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At age 15, Shelby Knox stood in the Church on the Rock’s Youth Ministry in Lubbock, Texas, holding the hands of her mother and father. Her eyes pressed tightly shut, she pledged, “I commit not to have sexual relations with anyone till I am married. This is my personal commitment to God, to you and to the man that I do not know, that I will marry, and when I marry that man, that night will be our first night.” Her parents replied, “I will hold you to this commitment” as they put a ring on her finger.

Like millions of other Christian teens around the world, Shelby Knox pledged her virginity and wore a ring as a reminder, as a sign of her promise.

Five years after uttering those words, Knox—whose childhood dream was to become a singer—is now a voice of the sex-education movement. But it’s not the kind of sex education you might think.

What did Knox, now 19, do to garner so much attention? She noticed something was wrong.

Knox counted the number of pregnant girls walking through the halls of her high school. She observed the abstinence-only agenda pushed in her school, in her church and even at local teen hangouts. She noticed that Ed Ainsworth, a local pastor and head of the True Love Waits program she had pledged to, took time out of his evenings to hang out in parking lots proclaiming his distaste for sex before marriage, the damnation awaiting those who partake in it, the uselessness of condoms, and the futility of trying to practice “safe sex.” At the same time, she watched as girls in her school were rated by point systems that gauged their “fuckability.”

Knox was on the Lubbock Youth Commission, where some other members shared her concerns. “We on the youth commission started listing problems in the community, and one thing that kept coming up was teen pregnancy,” says Knox. “So we traced that back to the abstinence-only sex-ed project.” The commission began holding rallies, going on talk shows and petitioning the board of education to provide teenagers with full sex education. They pointed out that programs like True Love Waits and federally funded abstinence programs fail kids who are going to have sex anyway, people who are not of the Christian faith, and homosexuals. They insisted that abstinence-only programs lie to kids about the effectiveness of condoms and safe-sex practices.

They told people in one of the most conservative areas in the country that they needed to look past their religious hang-ups about sex, and they caused such uproar that it caught the eye of New York filmmakers Marion Lipschutz and Rose Rosenblatt.

The youth commission campaigned, with little success, to expand sex education in Lubbock schools. But Knox, the young girl from the conservative family, soon stood alone, willing to take her activism further than any of her youth commission colleagues, willing to say the things others were not. The filmmakers had found their star.

In 2000, Lipschutz and Rosenblatt had made the film Live Free or Die, the story of an OB-GYN’s struggle to teach sex education in schools while right-to-life groups fought to have him banned. While making that film, they heard about the fuss over sex ed in Lubbock and met Knox. The Education of Shelby Knox documents her three-year push to raise awareness about the faults of abstinence-only sex ed. It also documents Shelby’s coming of age and her metamorphosis into a young liberal activist in the midst of her conservative community. Her story won the filmmakers awards at the Sundance and South by Southwest film festivals, among others.

School’s in: David Podmijersky stands with his fellow Columbia County STARS members.

PHOTO: Chris Shields

With the documentary cameras of Lipschutz and Rosenblatt behind her, Knox and fellow members of the Lubbock Youth Commission quickly found out how unpopular comprehensive sex education can be. Knox, however, pushed forward. She met with local church leaders and was told she was misguided. She met with school-board members and was ignored. She went on call-in shows and was told that she was a sinner. She conducted surveys in strip-mall parking lots and listened as people insisted that sex education isn’t the answer and that “kids just need a proper Christian upbringing.” And every once in a while, Knox would be sat down by her parents and asked, “Are you sure you want to keep doing this?” Her father, owner of a Lubbock car dealership, worried about community backlash against her liberal crusade and reminded her that if he told her to stop she would have to stop.

Knox then took her work further afield, to places where the youth commission wouldn’t go, places that made it even harder for her parents to support her. She began working with a local gay-rights group that wanted to advertise their meetings in schools. She told her shocked parents that gay students were being discriminated against by abstinence-only education because of its no-sex-until-marriage message. Gays, of course, could not legally be married.

Like other bright-eyed teens, enthused over chess club or cheerleading or football, Knox continued fighting her parents for control over a hobby that was consuming her. Simultaneously naive and aware, fragile and strong, juvenile and mature, she literally grew up before the cameras and was formed by her struggle.

During one heated battle over her involvement in the youth commission, her father demanded, “What are our priorities?” Knox responded as she had many times, “God, family, country. In that order.” Her parents responded, “See! There is no youth commission on there!”

Despite her exhausting effort, at the end of the film The Education of Shelby Knox, Knox had changed nothing in her hometown. No policy was altered in Lubbock as a result of her efforts, and the gay-teen group lost its discrimination lawsuit against the school district.

Knox changed nothing—except herself. The daughter of two conservative, Republican, Christian Texans found herself a liberal, committed to making changes that are unpopular in her faith and in her community. If she hadn’t run into the sex-education issue in high school, Knox says, she still would have gone through her metamorphosis, probably a little later. “I would have eventually found myself as a liberal activist, but it might have happened at college,” she says. But she did find her calling in high school, and now in college, she is spending four days out of each week as a lobbyist, traveling the country advocating changes in sex education and visiting teens who are working toward the same goals.

The story of Knox’s fight to change things in her conservative town of Lubbock, despite her religious background and conservative parents, has given hope to players on a larger scale and has highlighted the need to correct the failures of abstinence-only education programs nationwide.

Inadequate sex education is not a problem exclusive to more conservative parts of the country. In fact, experts nationwide say that thanks to abstinence-only programs—the only kind of sex education to receive federal funding—teens in the most liberal areas to the most conservative are being sold a false bill of goods.

Professor Jonathan Santelli, chairman of Population and Family Health at Columbia University, says restricting sex education to abstinence-only programming isn’t just reckless—it’s a human-rights violation. “You would be horrified if a physician lied to you or withheld information,” says Santelli. “Kids are horrified they aren’t getting all the information they need in sex-ed programs. I can point to a whole host of international treaties that say access to important health information is a human right. There is a right to health, and if we don’t give them information to protect it, we are harming not only their health but also their human rights.”

Santelli recently endorsed a position paper prepared by the Society of Adolescent Medicine and published in the Journal of Adolescent Health that asserts, “Government policy regarding sexual and reproductive health education should be science-based.” The report insists that while abstinence should be included, it must be part of a more comprehensive sex education; otherwise, teens are being misled. “Having worked with kids, I know,” says Santelli, “that if you don’t tell them the truth they are not going to give you a lot of credibility.”

On May 9, Knox visited the offices of Family Planning Advocates of New York State to gather support for the Healthy Teens Act. There she met with teens from Albany and Hudson who are involved in the STARS program of Planned Parenthood. Thanks to a grant, these teens are trained by Planned Parenthood and then make themselves available to educate their fellow students about safe sex.

Dressed in a dark-brown skirt suit, Knox sits at the head of a long table that is surrounded by STARS teens dressed in tank tops, jeans, baggy pants and sneakers. For a moment it looks as if Knox and the students might not connect; perhaps this will be just another lecture that they will squirm their way through. But in a blink of an eye, Knox and the teens are engrossed in conversation, discussing common misconceptions that they run into while trying to educate adults as well as teens. One teen who has been part of the STARS program for three years is David Podmijersky. Wearing long, baggy black pants and a jacket adorned with pins and patches, and displaying a lip piercing, Podmijersky tells of having to explain to “an elderly man” that it is not possible to become pregnant through anal sex. Knox and the teens chuckle at this and other annoying misconceptions. Then they start discussing the Waxman report.

The report, issued by U.S. Rep. Henry A. Waxman and titled The Content of Federally Funded Abstinence-Only Education Programs, features a table of contents with titles like, “Eleven of Thirteen Abstinence-Only Curricula Contain Errors and Distortions,” “Abstinence-Only Curricula Contain False and Misleading Information about the Effectiveness of Contraceptives, the Risks of Abortion,” and “Abstinence-Only Curricula Blur Religion and Science.” Knox and the other teens exclaim, “Oh my God!” and “Can you believe that?” over abstinence-only programs that provide statistics showing that “in heterosexual sex, condoms fail to prevent HIV approximately 31 percent of the time,” and others that state that pregnancy results during condom use one out of every seven times. Then the teens bring up the time that they have spent lobbying the New York State Assembly to pass the New York Healthy Teens Act, which would provide funding to state schools for comprehensive sex education. The scope of the teens’ activism and their ability to relate to Knox becomes abundantly clear.

The members of the Hudson STARS program may not be fighting the battle for sex education in as conservative a community as Shelby Knox did, but their jobs are not any less taxing, their struggle any less personal, or their task any less important. Across from the Planned Parenthood building where the teens meet every Thursday to talk to peers in need of knowledge, and to receive training themselves, sits a white shack with a sign espousing the importance of “choices.” The teens see it glaring at them when they arrive or when they step outside for a break. They pass by the shouting protestors who gather there every week, and yet many of the teens have stuck with their mission for two or three years.

The teens sit around a table covered with condoms, dildos and safe-sex flyers and explain exactly how much responsibility comes with their job. Podmijersky notes that even when they are not holding official sessions or giving presentations at other schools, they are still on call for their friends. “Friends come up and say, ‘I just had sex, and I didn’t use a condom. What can I do?’ ” reports Podmijersky. The other teens report that they feel Hudson High has been mostly wiped clean of sexual stereotypes, misconceptions and misinformation because they are always there hammering away, but they note that other schools they visit in the area still need help, still need comprehensive programs. They say their visits are not enough to completely educate the teens of Columbia County.

So why has it become the job of teens to educate other teens about sex, and why are they driven to do it? According to a number of the Columbia County STARS teens, they are doing it because no one else is. They see the results of federally funded abstinence-education programs. Podmijersky notes that all the kids he knows who were involved in abstinence pledges and wore virginity rings are no longer wearing them. “And if they are,” he says, “they shouldn’t be.” For Podmijersky, getting involved in the STARS program was a bit more personal than it might have been even for Knox. He reports that he got involved because his sister was a young mother, and he saw the effect it had on her life.

According to Columbia’s Santelli, sex education is falling into the hands of teens themselves because parents and teachers are frightened by the topic and their fear of discussing sex is now being backed up by political pressure. “Although parents support this [comprehensive sex education], Americans are profoundly ambivalent about sexuality and sexual behavior,” Santelli notes. “It gets even more difficult when it gets to their children or teenagers. We have gotten a little better as a society about talking about sex, but a lot of parents still don’t know how to talk about it. It’s somehow a reflection of our hang-ups as adults in dealing with the issue. And now there’s much more political resistance to comprehensive sexual education. I think it’s nuts!”

Knox says that as a Christian she has repeatedly found her own religion being used politically to counter what she sees as common sense. “We are running up against the problem that you can’t be religious if you’re a member of any other party” than the Republican party, she says. “My generation and the next will run up against this because of the current climate. Myself and other people my age, we have to start embracing the religious side. We have to say, ‘Yes, we are people of faith, but we are not allowing you to tell us what our religion is!’ ” During the filming of the documentary about her, Knox met with Ed Ainsworth in an attempt to reconcile her faith with her commitments to sex education. Ainsworth told her, “Christianity is one of the most intolerant religions on the planet. . . . ” He then told Knox that she worries him because, “When I hear you speak, I hear tolerance.”

In New York, the Healthy Teen Act passed the Assembly in April by a vote of 126-15. The bill made its way out of the Senate Health Committee this week; it was sponsored in the Senate by Sen. Nick Spano (R-Yonkers). On May 10, Knox attended a gathering with members of the Assembly and Senate, as well as a number of clergy from around the state who support the act. Family Planning Advocates of New York President JoAnn Smith says that the Healthy Teens Act is not a knee-jerk reaction to the failure of abstinence-only education. She insists that the bill was considered and tweaked for two years and offers a plan that doesn’t force any school into anything it doesn’t want to do. Instead, the bill provides schools with the option of grant money that would fund age-appropriate sex education and would also include abstinence education.

Smith says that her group went ahead with polling even after being warned by professional pollsters that they might be wasting money asking questions they wouldn’t like the answers to. “They asked us, ‘Are you sure you want to ask that?’ ” Smith says. As it turned out, Smith was overwhelmingly pleased by the results, which show that 77 percent of New York voters believe comprehensive, age-appropriate sex education should be taught in schools. It also shows that 72 percent of Republicans support the act. And it shows that nine in 10 voters, including 90 percent of Catholics, believe students should have information about contraception. Knox says she can’t imagine the bill being voted down or even vetoed. She says she hopes that despite Gov. George Pataki’s conservative posturing for a possible presidential bid, common sense will win out. Smith is equally optimistic but notes that should her optimism be misguided, “Next year, we will have a brand new governor.”

As for the Columbia County STARS teens, a good deal of them, including Podmijersky, will finish their last year with the group this spring, and new recruits will replace them during the summer. However, Knox Podmijersky and a number of the other teens plan on bringing their experience and their quest with them to college. Podmijersky says he would like to get into psychiatry and “help young mothers,” among other things.

In some ways, the sex-education problem in America seems to be a dirty little secret, the thing some people assume is taken care of, or will be taken care of, but is too stigmatized to actually be dealt with. As sex-driven as American entertainment and advertising are, parents apparently prefer to leave their children’s sex education up to a policy they probably do not agree with rather than make a fuss about sex. Instead, they let kids fend for themselves.

Ironically, Knox reports that during her time in the spotlight, the media often have missed the point, treating her film as some sort of sensational reality-TV show instead of a work that deals with a serious topic. Knox thinks the media tend to take the easy way out instead of addressing the real topic. She says she has been asked, “Would you have been as good an activist had you been skinny?” and, “Did you end up hooking up with so-and-so from the Lubbock Youth Commission?”

“I grow tired of things like that,” she groans. “Things like that really don’t matter. There is a bigger picture there. I like to think that it’s telling a lot of people’s stories. I’m willing to put myself out there for that reason, but I would think people could be a little bit more sophisticated when they ask some of the questions they ask.”

Of course, one of the questions Knox is asked the most is, “Do you still wear your ring?” She reports that her ring was stolen. But if she still had it, she would probably not wear it. She told Newsweek last year that she has not had sex yet, but it is because she hasn’t found the person she wants to have sex with. She then added, “It’s not that I won’t wait until marriage; I just don’t know.”

However, Knox does have some life plans that she says are set in stone.

She has said that she one day plans to be president, and people like JoAnn Smith and Professor Santelli, who have met her and have seen her charm and drive, don’t doubt that she could achieve that.

For now, though, Knox is planning to take some time off in the near future. For her, time off is not what mere mortals would consider time off. She has her sights set on helping another woman, one of her idols, to become president. “I would love to work for the distinguished senator from the state of New York. She is one of my political idols,” Knox states proudly. “I’ve lobbied her office many times. I keep running into people who work for her and have seen the film, and they tell me ‘We have to arrange a meeting.’ ”

There has been one real disappointment for Knox, however: She had always wanted to be a singer, and although the film includes several scenes of her practicing or spontaneously performing, that dream has been put on hold. “I love to sing and I did it in college, but now that I moved to Washington, I just don’t have a venue. When the film came out, I thought maybe people will hear it and want to develop me and stuff, but I was actually told I was bad a couple of times. But you never know.”

Knox pauses reflectively. “I learned to use my voice in another way. So . . . I guess I’ll keep singing in the shower.”

dking@metroland.net


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