Everything’s bigger in Texas, or so the saying goes, and that may be truest in the realm of sex-education controversy. Texas, which has one of the nation’s highest rates of teen pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases, has also been at the forefront of abstinence-only education in public schools since 1995, when then-governor George W. Bush signed the curriculum into law. Since then, Texas public-school students’ questions about birth control, abortion, or unfamiliar burning sensations are answered by teachers with a policy-approved soundbite: “Abstinence is the only way to prevent pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases.” They learn that condoms don’t work, that premarital sex means you’re damaged goods, and, occasionally, that hiv can be transmitted through kissing. Since taking presidential office, Bush has pushed for more abstinence-only programs, requesting more than $200 million for them in 2004. (Only a few states, including Texas and North Carolina, require abstinence-only education, but many others offer generous grants to schools that teach abstinence and host virginity-pledge drives.)
Whether the programs are good or bad for youth depends on your own, ahem, moral values, but there’s no question that they’re controversial, even in Texas. The new documentary The Education of Shelby Knox follows its title character, a with-it, curly-haired teenager from Lubbock, as she realizes the limits of her abstinence-only schooling and decides to do something about it. Her subsequent involvement with the Lubbock Youth Commission, a group determined to bring comprehensive sex education into the city’s schools, tests her relationship with her Republican, Baptist family, the school board, and her peers. Filmmakers Rose Rosenblatt and Marion Lipschultz follow the high-school sophomore as she becomes a true activist, certain in her beliefs and unafraid of calling out for truth. Bitch spoke with Rose, Marion, and Shelby Knox herself shortly after the documentary premiered at the Sundance Film Festival.
Rose and Marion, how did the film come to be? How did you find Shelby?
Rose: We weren’t looking for Shelby. We knew we wanted to cover sex education. [The subject] was a motif in our last film, Live Free or Die, which was about an ob-gyn in Bedford, New Hampshire, who did abortions. He was fighting a Catholic and secular hospital merger, and he was also fighting to be allowed to stay on as a volunteer sex-ed teacher at his kids’ high school. We got into the sex-ed [struggle] that way, and understood that it was a very big issue on the national scene, becoming bigger as the federal government [got] more and more into the business of funding.
[Funding for abstinence-only sex ed] was slipped into the welfare-reform act, under Clinton, and it’s now big business. We knew it was a good story—we’d done a lot of things having to do with reproductive rights, so this was right up our alley. It took us a solid year to find a specific story that we were happy with.
Marion: We’ve done about five films, and this was the hardest research we’ve ever done. What made it so difficult was that it was a controversial issue [that involved] kids and high schools. We went to 20 locations across the country, researching stories and networking hard. We tried to talk to people who were [attempting] to get abstinence-only education into the schools, and in some cases we were shut out. One teacher in California [invited] us to come to her class, and then when the principal found out about it he said, “Absolutely not.”
I wrote a story about abstinence education recently, and I had teachers say, “I can’t talk to you.”
Marion: We were shut out of a lot of places. We finally got a call from Lubbock, Texas, [telling us] that there was a group leader named Cowboy Fred Ortiz who was with a bunch of kids fighting for better sex ed [in schools], and down we went.
Shelby: I was actually interested in the sex-ed issue before they came along, and my parents were supportive of that, because they realized how little information everybody had—and how dangerous that was. What most parents don’t realize is that they got more sex education when they were in high school than kids do now.
Once you found Shelby, how did you develop the narrative?
Rose: One of the reasons we were able to do this efficiently is that Shelby got it very quickly—and by “it,” I mean how to make a film. She understood that her story was a vehicle for the issues. So she was able to help if she knew something important was coming up, something that would be good to have in the film. She also understood that you needed a kind of drama.
There are some scenes that are really hard to watch, like Shelby’s one-on-one talk with Ed Ainsworth [a surfer-style preacher nicknamed “Sex Ed,” who spreads the gospel of abstinence to the kids of Lubbock]. Did Rose and Marion propose that, or did you, Shelby?
Shelby: It was a collaborative idea. I wanted to talk to him, I wanted to somehow get into his psyche. But I also wanted them to be there filming it.
Rose: We recognized that he would be a critical character, and we knew how tough it would be to get him to really be involved. He knew the Lubbock Youth Commission, and thought they were totally wrongheaded. But he also had a bit of the filmmaker in him—as everybody does—and he said, “I go to these parking lots where kids hang out. You can come with me and see what I do.” What he does is called “witnessing.”
Shelby: He’s a natural performer. He dresses like a teen, dyes his hair. And he definitely wanted his side of the story to be told.
Marion: We appreciate that Ed was willing to be involved, because one of the things in Lubbock, as in a lot of places, is that it’s really hard to go up against a bunch of kids. Imagine being a town elder and disagreeing with kids. You run the risk of not looking very good. A lot of people, when you ask about this issue, not just in Lubbock, will avoid the media and freeze you out.
Rose: For example, we convinced the head of the local family-values coalition to talk to the youth from the commission on camera, and I think he understood that that was a good thing to do. But he wasn’t expecting Shelby to stand up to him when he started lecturing her. When she said, “No one tells me how to be a good Christian!” he was really floored. He shut the door totally after that. But audiences start cheering and applauding at that moment.
Shelby: What isn’t in the film is that he asked me if his face was on my dartboard. And I said yes.
Speaking of supporting characters, when did you start seeing that Corey [Nichols, a student on the Youth Commission and young Republican who clashes with Shelby in the film] was going to be a major element of the story?
Rose: When Corey [beat out Shelby] in the election for mayor of the youth commission, we knew we were going to have to deal with him. We were sure that Shelby would win—because we wanted it so badly, and also because she was perfect for it. So Corey appeared, and he won, and then we were like, “What are we going to do now?” Because we had wanted to cover the commission’s campaign to get comprehensive sex education in the schools, and we sensed we were not going to get access politically the way we were with Shelby. We had no idea how we would use Corey’s victory in the film, or that the adversarial thing [between them] would be a whole other layer.
Marion: At first, we didn’t think we had a film.
Rose: We were despairing. This story doesn’t tell itself—we had to wrestle the story out of an enormous amount of footage. When we went [to Lubbock], this was a story about a group of teenagers fighting the town. [We weren’t] looking at the story of a Republican family and the transformation of their daughter. We didn’t know how much Shelby was going to transform. That’s the magic. And it was other people who said, when we showed them the footage of the Knox family, “Have you got more of that?”
The family scenes seem like they would be hard to film.
Marion: [Shelby’s] mother and father began to understand what we wanted. People get it after a while and they want to give it to you. They’d talk about emotions with us, and then we’d have them talk about it on camera.
Rose: Once, Shelby was talking to us about how her parents wanted her to quit the commission. We knew we wanted that scene. So we came down and said, “We know Shelby often goes back and forth with you about you wanting her to quit. Can you talk about it?”
Shelby, what did your parents think of the movie?
Shelby: They loved it. My parents were at Sundance. My father compiled this massive book of every article I ever appeared in, and he recently made a t-shirt with “The Education of Shelby Knox” on the front.
Rose: He knew more about Sundance than I did.
He also calls Shelby a “feminazi.”
Shelby: Yes, he does. But my father doesn’t understand feminism really, in that he still sees it the same way a lot of women my age see it. He says, “You’re beautiful, how can you be a feminist?” He sees feminism as something for lesbians and ugly women. He doesn’t understand that it’s changed and morphed so much, and it’s not just for women who want to be men. I feel like feminists in your generation [meaning Rose and Marion] were trying to be more macho.
Rose and Marion: Nooo!
Or so the media wants you to think!
Rose: We never were trying to be men! We’re thinking of doing a book with Shelby, intergenerational conversations on feminism.