As the nation reflects on the outcome of the recent presidential election, “moral values” is a factor often cited in George Bush’s win. A look at the “red” and “blue” states paints a picture of “red” voters who embrace traditional religion and family life, and reject what they see as the erosion of American ideals and culture that the “blue” states represent.
Federally funded, abstinence-only sex education is part of the equation, sparking an intense national debate. Sex may be everywhere — in music, television, fashion and movies — one argument goes, but schools need to give teenagers the tools to resist peer pressure and say “no.” Won’t teaching about sex only encourage teens to try it? Opponents say that withholding information about condom use and birth control will only lead to unwanted pregnancies and sexually transmitted diseases.
Into the culture wars steps feisty teenager Shelby Knox of Lubbock, Texas. Although her county’s high schools teach abstinence as the only safe sex, Lubbock has some of the highest rates of teen pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases in the nation. Shelby, a devout Christian who has pledged abstinence until marriage herself, becomes an unlikely advocate for comprehensive sex education, profoundly changing her political and spiritual views along the way.
Texas public schools have had abstinence-only sex education since 1995, when then-governor George W. Bush signed a law making Texas the third state to follow the curriculum. The “abstinence-only” initiative gained national attention in 1996 when President Clinton enacted landmark welfare reform that included grants for abstinence programs. In November 2004, Congress included more than $131 million for abstinence programs in a spending bill, an increase of $30 million but about $100 million less than President Bush requested. A national evaluation of abstinence programs has been delayed, and is expected in 2006.
In the fall of 2001, Shelby, then a 15-year-old high school sophomore, budding opera singer and politically conservative Southern Baptist, joined the Lubbock Youth Commission, a group of high school students empowered by the mayor to give Lubbock’s youth a voice in city government. “We get no [sex] education at all in school,” says Shelby in The Education of Shelby Knox. “Maybe twice a week, I see a girl walking down the hall pregnant… It’s part of normal life at my school. If a student asks a teacher about sex, the teacher by policy is required to answer with ‘Abstinence is the only way to prevent STD’s and teen pregnancy.’… If they don’t, they’re in danger of losing their job.”
Shelby attends a youth assembly called Love, Sex and Dating, held by charismatic local pastor Ed Ainsworth. “If they say there’s no information at all in the schools, then they haven’t listened to me,” he says. “Safe sex? You have been lied to, kids,” he tells them, warning them not to get hurt “physically, mentally, emotionally, and financially” by being sexually active. Ainsworth’s seminar, with its religious references excised, is also given in 200 Texas junior high schools as part of a national movement called “True Love Waits,” which claims 2.4 million teen “pledgers” since 1993. Shelby links hands with the other teens, promising before her parents and God, “On my wedding night, that night will be my first time.”
Although committed to her personal vow, Shelby is not convinced that Ed Ainsworth’s lectures constitute real sex education. “Every time we said we wanted sex ed, everyone said ‘Sex Ed’ was already doing it, but he’s really doing something very different.” The Youth Commission decides to fight for comprehensive, fact-based sex education in the town’s public schools. Shelby takes up the campaign with missionary fervor and runs for “mayor” of the Youth Commission, but another teen, Corey Nichols, wins and she is devastated.
Two distinctly different personalities, Corey and Shelby spend the next year trying to advance their cause of comprehensive sex ed while attempting to outdo one another. As they bicker through a range of activities, Shelby increasingly defines herself as a hot-tempered activist. Corey, in contrast, emerges as the diplomat, a politician in the making who sees no good in confrontation, insisting instead on compromise.
Shelby finds herself in a difficult position on the home front, too. Her parents are supportive, but they are also concerned about the stress the campaign is putting on her, and by Shelby’s increasingly liberal attitudes. When they suggest she quit the commission, Shelby explodes, “I’m not dropping out… I have power there.”
On the public level, the youth group is getting extensive media coverage but little attention from school officials. After repeated requests, the school board finally allows them to present their recommendations. Although the school board listens, the members are not persuaded, and it becomes clear that the district will continue to implement its abstinence-until-marriage sex education in the city’s high schools. Again, Shelby refuses to give up.
Shelby now allies herself with a group of gay students who have been denied the right to form a gay-straight alliance in school, feeling it will galvanize her campaign. This is not a fight that Corey and the kids on the commission, afraid of adding more controversy to their already contentious agenda, want to join. Soon after, the mayor of Lubbock announces that he is considering doing away with the youth commission because of a city budget shortfall. Corey shows his penchant for political compromise and saves the commission by agreeing to operate without funding and, in the process, abandoning the sex education campaign. An infuriated Shelby decides she can work more effectively outside “the system.” Accusing Corey of betraying a cause he claimed to champion, she resigns from the commission.
By her senior year, Shelby is committed to working with the gay teens, who have decided to sue the Lubbock School Board. She has also declared herself to be a liberal Democrat, a turn that shocks her Republican parents. But when an organization whose slogan is “God Hates Fags” comes to Lubbock to protest the gay kids’ lawsuit, Shelby, along with her mother, joins a counter protest, carrying a sign that reads “God Loves Everybody,” and affirming a belief that will guide her into adulthood: “I think that God wants you to question,” Shelby says, “to do more than just blindly be a follower, because he can’t use blind followers. He can use people like me who realize there’s more in the world that can be done.”
Shelby is now a sophomore at the University of Texas in Austin, where she is studying political science. She continues her activism for comprehensive sex education. Visit our Film Update section, where Shelby answered questions about what she has been up to.
The Education of Shelby Knox is funded by grants from the David and Lucille Packard Foundation, the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, the Brush Foundation, the Wallace Alexander Gerbode Foundation, the Columbia Foundation, the Lalor Foundation, the General Services Foundation, the H. van Ameringen Foundation, the Playboy Foundation, the Trull Foundation, the Independent Television Service (ITVS) and American Documentary, Inc.