Written by Gregg Brekke
Shelby Knox didn’t set out to be a youth activist. She just did what she thought needed to be done. One of the featured Suncoast Saturday speakers, Shelby shared her inspiring story with workshop attendees.
Having grown up in a Southern Baptist Church in Lubbock, Texas, Shelby didn’t think much about the fact that her hometown was considered the second most conservative city in the nation. And at age 8, she didn’t think much about the Southern Baptist Church decision to follow the Ephesians 5:24 mandate for wives to be subservient to their husbands — until her mother explained to her that this meant women could not be leaders in the church.
As a teenager, Shelby went through the 10-week abstinence program in her church. She didn’t think much about that either because she didn’t know anything about sex.
That was, until a friend confided in her that she was pregnant. Her parents had kicked her out of her home and she was going to be kicked off the soccer team. When Shelby asked her friend how it happened, her friend replied, “He told me I couldn’t get pregnant the first time.”
Shelby, a member of the Lubbock Youth Commission, started talking with others on the Commission and found no one knew anything about sex. Every year, just before prom, the school brought in a pastor named Ed (Sex Ed, as he was known by the students), who told the students they could receive sexually transmitted infections (STI) by shaking hands, half of all gay people die before the age of 40 and that masturbation makes a person selfish and can lead to depression and suicide.
Shelby said Pastor Ed was a religious leader in the Christian community. “This is what he’s telling you and you didn’t question it.”
But she did question it, and so did others on the Youth Commission. They went before the school board and told them that the sex education being offered in the schools needed to be improved.
They got nowhere said Shelby, because from 1985 to 2001 the Federal Government gave money to schools to enact programs promoting abstinence. The Lubbock Schools received just under $100,000 a year to “bring this guy in and lie to us,” she said.
According to Shelby, a lot of media attention was focused on Shelby and the other youth because they were young and they were talking about sex. Her church told Shelby that she could no longer sing on the praise team. Her parents, who were conservative but also very supportive of her, fought back on Shelby’s behalf. When word came back to her father that he was being dishonored in the church because “he couldn’t control the females in his family,” the Knox family left the church.
Shelby spent the next three years helping students get condoms and going with people to Planned Parenthood for STI tests and pregnancy tests. Just before she graduated, Shelby and the other youth were given another opportunity to go before the school board to ask for three things: medically accurate health textbooks, professionals certified by the health department as qualified to teach sex education and the public release of curriculum public so parents could see what was being taught.
The School Board response was to disband the Youth Commission.
Shelby took her fight to the University of Texas where, as a student, she fought for medically accurate textbooks. The Texas textbooks, according to Shelby, say the best way to prevent pregnancy is to get a lot of rest.
When “The Education of Shelby Knox,” a documentary detailing Shelby’s fight for comprehensive sex education, debuted at the Sundance Film Festival in 2005, the media attention was once again focused on Lubbock. This time, it was “Dateline” and “20/20” asking the questions.
Shelby was shocked by all the attention she received.
“People thought a young person doing this was extraordinary,” she said. “To me it didn’t feel extraordinary.”
Shelby now speaks at 50 colleges each year and works with student leaders to promote programs such as those that fight violence against women and teach young women about the availability of emergency birth control.
“I became an ambassador for good people doing this good work,” she said.