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The Education of Shelby Knox by Ben Radford

This essay was originally posted on Skepchick back when we were a humble monthly e-zine. I’ll be periodically re-posting the articles that were on the original site so that they can find a new audience. (This one was chosen for today since Shelby was mentioned in Chelsea’s post on purity balls.)

The Education of Shelby Knox

Ben Radford
Originally posted April 2006

The film The Education of Shelby Knox chronicles the efforts of Texas high school student Shelby Knox to get comprehensive sex education taught in Lubbock’s public schools. Knox points out that the school system’s abstinence-only education policy (i.e., no information about condoms) has been a spectacular and tragic failure, unable to stem the area’s nation-leading rates of teen pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases. The school board and city of Lubbock essentially took a stand against comprehensive sex education based on the religion-fueled (and disproven) assumption that education leads to promiscuity.

One might expect such a liberal stance from a bed-hopping, pill-popping rabblerouser, yet Shelby’s credentials make her position all the more interesting. She’s an honors student and avowed virgin until marriage. Coming from a supportive (yet conservative Christian and Republican) family, Knox struggles to do what she believes is right, convinced that Lubbock’s decision to turn a blind eye to the problem is doing real harm to her peers. Knox stands resolute in the face of school board setbacks and her disapproving fundamentalist pastor Ed Ainsworth. Ainsworth happens to be one of America’s leading advocates of abstinence and virginity, and he sees Shelby’s crusade for sex education as contrary to Christian teachings. Knox explains that while she herself has chosen to remain celibate, she recognizes that not everyone has the same beliefs and opportunities she has, and that her choice is just that—her choice. She refuses to accept Ainsworth’s belief that good Christians cannot be liberal in their views.

The Education of Shelby Knox shows one young woman’s courage in questioning deeply-held beliefs, as well as the dangers of basing public policy on personal faith. Shelby, a bright and articulate activist, finds that the self-evident failure of the abstinence-only approach is blamed on a few “bad” kids instead of a failure to educate. The film is at its heart an inspiring story about personal convictions and tolerance. The Education of Shelby Knox is an insightful study of faith, tolerance, and one young woman’s coming of age in a religiously-divided America. It examines the social, political, and religious pressures that divide our country, as well as the human spirit that can unite us. The film is essential viewing for those interested in the religious culture wars of today, and where the hope lies for tomorrow. The film won an award at the Sundance Film Festival, is currently showing at film festivals, and may or may not make it to your local theater.

In person, Shelby is charismatic, self-assured, and quick to smile. I met her at the High Falls Film Festival in Rochester, New York, where she and co-director Rose Rosenblatt introduced their film to the audience.

Shelby’s activism on sex ed matters eventually brings her into contact with gay students who are being harassed, and many of Lubbock’s teens seem just as poorly informed about homosexuals as they are about heterosexual sex. When asked about “the gay lifestyle,” various typical young women offered their opinions. One teen said, “I do not think that, like, um, the gay and lesbian lifestyle is, like, a positive lifestyle as far as, like, um, getting like diseases and stuff because, like there is, like, a much higher, like, death rate with gays and lesbians and so I think that isn’t a normal lifestyle either.” A second teen was somewhat more articulate but just as misinformed, declaring confidently that “Most homosexuals die by the age of forty.”

The film gives insights into Biblical literalism and fundamentalism, as represented by pastor Ed Ainsworth. Ainsworth tells Shelby that “You’re a liberal Christian, and that makes a lot of people real nervous… the terms liberal and Christian are like oil and water.” Ainsworth seems unaware that it is his views, not Shelby’s, that make a lot of people real nervous. In a moment of chilling clarity and candor, Ainsworth disapprovingly cautions Shelby, “Sometimes when I hear you speak, I hear tolerance.” Shelby replies, “Sometimes the Bible is not clear enough for me.”

Christianity—as interpreted by Ainsworth and others— “is the most intolerant religion in the world.” Obviously not all Christians share that sentiment, but the ones who don’t need to understand that to many people, the firebrand fundamentalism practiced by Ainsworth (and George W. Bush) is drowning out more moderate and liberal voices.

Though the film lionizes Shelby and her journey, Shelby’s parents Danny and Paula deserve a lot of credit as well. Danny, wearing an easy smile (and a seemingly endless supply of American flag shirts), counsels his daughter as best he can, and Paula somewhat reluctantly joins Shelby in a demonstration against anti-gay protestors. It can’t be easy, especially in a place like Lubbock, to have an outspoken daughter whose values are not shared by the neighbors. The Knoxes should be proud at having raised an intelligent, moral, independent woman who questions her beliefs and fights for her convictions.

In today’s polarized world, it’s easy to demonize others. It is easy to divide the world into us and them, good and bad, with us or against us. The world is not black and white, but a dizzying, complex, and beautiful array of shades and colors, different beliefs and values. People like Ainsworth want everyone to be like them—or, more accurately, they want others to live up to an ideal that Ainsworth sets for them. Yet people like Shelby take a humanistic view, comparing each person to his or her own potential. Shelby sees beauty and strength in diversity; that doesn’t mean that anything goes and morality is out the window; it simply means that we live and let live.

Apparently Shelby isn’t the only one straying from Ainsworth’s message: His well-intentioned and well-publicized virginity efforts have been an embarrassing failure. A 2004 study of 12,000 adolescents presented at the National STD Prevention Conference found that teens who pledge to remain virgins until marriage have the same rates of sexually transmitted diseases as those who don’t, and that 88 percent of pledgers have sex before marriage. Ainsworth and his ilk can cite Bible passages until they’re red in the face (Ainsworth is halfway there), but their efforts to stem teen sex have clearly not worked. They are doing the same thing over and over again, and expecting a different result.

Shelby shared her thoughts with me at the festival and by telephone from the University of Texas at Austin.

How did the filmmakers approach you when they expressed interest in making a documentary with you as the subject?
The film was to originally focus on several members of the youth commission as the story progressed. I did not know until almost two years into filming that the film would focus on me, and by that time I was used to the idea to being in a film.

One example you gave at the High Falls festival of the different audiences’ reactions to the film was to the scene of the Lubbock school board praying before meetings. (The scene aroused audible gasps and murmurs among the largely liberal New York audience.) To the board members, and many people in the Lubbock community, that seems normal.
I never expected the surprise and anger at the prayer, or the outrage at a minister being allowed to teach in a public school. I knew that it was wrong, but it was so accepted in Lubbock that I had not heard many people speak out against it.

Do you agree with Ainsworth that Christianity is the most intolerant of religions?
Christianity, in a pure form, is not an intolerant religion. In fact, it is a religion based on caring for others, embracing differences, and trying to make the world a better place. It has become an intolerant religion in the hands of those who want to use religious faith to promote personal and political interests. Christianity has been co-opted by a political party in America and turned into a force used to pass judgment on others and promote intolerance.

Politics and religion have become especially intertwined recently, but is that really a modern union? There does seem to be a basic link between religious fervor, intolerance, and violence—you don’t need to look further than the Crusades, or jihad. Obviously, most Christians don’t bomb for their religion, just as most Muslims don’t. But do you think there is a connection between religious intolerance and violence?
I think there’s something about religion and the human psyche that makes some people think that everyone needs to be the same. It’s the message that culture takes from it, it’s a human desire, people want to think, “I’m special, my way of doing things is right, and other people should be like me.”

If Christianity has been hijacked by politics and fundamentalists, where is the backlash? Where are the moderate and liberal Christians taking a stand against people whose intolerant version of Christianity makes many people nervous?
That’s beginning to change; I think more progressives are starting to challenge their leaders. Some of it goes back to people thinking you can’t be democratic and religious. There’s also an element of not wanting to offend anyone. Christians are taught to respect our faith and our leaders, and to question them would be to disrespect the church and disrespect God. Questioning religious leaders—even extremists—would be a sign of disrespect and people don’t want to make waves. You should be able to question without offending, but it doesn’t really happen.

Ainsworth and many others seem to interpret the Bible to say that sex ed is wrong and homosexuality is a sin, but they don’t seem to have a problem with passages in the Bible that say it’s okay to own slaves (Leviticus 25:44-46; Exodus 21:2-6) and allow rape (Deuteronomy 20:10-14), including Lot offering his virgin daughters to be gang-raped (Genesis 19:8). How were passages like these explained to you in church as a young Christian woman?
Oddly enough, those were glossed over. I remember being taught that the Old Testament was more a history, all the rules and laws changed after Christ came to forgive us of our sins. I suppose a pastor might use this reasoning to explain away those passages.

The Bible, like the Koran and other holy books, seems to be ambiguous and contradictory: people will read what they want to into it. You touched on this when you said, “Sometimes the Bible is not clear enough for me.”
You can always find something in the Bible where you can read it a certain way for your own purposes. People will use passages to interpret the Bible to support things it really doesn’t say.

Do you think the intolerance lies in the scriptures, in their interpretation, or both?
I think both; the scriptures of all faiths were written by people—people who had vices, had prejudices, and so on, and that comes through in different interpretations. It seems that more and more people, like you, are uncomfortable with the fundamentalism and intolerance.

Do you think the Church will have to reconcile its teachings with the modern world, especially in terms of dealing with other religions, homosexuality, reproductive rights, and so on?
I hope the church will be forced to change, to become more tolerant and accepting. I don’t think it can continue being so hateful toward those it disagrees with. The Catholic church seems especially resistant to change, stable in its biases against gays, women, and others. As long as our society is healthy and functioning, there will always be people who will stand up and question.

Has anything changed in the Lubbock schools’ sex ed policy? Has anyone taken up the cause since you left?
The sex education policy is still the same; that is, there is no sex education. The Lubbock Health Department continues to consistently lobby the school board to examine the data and change the policy.

What has been your family’s reaction to the film? Has there been any backlash in the community?
My family loves the film. They all went to the premiere at Sundance. My father keeps all of the press clippings in a collage on the wall at his office! There hasn’t been any backlash, as I had feared. In fact, many people have approached my parents and expressed their support for comprehensive sex education.

The film and your journey can be seen as a symbol of the religious culture wars in America today. It seems that in many ways the country is more divided than ever.
I believe that religion is becoming increasingly important in American politics, to the detriment of the American people. I believe that one extreme facet of a religion is forcing their ideology on the rest of America, edging out other religions and ideologies. It is dangerous that it is now a political liability not to be of the Christian faith and that morality is now [seen as] only a Christian trait. Politics and religion are intentionally separate, and we must fight to keep it that way.

Yet many influential Christian leaders don’t see it that way. To hear them tell it, Christianity is under attack by secular forces, and America is in moral decay.
Yes, I recognize that in my own experience… Some people close to me feel that way and believe that. Some want to have their own religious state, where religion can be applied to all areas of their lives. Some people feel they are being oppressed or persecuted if they can’t make other people pray to their god, if they can’t force their Christianity on others. In today’s environment, I don’t think it’s Christians who are persecuted, it’s those of other faiths, and people who don’t have a faith. In reality, Christians have a lot of power, socially but also politically. It is seen as a liability not to be a Christian, [and many Christians] think of you as a bad person if you’re not a Christian.

I don’t see the same moral decay of America that they do. To me, morals should mean that we want kids to be healthy, free of diseases, and educated about things including sex. That should be seen as moral and good. Morals are on a scale of what you believe, and when [religious leaders] talk about morals, they want only their morals to be pushed on others. All religions have claimed that society is in moral decay for thousands of years!

The film’s title is “The Education of Shelby Knox.” What have you learned?
The title was actually a take-off of A Sentimental Education by Gustave Flaubert. I have learned so much since February of 2002, when the filmmakers first turned up in Lubbock. I learned that politics is always about more than what is right; it is an exciting and frustrating game of favors and impressions. I learned to love and hate it, enough to want to be a politician. In traveling and doing publicity for the film I have also learned how to present myself to an audience. Most of all, I learned that a kid from Lubbock or any small town can do amazing things if given the chance.

Apparently it’s not only Lubbock’s teens who are promiscuous. Your dog is captured on film taking some rather vigorous sexual liberties with your footwear. Does he still hump your slippers?
Yes, he does. He is the exhibitionist dog; he really only does that when people are around. He always seemed to set the slipper at the filmmaker’s feet and start humping. Who in the entertainment business can resist that shot?

What are your religious beliefs now, if any?
I consider myself more spiritual than anything. I guess I’d still call myself a Christian, though I don’t go to church or anything. I think there is truth in all religions, and you take what’s good in them. As far as faith goes, I can only be concerned about how I live. I don’t think I have the right or authority to tell other people what to believe, or to pass judgment on others.

But you didn’t always feel that way?
No. I remember years ago I would go with other church members to people’s houses and tell them that they were going to hell unless they were saved. At the time I felt I was doing God’s work, but now I feel badly about it.

For all her accomplishments and swagger, Shelby admits to being slightly puzzled by the spotlight. “I’m nineteen,” she says. “I have changed immensely since the film and will continue to change. Sometimes I don’t feel qualified to really answer all these questions… I don’t really have all the answers.” No one does, and that is perhaps the most important lesson.

Benjamin Radford is a writer and investigator with the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry. He has investigated “unexplained” and paranormal topics for over a decade, and is author of three books; his latest is Lake Monster Mysteries, with Joe Nickell. Another book, on the chupacabra mystery, is scheduled to be published next year. He is also the creator of Playing Gods: The Board Game of Divine Domination. His books, game, films, and other stuff can be found at his Web site,

Rebecca Watson

Rebecca is a writer, speaker, YouTube personality, and unrepentant science nerd. In addition to founding and continuing to run Skepchick, she hosts Quiz-o-Tron, a monthly science-themed quiz show and podcast that pits comedians against nerds. There is an asteroid named in her honor.

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  1. Wow! This young woman really has her head screwed on right. In time, she will see that more and more of her beliefs require testing and analysis and she will become even more mature than she already is. I would love to see a follow-up interview in about ten years.

  2. The fundamentalists have the wrong approach to this. If you want your kids to avoid having sex, you should teach it in high school. In the long, drawn out, trivia fact filled soul crushing way that only high school can do. Nothing can make a subject as uninteresting and boring as learning about it in school.

  3. A remarkable accomplishment for anyone, let alone one so young.

    I have to take an issue with the film makers comment though:

    Christianity—as interpreted by Ainsworth and others— “is the most intolerant religion in the world.”

    This is simply not true. I really don’t like the fundies either, but Sharia as it is interpreted by most of the Middle East is much less tolerant. Truth be told religion and sexual tolerance don’t ever really go together, except in a few pockets in the West, where the Enlightenment has effectively tamed much of religion.

  4. Even reading the description serves as an education in itself.

    It’s odd to see that in Catholic papers that the “abstinence only” method is proclaimed as being highly sucessful. Yet, reality seems to portray it the other way. Hmmm….

  5. @Grand Lunar:
    It’s odd to see that in Catholic papers that the “abstinence only” method is proclaimed as being highly sucessful.

    Well, technically, it is absolutely 100% effective at preventing pregnancy and STD’s. The problem lies not in the method, but in its application (i.e. preventing sex), which is apparently only about 12% effective.

  6. Ainsworth disapprovingly cautions Shelby, “Sometimes when I hear you speak, I hear tolerance.”

    Yeah, it’s not like Jesus would have tolerated sinners or loved his enemies. Oh wait…

  7. @catgirl: Yeah, I had to re-read this one a few times before I realized it wasn’t a typo. Nothing like promoting intolerance to an entire community. Nice job, douchebag. Jeebus would be soooo proud.

    Ms. Knox is a very intelligent and insightful 19 year-old who clearly sees thru this BS. I’ve been working with young men and women like this for years and am always a bit surprised when they think and speak with such maturity and strength of character. The media would like us to think they don’t really exist , but I have seen this firsthand and it makes me proud. We need to hear from more of them, as they will be running all our countries very soon.

    More power to ya, Shelby! If I ever see your name on a ballot, you are getting my vote.

  8. @exarch: When I said “we”, I didn’t mean those of us here at Skepchick, but just in general and the mainstream media. They are more often concerned with teens who are part of the problem rather than those like Shelby who are part of the solution.

    Teen Skepchick is full of awesome!

  9. I went to high school in Lubbock. Interestingly it was the complete failure of church sex education that started me down the patch of questioning my religion. I wasn’t a wildly outspoken evangelical type but I did regularly attend church. It was the complete lack of values from others in my youth group that made me step back and look at everything differently. People who were supposedly instilled with the best Christian values acted exactly like everyone else behind closed doors.

  10. Thank you for reposting this. It’s amazing to me when people can break out of the cycles of ignorance and intolerance. That takes so much strength and confidence, I hope she goes on to do great things.

  11. Thanks for the review! To anyone who is interested, the film is available on Netflix watch instantly. I watched it last night, and found it enlightening and infuriating, especially the issues that the gay kids were facing when trying to start up a Gay Straight Alliance at their school. Still, a good, eye-opening movie.

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