Let's (Not) Talk About Sex
When we meet Shelby Knox as a 15-year-old sophomore, she is a fairly common teenage girl for her time and place, turn of the millennium Lubbock, Texas. She sings in the choir, attends church with her family, and hangs out in mall parking lots on Saturday nights. She is an excellent student, a devoted daughter, a loving sister. She doesn’t drink, do drugs, or have sex. She’s growing up as the perfect Red State young woman: charitable, church going, chaste.
She’s never known any other way of seeing the world, has barely ventured beyond the borders of Lubbock. So, perhaps the girls she sees in hallways, the girls getting bigger in the stomach by the month, then disappearing from school, are de rigueur everywhere else. And perhaps those rumors of venereal diseases and AIDS coursing through school are true, and also the same as everywhere else. But, wait—this doesn’t quite jibe with what is being taught in Sex Ed class at Lubbock High School, which preaches abstinence as the one and only choice available to protect oneself from pregnancy and STDs. So isn’t all this pregnancy and rampant disease impossible? Or, wait—maybe it makes perfect sense after all, and these teenage mothers are a direct consequence of such a narrow, and frankly dangerous, policy all out of sorts with the realities of teenage life.
Either way, Shelby smells a rat. She wonders just how so many of her classmates could be so irresponsible, or whether they just honestly didn’t know any better. She wonders if there’s anything she, a concerned and increasingly outraged teenager, can do to stop this blight.
And thus begins the unlikely education of Shelby Knox, a metamorphosis that starts of as a crusade to bring a more practical sex education to the classroom, and ends up turning into a political and spiritual awakening that gives hope to those who believe that there still exists pockets of sense in those portions of the United States under the thrall of religious fundamentalism. Joining the Lubbock Youth Commission—a municipally funded government agency which ostensibly serves to promote serious youth issues, but seems to operate as little more than glorified community service—Shelby dives straight into the contentious issue of the school district’s sex ed policy of abstinence to the exclusion of all else.
Abstinence is a tenet enthusiastically reinforced by the community churches and government leaders. Teachers can be fired by even broaching the possibility that condoms do in fact exist. And parents seem not to imagine that they need to tell their kids anything otherwise. In fact, they can be directly complicit in contributing to their children’s prolonged ignorance—witness Shelby’s own participation in the Vow of Purity (basically a hard and fast promise to remain a virgin until marriage), part of the youth group “True Love Waits”, presided over locally by Pastor Ed Ainsworth. His sermons are a bizarre inversion of medical fact, turning medical truth on its head, and fusing it with the fire and brimstone bromides of fundamentalist Christianity to basically scare kids out of sex. The sermon concludes with a surreal ceremony that apes, even mocks, the marriage ceremony, ring on the left finger and all. This, folks, is what we, and Shelby, are up against.
So, confused but confident, and running the risk of universal opprobrium, Shelby takes her crusade to the airwaves and local news stations, calling attention over and over to the obvious facts staring everyone in the face, abstinence policy or no: all these pregnant girls that no one will acknowledge. She organizes polls and petitions to bring bills before the school board. She argues with the rigid community leaders including the principal, Pastor Ainsworth, and Wayson Gerwig, a frankly terrifying emissary from the local chapter of the Family Values Coalition. And more often than not, she ends up on the losing side of the argument (well, except morally). She also meets resistance on the home front, as her parents continuously call her to task for what they see as her disruptive ways. They cannot fathom how their heretofore model Christian daughter can be championing such heathen causes. Being still young, Shelby is prone to massive verbal fights with her parents, ending in tears and her coming close to the edge of giving up her seemingly hopeless cause.
But she stays the course. As she continues through her high school years, Shelby’s growing social awareness and activism begins to spiral outward, reaching into causes that are even more at odds with mainstream, fundamentalist Lubbock, much to the continuing chagrin of her parents, and now the other members of the Youth Commission. Shelby’s contentious relationship with the Commission’s leader, her classmate Corey Nichols, eventually comes to a head when Shelby begins to advocate for the Lubbock High School Gay-Straight Alliance, who are trying to sue the school board for discrimination. Nichols, concerned that pushing such a controversial issue will lose the Commission the funding it needs, caves into political pressure and compromises (or, according to Shelby, sells out) with the city government, turning the Commission back into the ineffectual puppet it once was. Shelby resigns in disgust at the hypocrisy of her former allies, continuing her cause alone. She realizes that this sort of moral cowardice and fraudulence is all pervasive, infecting all aspects of society, and that her fight isn’t just for sex ed or gay rights, but for tolerance and fairness for and towards all. She learns the difficulties of standing firmly against opposition for what one feels is right, no matter what the odds.
Shelby’s education, or, better, her enlightenment, is a beacon of hope in a land of well-entrenched myopic moralism and withering fundamentalism. It’s doesn’t come on all of a sudden, is no teenage whim, but is progressive (in every sense of the word)—a conscious, evolving tolerance born of continual questioning, a calling to account of the core beliefs that underpin her world. We see her continuously trying to reconcile what her upbringing has taught her, what the Bible says, with what her heart and her head tells her is right. She is not giving up one religion (Christianity) for another (blind liberalism), but is earnestly trying to find a middle way that fuses belief, compassion, and social justice. Her transformation, remarkable enough as it is given her milieu, is all the more forceful and hopeful because of her age. And yet she never seems to lapse into the sort of obnoxious precocity that seems endemic in teenagers who jump blithely on the bandwagon of certain causes, nor does she lapse into the irrational zealotry of a convert. Commendably calm and respectful, even in her heated arguments with the more trying members of the religious community, she is exactly the type of teenager any parent could ever hope to raise. And eventually, after much internecine family squabbling over their “wayward” daughter, Shelby’s parents come to realize that though they may never totally agree with what their daughter believes, they cannot argue with how she turned out.
But how are we to properly contextualize Shelby Knox? The film is lamentably brief, clocking in at a lean 75 minutes, the perfect length for maybe an After School Special on the multifarious “dangers” of sex, but not at all long enough or deep enough for the Pandora’s Box of issues the film opens. To be sure the focus is solely on this one girl’s particular political and social awakening, but is Shelby just one young sane voice among many, or, depressingly, the exception, a minor chink the impregnable (ha!) moral sheath spread over the Bible Belt? Is this film merely preaching to the converted like so many other strident left wing films, lamentably to remain unseen by the very audiences it’s trying to reach (much the same way Shelby goes “unheard” or even ignored, for all her struggles)? And, ultimately, just how do you prevail against an opponent who refuses to see, or even acknowledge, reality? These questions, of course, transcend the limited scope of the film, but The Education of Shelby Knox is an obvious step in the right direction, and perhaps it’s now up to the young woman herself to step in and continue her story with a follow up film.