I provide these workshops in order for that link to be made from the school front to the home front. Ultimately, parents are the number one health educators in their child’s life, but that doesn’t mean they’re equipped with the knowledge as to how to do it. I want to partner with them in order to make sure that the adults in children’s lives have the information that can be truly life-saving for kids.
And that’s why I encourage faculty professional development as well because maybe the teacher they bond with at school is not the health teacher, it’s not the homeroom teacher, maybe it’s their history teacher, maybe it’s their P.E. teacher. I want all the adults that are around students or who are caregivers of young people to be able to have at least some knowledge of what they’re learning in health class and how they can steer them in the direction of safety, fulfillment, and pleasure.
And in educating adults, what do you find to be the common gaps in knowledge that exist, or maybe even the common fears they carry around having these conversations?
Content-wise, a lot of adults are learning for the first time. A lot of times I’m doing sex ed, it’s still 101 for many of them because they never got it in school. A barrier with them versus some student experiences is that they have a lot more years of being socialized in an oppressive direction. So, there’s more unlearning that has to be done. At the same time, most of the workshops I give to parents are with self-selecting parents. So there’s already a little bit of a buy-in. But even with that buy-in, there are some parents who have to do a lot of healing of their own.
What do you find to be the toughest aspect of doing this sort of work, whether with kids or adults?
It’s not a thankless job, but there’s rarely instant gratification from it. It’s hard to feel the rewards of what you’re teaching until years later.
Success metrics for public health work is that nothing bad happens. And that is a hard sell. But at the same time, it’s something worth doing.
I had to learn in my first few years of teaching that if I’m going to be sustained in this career, I have to recognize that the email I get from an alum, years later, is what drives me through that school year.
The other one is understanding that sexuality is one of the most personal subject matters in humankind. Unfortunately, I learned that the hard way in the smear campaign I was recently in the center of.
I would get an email of immense gratitude from a person who suffered through being molested by their uncle for years in their childhood, and now that they’re a parent of three, they are trying to equip their children with tools that protect them and don’t make them vulnerable to the same situations they were in, and reading about me in The New York Times gave them hope that this generation is going to get those tools.
The following email in my inbox would say, “Your mother should have aborted you and if you ever step foot in Brazil, I’ll shoot you myself.”
And to me, that is a testament to how personal this subject matter is. Because both people are so moved by the work that I do that they are reaching out to a complete stranger, either to express their gratitude for this life-saving work I do or because I have triggered something so deep in someone, likely due to the oppression they’ve experienced about their own sexuality, that it is hurting them.
And I think what’s hard for a lot of people to understand is that growth means discomfort. And I am very uncomfortable for people. Especially people who are holding back on wanting to grow. And unlearn. And that’s why I think I’m a tough pill to swallow for a lot of people. Recognizing that in my career has been a challenge, but I also know I must be hitting the mark if I am bringing in that level of polarization.
I was blown away by how the smear campaign directed toward you was such an outsized illustration of what I assume many educators experience on some level. When you’re faced with such vitriol, how do you separate yourself from it? How do you create those boundaries that allow you to care for yourself in the midst of having to work with what is often — for many — very sensitive material?
That is something I’m still learning to do. I’ll admit that for the first two weeks, I was very much questioning if what I was doing was even accurate. And that was a double whammy of pain. Because the first layer was, Oh my god, people don’t like me. And maybe they shouldn’t. So that was just a hard thing to swallow for a long time.
That’s when I realized I needed to stop reading the comments, the DMs… I needed to stop reading my emails for a while. I was reading a lot of this stuff and absorbing it and thinking, also, of what my parents were going to think of their daughter when they read these comments. That was really hard.
And then the other part was, okay, I’m not people-pleasing, and that is something I have been conditioned to do as an Asian woman, and now I’m not doing that. I’m doing the complete opposite.
It took me a bit of time to get to the transition where, instead of anger at these trolls, I could feel compassion for how much I was triggering something that’s traumatic for them.
But I got there.
And then what carried me after that was a lot of intentionality — with the help of my inner circle — where I was setting clear boundaries about what I wouldn’t be reading… who I would be spending time with… what I would be replying to with all the text messages I was being flooded with. And just really assessing my energy, capacity, and bandwidth to do anything but take care of myself. I was really intentional with that because I knew that my priority was taking care of my own mental health.
And yeah, I’ll be frank. I had four periods in six weeks. I had diarrhea for five weeks. And every time I was looking at a screen, I was just nauseated.
And I was high-functioning, also. I was still teaching my classes for three more weeks in between taking calls with the press, my PR agency, and my lawyers… juggling supportive text messages from family and friends while dodging troll messages in my inbox. I was street harassed coming out of one of my classroom buildings and still I’m like, I’m doing fine, I’m managing it, I’m good. And my body was like, You’re not good. And if it weren’t for those physical metrics, I probably wouldn’t have slowed down and been as intentional as I became.
After those signals were being sent through my body, I said, Okay. Here’s who you’re going to be in communication with, how much you’re going to be in communication with them, how much time you’re going to spend doing this task versus this task. You are going to limit yourself to things that are going to fully take care of you and uplift you. And people have to understand that you’re going to resurface, but not right now.
What has been one of your proudest moments as a sex educator?
There was an email I received from a sophomore in college, someone I had taught when they were in high school. The student said:
“Hey Ms. Fonte, I don’t know if you remember me but I’m now a second-year in college and entering my junior year and I just wanted to thank you for what you did for all of us in high school. Because if not for what you did, I wouldn’t be able to stand in my authenticity today. I recently came out as bisexual and I’ve known for a while, but it wasn’t until the assembly you organized that brought together all of our queer faculty to read and share their coming out stories on stage with the high school students that I felt seen. And even though I wanted to come out then, I knew I wouldn’t be accepted by my parents. And so, I held it in but your assembly always stayed with me. And when I braved to come out in college, it was because you gave me so many examples of how fulfilled and safe my life can be if I am my authentic self and I had come out and my parents had understood, and I want to believe it’s because of the parent workshops that you had made available to them. That maybe they didn’t apply until this moment, but they did and I have you to thank for that because I feel like a fulfilled person now.”
I’m still emotional just recounting that email, but it was so meaningful. We have a bisexual teacher at the school who forwarded me the email they got from the same student, and they just said, “Justine, this is the change that you affect. You did this. You did this for them.”
And I was just like, God, this is why I do this.
Who are your personal sex ed superheroes?
Besides Al [Vernacchio], Melissa Pintor Carnagey of Sex Positive Families. I think what Melissa is doing is so well done. There is a huge gap in knowledge among parents and we want them to be at the forefront of their children’s well-being. But so many of them feel anxious or ill-equipped to do it well and her compassionate approach allows parents to get the information they need, and feel empowered to do it well. So I’m a huge fan of Melissa.
I also really admire Tracie Q. Gilbert, who is doing such good work with the Black community on centering sex ed on their experience in a way that has really taught me, as a person of color — but as a non-Black person of color — how we can really decolonize from the oppressions that are preventing us from being free and liberated.
I really respect the leadership of Tanya Bass, who is just lovingly putting out such good work and leadership in the field of sex ed through academia. And in ways that are so inclusive and intersectional.
Lastly, Stephanie Zapata, who is really breaking ground at bringing together a collective of educators who care about real sexual liberation, and doing so in a way that really models what dismantling white supremacy looks like in that space.
And I’m so blessed to be in their circle of sex education, to give and to learn from them, and I hope that they all continue with what they’re doing and recognize the impact they’re making, not just on their peers like me, but on the youth especially because of what they’re teaching other peers to teach to youth and doing so in a way that is really making people feel recognized and be seen.