P.O.V.: The Education of Shelby Knox

Shelby Knox
Sophomore, University of Texas in Austin
Wednesday, June 22, 2005 1:00 PM

As a 15-year-old high school student in 2001, Shelby Knox -- a 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.

The Sundance award-winning film " The Education of Shelby Knox ," which is part of the "P.O.V." documentary series that airs on PBS on Tuesday, June 21, at 10 p.m. ET (check local listings ), profiles Shelby during her high school years. At 15, she pledged celibacy until marriage while also spearheading a campaign for comprehensive sex education in high schools in response to Lubbock's high rates of teen pregnancies and STD's. The film shows how Shelby must confront her parents and her faith when the campaign broadens with a fight for a gay-straight alliance club in the high school, and she begins to understand how deeply personal beliefs can inform political action.

Shelby, now a sophomore at the University of Texas in Austin, is currently studying political science and she continues her activism for comprehensive sex education.

Shelby Knox was online Wednesday, June 22, at 1 p.m. ET to discuss comprehensive sex education in high schools and the P.O.V. film "The Education of Shelby Knox."

The transcript follows.

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Shelby Knox: Hi! This is Shelby Knox, from the P.O.V. documentary "The Education of Shelby Knox". Thanks for tuning in to see the film last night! I look forward to answering as many of your questions as I can. If I can't get to all of them, and to get more information on the filmmakers and any of the issues discussed in the film, please visit www.pbs.org/pov/shelbyknox . Thanks for tuning in and speaking up, I appreciate the feedback!

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Morton, Tex.: How are things different at college? Do you find there are still people sticking to abstinence before marriage?

Shelby Knox: I have found that many of the students entering the University of Texas at Austin come from a similar background. Many come from small Texas towns and have never had a comprehensive sex education course. However, the university does a great job providing information and educating students about sexually transmitted infections and pregnancy. I think that students are more sexually active in college, but they have information available to protect themselves.

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Washington, D.C.: What role do you think parents should play in sex education? Are parents not to be trusted, since it looks like the parents in your area did not do a very good job.

Shelby Knox: I believe that parents are one of the most important components of a good comprehensive sex education for teens. Parents should be open with their kids about the risks of becoming sexually active, as well as laying out expectations for their sexual behavior. Parents have the responsibility of teaching any moral or religious values they may have about sex before marriage; the school can't be in the business of preaching.

I think that many parents across the nation are unable to provide the in depth medical information that teens need to know. I feel like sex education is a life skill that is as needed as reading or writing. Parents help provide the foundation, while schools teach the facts and foster a good learning environment.

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N.Y. N.Y.: Shelby,

I was at Sunday's N.Y. screening of the movie, where you and the filmmakers were kind enough to answer audience questions. Really interesting! Your parents deserve a lot of credit for being so supportive of you when they usually disagreed with you, or at least would never have been activists on sex ed themselves. Am I right that at one point your mom was carrying a poster that said "Judge Not Lest Ye Be Judged"? Great quote. Best of luck from NYC.

Shelby Knox: Yup, you read the sign right. We feel that God is the one who will judge humans, and it is not our place to get into the business of doing so. Thanks for coming to the screening!

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Orlando, Fla.: Hi Shelby,

I love the documentary because as a progressive college student with Southern Baptist roots, I can sympathize with the frustration you felt when your politics were not accepted by a staunchly Republican town. Yet with this conflict in mind, and especially with the issue of sex education, do you feel like liberals and conservatives have many of the same moral goals -- only different means for achieving them?

Shelby Knox: Thanks for the compliment! I think that liberals and conservatives often have the same goals in mind but have very different ideas as to how get there. Regarding the issue of sex education, everyone has the health and well being of teens in mind. However, conservatives sometimes feel that giving an abstinence message prevents teens from engaging in sexual activity. I personally feel that giving teens more information allows them to make responsible choices about sex. Overall, I think that we are not really a nation divided into red and blue. Instead, we all have a little purple in us!!

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Washington, D.C.: Do you still consider yourself a "politically conservative" person? Or has your activism changed you to a more enlightened view?

Shelby Knox: I don't really consider myself politically conservative. I do identify as a liberal feminist democrat, although I don't think one party line can define all your views. I came to a point in my life where I had to define whether I believed what I did because I knew the issues and understood or if I was blindly following the ways of my town. Upon doing this, I found myself to be more liberal than my parents. But, they have always been supportive, which I am grateful for.

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Minneapolis, Min.: I got a chance to see the program and found it very powerful, I really didn't like the way Corey was portrayed in the film -- was he like that even when the cameras weren't on him? I wonder if you still have committed yourself to that pledge of having sex after marriage? and what do you think is something that this film shows about you that makes you feel good about looking back at the film and the time you had during it? I also would like to say that I am proud to see a young woman of any faith or political party, advocate and stand up for the little guy, and hope your parents are doing well. Have you figured out your life yet?, the film showed you going through some major life decisions.

Thanks for showing you care. -Minneapolis, Min.

Shelby Knox: Corey was a very difficult obstacle in my life, a person who I could not get along with no matter how hard I tried. And, yes, he was even worse when the cameras were off. I have not had sex yet, but that has little to do with the pledge. I have not found a person that I want to have sex with, but I have the information to protect myself when I do. I feel that abstinence pledges scare kids away from their sexuality while withholding valuable information. They are fine for church, but must be supplemented with good education at school.

I am SO grateful to be part of such a wonderful film. The filmmakers portrayed the characters accurately and managed to tell an engaging story. It was, by far, the most amazing experience of my life!

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Yakima, Wash.: Shelby -- I'm curious to know what your thoughts are on the direction that President Bush is taking this country when it comes to sex ed. What suggestion would you give to sexuality educators in this country?

Shelby Knox: President Bush has put almost 167 million dollars into abstinence-only education this year alone. Next year, that number will climb to a staggering 206 million dollars. These programs have been found to contain medically inaccurate information and some may violate separation of church and state laws. I think that, at the very least, the federal government must match funding for comprehensive sex education programs.

I would encourage educators to understand that teens will make their own choices. It is your responsibility to give them all the information they need to make good ones.

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Long Island, N.Y.: I really admire how you are able to separate your personal faith and the choices you made based on that faith, and the reality of the diversity of the world and people's different experiences. How have you reconciled what your religion teaches about sexuality and morality and what you personally believe as a liberal feminist?

Shelby Knox: I believe that giving kids information to keep them healthy is not a religious or a moral issue, it is simply one of common sense. I also feel that being a Christian isn't about following all the rules and adhering to every literal word in the Bible; it is about sharing the love and acceptance that Jesus Christ showed.

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Washington, D.C.: What do you think of abstinence-only sex education?

Shelby Knox: I think that abstinence is the only 100% effective method to prevent sexually transmitted infections and teen pregnancies. Abstinence is the most important component of any comprehensive sex education program. However, abstinence-only programs often omit important information about contraception and options for young women if an unplanned pregnancy does occur. I also believe that abstinence-until-marriage programs alienate GLBT youth and fail to address their needs. A more comprehensive approach allows all teens to be involved and prepares them for any situation they might encounter.

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Philadelphia, Pa.: My admiration for you grew the more the documentary went on as you overcame objections from your pastor and the school board. Has Lubbock changed any? P.S. You're inspiring a lot of people.

Shelby Knox: Lubbock has not changed at all. Ed Ainsworth is still the only sex education in the schools, and the Gay Straight Alliance is still not allowed to meet on school campuses. The problem may have gotten worse: a fifteen year old junior high school student was recently diagnosed as HIV positive and has infected other teens in Lubbock.

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Takoma Park: Shelby, with all your experiences, have you been asked to testify before Congress by Henry Waxman or someone who knows about the flaws in these abstain-only programs?

Shelby Knox: No, but I would love to be able to do that. Can anyone here set that up for me...?? :)

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Arlington, Va.: You stated that you went through a process of deciding what you believed versus what your parents and/or the church taught you growing up? How did you reach your conclusion? And how do you know that you simply haven't latched on to the talking points of "the other side" as opposed to making a truly informed decision?

Shelby Knox: I had to make sure I hadn't latched onto the talking points of the right, either. When I began to look at real issues, such as women's rights, labor laws, and environmental policy, I realized that my beliefs differed from those of my parents. In fact, I didn't at first really identify that with being a democrat. I know in my heart what I believe, and some may want to put it into the category of political parties. Either way, I will continue working for what I feel is right.

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Juneau, Alaska: Shelby -- as a gay man who currently works on a national project to promote healthy relationships and prevent intimate partner violence among youth, I was tremendously moved by your story. You reminded me that, even during this era of "red vs. blue" rhetoric, things aren't always as simple as stereotypes might suggest. My own parents are people of faith, and Republicans, and yet have always supported me, and have welcomed my partner into their lives like they would any other "child in law." It astounds me the way the Christian right has coopted the Christian faith from persons like yourself and my parents. My jaw dropped last night when I heard "Sex Ed" inform you and the viewing audience that "Christianity is intolerant." I hear his views, and see the protestors from Fred Phelps hate -- filled congregation, and am astounded that more people of faith, especially Christians, are not stepping forward to combat the rise of the religious right, who would actively submit all of us, regardless of sexuality, religion or creed, to their own hegemonious vision. My question for you is: what made you different? As a young Southern Baptist woman, you should by all accounts have been protesting Planned Parenthood, not endorsing their right to hold a table at your youth commission event! Do you feel like it was your parents, who seem to encourage you to be a free thinker regardless of your faith? Anyway, thank you for speaking. You are a strong, independent young woman, and I can't wait to vote for you for president!

Shelby Knox: I don't know what made me different. I think it had something to do with having great parents who allowed me to be my own person and make up my own mind. I also knew that I could not sit idly by and allow me peers to be hurt because the school board was afraid of angering voters.

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Washington, D.C.: Shouldn't abstinence education, including pledges, be part of a comprehensive sex education?

Shelby Knox: I believe that abstinence should always be a part of a comprehensive sex education program. And, if teens feel that they want to make a pledge of abstinence after learning all the information, then they should be allowed to do so. However, the problem comes when the pledges have a religious connotation. That should never be part of a school setting.

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Bowie, Md.: Caveat: did not see your film

There's a lot of hypocrisy about sex. How many of the teens that took your pledge with you have already broken it?

Shelby Knox: I am not really sure as I have not kept up with most of them. But, a recent study out of Colombia stated that 40% of teens who take the pledge break it. Most alarmingly, 88% of the teens who break the pledge do not use any form of protection when they do.

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Juneau, Alaska: Shelby, are you available to travel and speak to young people about the need for their involvement in issues that concern them? I work on a national intimate partner violence prevention project aimed largely at young people (especially young men), and getting young people actively involved in the decision making process can be a source of frustration -- especially in my fairly liberal city. Any ideas or suggestions?

Shelby Knox: I am definitely available for travel, as long as expenses are paid to get there. (I have always wanted to go to Alaska, too!) You can also use this film as an educational tool to help get young people involved. There is a great outreach with the film on the P.O.V. Web site, which will give you a more detailed answer.

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washingtonpost.com: Web site: P.O.V.

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San Francisco, Calif.: Shelby,

I really admired how you stood up for what you believed in even when it flew in the face of the social norm. I'll bet that college is giving you the opportunity to further question previous beliefs and develop your own identity. As you know, the SF mayor created a firestorm last year by allowing same-sex marriages, mainly in the interest of bringing national attention and debate to this issue. I am curious to know your thoughts on the gay marriage issue and if you have difficulty reconciling this issue with your Christian upbringing.

Shelby Knox: I am for gay marriage. Two people who love one another and want to make a legal and public commitment should be allowed to do so, no matter what their sexuality. I feel as if it is not only not my place to judge other people, but it is also not the government's place to legislate love.

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Lincoln, Neb.: I stayed up to watch the film. You displayed remarkable courage to stand up time and time again to represent your point of view. Also your parents were great -- in spite of their worries they supported you. This gives a lot of hope for America and the differences of opinions. How do you feel about the unfortunate polarization of the country in these times?

Shelby Knox: I feel like we are in a time that we are sharply divided; the culture wars on in full force. However, I have been able to travel across the nation with this film and I have realized that we are living more in a purple nation. Around the issue of teen health, many liberals and conservatives have been able to come together around this film and search for an answer to this tragic problem. I think that we can do this across the board if we start looking for the big picture.

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Pepper Pike, Ohio: Shelby, as a liberal living in a blue area of the red state I admire you for your courage. I was wondering what Pastor Ed and the Youth Group Advisor are currently doing?

Shelby Knox: Ed Ainsworth continues to travel the world with his abstinence-until-marriage program. He has most recently been to AIDS ravaged Africa to insist that condoms do not work. The youth advisor, Eric Benson, is now in nursing school in Lubbock.

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Silver Spring, Md.: Do you feel abortion should be an option for teenagers as part of their sex ed?

Shelby Knox: I believe that all options should be presented to teens in sex education courses. Regardless of your personal beliefs about abortion, it is legal for all women in the United States (although some parental notification laws make it difficult for teens to obtain abortions).

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Boston, Mass.: Do you regret your abstinence pledge and would you make the same pledge again?

Also, how do you view your hometown now? Do you feel you can return there or do you have plans to move further away after college? I ask because I am often glad that I don't live in my conservative Southern hometown anymore, although it is my home and I miss it. Your story makes me feel conflicted about not going back and trying to shape it into something more promising like you have done with your hometown. What are your plans after graduation?

Shelby Knox: I do not regret the pledge, but I would not do the same thing again. This is because I feel that it was a scare tactic. I think that abstinence pledges may have a place in good comprehensive sex education programs for teens who choose to take them.

I am grateful to have gotten the experience of growing up in Lubbock, although I am more grateful not to live there anymore!!!

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San Francisco, Calif.: How have other students from your college reacted to you? Do a lot of people recognize you?

Shelby Knox: I have tried to be normal in college....a film crew all during high school made me wary of being recognized. I think that there may be a reaction when I go back to school, but Ausitn is a huge place. Hopefully, I can fall right back into being a hard working activist.

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Washington, D.C.: How do we get Sex Ed into other schools - like Catholic schools. Isn't there a huge need there?

Shelby Knox: Definitely a huge need everywhere. I am not sure how to get into private schools, they have different curricula and different standards for what can be taught. Any ideas from anyone??

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Washington, D.C.: The topic of sex education has become such a hot-button issue. How do you propose like-minded people approach changing the policies of sex education?

Shelby Knox: AWARENESS! Many people are unaware that their kids are not getting a good sex education in schools. We need to make them aware and then start by electing school board members in local communities to change the programs. We also need to make a change on the national level in that the government must provide equal funding to comprehensive sex education programs!

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Crystal City, Va.: Good morning Miss Knox. I'm a Christian, and I also believe in celibacy. I have a 14-year-old daughter, and I do not want her to become a statistic. We talk to her often of the consequences. I was wondering, I know it's your faith that keeps you strong, but what all do you do to avoid having sex? I haven't seen the special, so could you give me some advice to pass along to my teen. Thank you and God bless!

Shelby Knox: I have not had a normal experience. I have not had sex because I haven't even had time a steady boyfriend since 9th grade! I think that young women need to realize that they are in control of their bodies, and men and the media have no right to tell them when to have sex. Good luck to your daughter and thanks for the question!

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San Francisco, Calif.: What types of opportunities have been presented to you since you have been taping this film?

Shelby Knox: I have been touring with the film since its premiere at the Sundance Film Festival in January. I have been speaking at conventions and meetings across the nation to teens and parents concerned about these issues. I am so grateful for all the wonderful opportunities presented to me through this project!

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Shelby Knox: Thanks for all of your questions and comments. I appreciate the support and the feedback. I am sorry I could not get to them all!! I will be answering questions on the P.O.V. web site later this week. (www.pbs.org/pov/shelbyknox) Thanks again!!!!

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