Chris Bezsylko, Health and Physical Education teacher at Hunterdon Central Regional High School in Flemington, NJ, screened The Education of Shelby Knox for five students from his classes. Afterwards, they discussed how Shelby's experiences compare to their lives, what influences their ideas and attitudes about sex and what kind of sex education they think teens need most. Read the transcript below.
Chris Bezsylko, Moderator: First, I'd like to ask all the students, what comparisons do you see, socially, between what's happening outside of school in Texas and what's happening in our area?
Lauren, 17: Basically all the kids [there] are doing the same thing we do, like hanging out on the weekends, with our significant other, boyfriend or girlfriend. And, a lot of them are sexually active, which I can probably assure you plenty of kids our age [here] are as well.
Jack, 17: There are a couple of scenes in the movie where the kids were in the parking lot. Behavior-wise, they're pretty much the same as us, I think. Despite their conservative sex ed program, or lack of it, they're basically just like us in character.
Avni, 16: I think people do the same things here as they do there. They act the same way and I think [people here] may even be just as sexually active as people there, but they use protection. I know a lot of people who have sex use condoms, and I think that's why our pregnancy and STD rates are lower than those in [Shelby's] state.
Olivia, 17: I disagree with that, because I think there are just as many kids [here] that use unprotected sex because either they're not taught the right way or they just don't know what's right for them. So I think that's why schools should definitely be teaching them how to use [protection], because no matter what you do, there's always going to be kids that do it.
Chris: So we see a lot of social similarities. When we say "sexually active," are we saying "intercourse?"
All: Yeah, basically.
Jack: It's apparent that [at Shelby's school] they're sexually active, because in the beginning of the documentary they show a couple of young girls who were pregnant. They just kind of push it away like out of sight, out of mind, but it's happening. It seems like more of a present problem than they're willing to admit.
Lauren: I know here at Hunterdon Central, only maybe 10 years back, my friend became pregnant. Central didn't want her to be in the regular school setting.
Olivia: I think [the issue] is actually more a social status kind of thing. I know a long time ago when our parents were younger, if you had sex it was a bad thing. But nowadays, they glorify [sex] so much. If you're a virgin, it's like "Wow, that's horrible!"
Avni: It's a bad thing to be a virgin. It's definitely embarrassing, in our school and probably in their school, to admit that you're a virgin. It's probably that way around the country.
Matt, 17: Yeah, especially if you're a jock guy, like in the locker room, you can't say, "Oh, I'm a virgin," cuz that's just not going to go over with your friends.
Chris: So the image of a male is to be sexually active.
Lauren: Even as a girl, I know basically almost all of my friends have lost their virginity, whether they continue to have [sex] or whether they only had it once. Being the only one left, it's kind of weird.
Avni: Yeah, it's basically almost rare to graduate high school and not have lost your virginity.
Jack: I think it's ironic that the kids in Shelby's town are kind of receiving contradictory messages. From the national media, you see people in sexual relationships, and very happy with their boyfriend or girlfriend or significant other. And meanwhile they're getting the religious message telling them to abstain until marriage. So with these two messages from the opposite sides of the spectrum, I mean, it must be really hard to choose which one you want to follow.
Chris: A couple of you mentioned the pregnant girls in school in the video, and how everyone just looked past and didn't notice it. In your experience here in this district, would there be a difference or similarity with pregnant teenagers in this school?
Lauren: There's definitely a difference. I can actually [think of] two girls who've had abortions, so I think that's a big factor. In the movie, there was that big billboard showing Texas being against abortions. They were very pro-life, whereas here, I think, we're a lot more liberal. Girls here will probably think, "I'm not going to get pregnant, I'm not going to ruin my life," as some people like to call it.
Chris: So, the pregnancy culture's a little different here.
Olivia: It's horrible that kids believe that they're responsible enough to have sex, but then, when they get pregnant, they know they're not responsible enough to have a baby. So why should you be having sex if you can't handle the consequences?
Avni: Or, at least, not uneducated sex.
Chris: Alright, well, speaking of educated sex, what have you learned from the sex education program in the district and what else would you like to know?
Jack: I think our district's sex ed program is really helpful, because they promote abstinence as the best choice — obviously, it has 100% effectiveness against STDs and pregnancy — but also, I really respect that they give you the facts. So, if you do choose to have sex, you're not completely in the dark. And they're not just constantly throwing propaganda at you, saying, "Don't have sex, don't have sex, if you do, you're screwed."
Olivia: Teenagers will naturally rebel, so when they're saying, "Don't do it, don't do it," and they don't give 'em a good enough reason why, [kids] are going to want to have sex anyway, just to see the experience for themselves.Matt: I agree that our school's sex ed program is pretty thorough, but it's still sending the mixed message: Don't do it, but if you do, here's what to do.
Chris: What would clear the message up for you?
Matt: I'm not really sure, actually.
Chris: Ok, that's a fair answer.
Avni: I think it might be a bit of a mixed message, them saying, "Here, look, abstinence is the right choice but we know you're not going to listen to us, so this is the stuff you should know in order to do it more safely." But they know what the reality is, and the reality is that abstinence is not going to be the path for everyone.
Lauren: I'm glad that our school isn't being completely naïve. They know that kids are going to go out — and whether or not it's the right decision and whether or not they're ready — they're probably going to have sex. They're preparing us, so in the instance that somebody does have sex they have a condom and they don't end up becoming pregnant or impregnating someone. At least they're ready, whether or not they were mature enough to have sex.
Olivia: Just because we teach about it, doesn't mean we condone it or approve of it. There are certain kids [for whom] you just wanna make sure that they're safe, or at least as safe as they can be.
Jack: I think the school acknowledges that abstinence is a moral decision that most kids would agree with, but sex in itself is not only a moral thing, it's also a physical thing. I mean, you have hormones, and you don't always make the wisest decisions, sometimes other things get in the way of what you stand for morally. So I think it's good that our school addresses the issue of what happens, just in case you act on the moment.
Chris: We'll use Jack's comments about morality and values to segue straight into the Reverend Ed Ainsworth and some of his stances. His words were that folks would get hurt "physically, mentally, emotionally, spiritually and financially." In each case, do you think there is a negative potential for having sex outside of marriage?
Lauren: I think he's going completely overboard with all of that. I mean, there are factors, but those are the extremes. If you get pregnant, that can happen. For example, financially, you have to pay to keep the baby, you have to pay for the baby's clothing, food and diapers and all of that. Or, you have to pay for the abortion. Mentally, it could hurt you, mentally and emotionally, if you weren't prepared. For example, if you just happened to have sex and then you look back on it and regret it. And it could hurt you physically if your partner happens to not care about how you feel.
Matt: I think [Sex Ed] has very good intentions, but it just doesn't appeal to all teenagers. He just goes way over the top with all of his messages. Kids aren't going to accept that, it's just way too conservative.
Jack: I personally thought, when he made that comment, that it sounded more like rape to me. Because sex shouldn't hurt physically — if you're ready for it, sex should be consensual between two people who are willing to do it. So it shouldn't hurt you as much as he's scaring you into thinking it will. And he said it would hurt you spiritually. There are a lot of people with different religions and different beliefs about what sex is and some people don't think that premarital sex is necessarily a bad thing, or that it's immoral.
Avni: I remember one part in the movie, when Shelby was saying to her parents that her top three priorities in life were "God, Family, Country." I'm sure a lot of people in her community feel that way, too. That "God" element isn't so prominent in our area.
Olivia: Someone might not believe in God, and here it's very common that three people out of five are going to believe different things. You can't base it around religion here because we're not all the same.
Chris: I'm hearing a mix between religion, family, morals and values. How do you think that plays into the sexual attitudes in this area?
Lauren: I think it's all about the way you grow up. My parents have instilled completely different views in me. My dad, when he was younger, was definitely a lot more experienced in life than my mother was. She grew up in a very strict Cuban, tightly-knit household, you know, very Catholic. So she didn't exactly have sex or have her first kiss or anything until much later on. So, I have a completely different background than many other people, I'm sure. I think your family, especially your parents, and other adults have a big tie into the whole thing.
Olivia: Some parents don't talk about sex with their kids, so, the first thing the kids do is they either look to the media or they talk to their own friends. And their own friends are not the right people to talk to because they're not as experienced as they believe they are. To get your advice from someone who needs advice themselves, it's like the blind leading the blind.
Matt: I don't know, my parents didn't really talk with me about sex much. I just kind of [talked about it] with my friends and they weren't much help either. I'm kind of down with the whole straight edge thing, recently, like music and stuff. Music is a big part of my life, and I like that whole message.
Chris: So what does influence your behavior involving sex and other issues?
Lauren: Friends for sure, like I said earlier. A lot of my friends have already lost their virginity, so there's a great amount of pressure being put on me to do that. But I'm going to stick to my morals because I'm a very strong person. Whereas other people succumb to peer pressure, I have no influences from the media, or anyone that tells me what to do. I like to do things on my own, I hate being told what to do.
Jack: Yeah, I think kids get most of their influences from their friends and the media, both of which promote sex, they kind of glamorize it. Guys in the locker room are making it sound really cool, and the media subconsciously drives it in that you should be having sex, even before marriage. Especially with kids who aren't as religious, like me, to choose abstinence is a little bit harder. But I think morals are ultimately up to you and what you do with all the information — your friends, family, all those messages. And I don't think you should be dictated to by your school, I think you should come to that conclusion by yourself.
Lauren: Media is definitely a big factor. I mean, a girl can go into a store that has magazines and pick up a copy of Cosmopolitan or some magazine like that with "50 new sex positions blah blah blah," that can teach you things that you really aren't necessarily ready to learn. And I mean, you can download free pornography off of the Internet. There are all kinds of things that kids have as a way to access.
Chris: What left the biggest impression on you about the film? What influenced you or caught you by surprise the most?
Jack: Well, at the end when Shelby was taking up the cause for the homosexuals, just to see how conservative the town was, those protestors with signs like "AIDS is God's cure for fags," and stuff like that, it was just pretty offensive.
Lauren: That actually really affected me. I have some gay and lesbian friends who I'm very close with and seeing that just absolutely hurt me. I was just torn because some of those signs were so cruel and inhumane. And if these people really believe in God they should know that God loves everyone.
Matt: I consider myself a pretty religious person, and when Ed said that Christianity is the most intolerant religion, I don't really agree. I think people make it intolerant, but God loves everyone. I have no problem with gay people. I found that very offensive, the people marching with the signs, that's ridiculous.
Olivia: In the beginning of the movie, [Shelby] mentioned that boys were rating girls on how easy they were or how much of a catch they were, that kind of thing. And [that surprised me] because to have that much disrespect for your peers and yourself, it's just amazing what people do. It's crazy.
Avni: I was strongly influenced by the fact that a person like her, who grew up in such a religious household with parents who are conservative, was the one who ended up championing this cause of sex ed. I mean she had even pledged to abstinence and she still thought that the information should be out there about condoms and about contraception. And I thought that it was really great, that somebody who was raised in a household like that had her own set of morals, could see things from the other perspective.