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Normalizing Masturbation Should Be Part of Every Sex Ed Curriculum
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Normalizing Masturbation Should Be Part of Every Sex Ed Curriculum

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Sex education teacher Justine Ang Fonte made national news this month when she was accused of leading Zoom sex-ed classes in which she taught first-graders to masturbate.

But the shocking headlines don’t really tell the whole story. Fonte, who was the Director of Health and Wellness at Manhattan’s Dalton School (my alma mater!), was roundly criticized for Zoom sex-ed classes she led for students at Columbia Grammar and Preparatory School.

Angry parents said that Fonte showed students videos about masturbation, and after a barrage of negative news stories and what she says was a lack of support from Dalton, Fonte resigned from her position.

As a sex educator myself (and the author of sex-ed guide book “Talking to Your Kids About Sex: Turning the Talk into a Conversation for aLifetime”), this story hit really close to home for me. I was saddened to see that Fonte was publicly shamed and criticized for her sex-ed lesson plan, which absolutely did NOT teach kids to masturbate.

Instead, Fonte simply told kids the correct names for their genitals and explained that these are private body parts that no one else should touch. She explained that sometimes touching these body parts can feel good but this exploration should happen in private and that we shouldn’t touch our penis or vulva in public. She showed them this video which teaches kids about their anatomy and normalizes exploring your body and being knowledgeable about how your genitals work.

In other words, she absolutely didn’t teach first graders to masturbate. If you know any young children, you know from experience that they already do often touch their private parts or ask questions about their penis or vulva. This is normal and healthy. And that is all the video Fonte showed her students said. The video was empowering and educational, helping kids understand that these are private parts and that no one should be touching their private parts except for them, and that this exploration should only happen behind closed doors.  

I was so saddened to see that Fonte had to resign from her post after what was a beautiful, important lesson that was no doubt invaluable to the many kids who got to participate in her class. Because of our shame and ignorance about our bodies and their normal functions, Fonte lost her job, and as a result, many kids lost out on the chance to benefit from her intelligence and expertise.

If you haven’t read my sex-ed book, just know that I say all the exact same things that Fonte did. I talk about the fact that kids like to explore their bodies and that they innately enjoy rubbing or touching their bodies ‘down there.’ That doesn’t mean that they understand what sexual pleasure is or that we are encouraging little kids to have sexual thoughts. It simply means that sometimes they find it comforting or interesting to play with their private parts, and that’s okay. If we give their exploration a big reaction like scolding them or shaming them for this totally normal activity, we run the risk of giving them body-image issues or self-worth issues in the present and in the future. Instead, we can simply say, “We only touch our private parts in private” and “Remember, no one else but you should touch your penis/vulva. And you should never touch anyone else’s penis or vulva either.”

When we teach our kids that their private parts are sacred and precious, and that it’s okay to be curious and interested in touching or looking at this area *but only in private*, we empower them to not only become more educated about their anatomy, but also to more deeply understand consent, bodily autonomy, and good touch/bad touch.

And, if you read my book, you know that I even encourage parents to buy their teenage daughters sex aids like vibrators when the time is right. Yes, really: Look, we know teenage boys masturbate a lot, but teenage girls have the same sexual desires and needs. They have intense hormonal shifts which make them interested in sexual activity, but they aren’t ready for this huge physical and emotional commitment. Yet masturbating for girls and women can be difficult (even adult women struggle with knowing how to pleasure themselves), and a vibrator helps to simplify the process and allows teenagers to reach orgasm independently without needing to enter a sexual relationship and encounter all the risks that accompany it.

Does that mean I am encouraging teen girls to touch themselves or have sexual thoughts? Not at all. But for those that already are, a vibrator is a much more preferable solution than having a sexual relationship while you’re still in high school.

And, that’s all Fonte was saying as well: If you’re interested in your body and touching yourself, that’s okay. Here’s what those parts are called, here’s what those parts do, and here’s why you should be the only one touching them and only doing so in private. I cringe to think that such a basic and empowering lesson could be viewed as perverse or problematic by so many parents.

Apparently, we still have a LONG way to go when it comes to overcoming all the negative messaging we have received about our bodies and our sexuality when we were kids. But that’s okay: I believe change is possible, and I am going to keep working and keep educating to make sure that everyone of all ages knows our bodies are beautiful, sacred, and 100% ours to protect and enjoy.