General Articles

Study Finds that More Exposure to the Abstinence-Only-Until-Marriage Message Does Not Change Behavior


Mathematica Policy Research, Inc., conducted this study to examine the impact of Heritage Community Services “Life Skills Education Component” (LSEC) on attitudes and behaviors of students in South Carolina.  The LSEC is an elective program that meets weekly during the school year to reinforce an abstinence message.  The study examined 604 students, approximately half of whom took both the basic Heritage Keepers abstinence program and the LSEC, while the other half took just the basic abstinence program.  The average students’ average age at student entry was 12.8 years and their average age at follow up was 16.7 years.

Researchers surveyed students to determine their attitudes, knowledge, and behavior. In addition they asked students whether they had ever had an sexually transmitted disease (STD), been pregnant, or gotten someone pregnant. 

Heritage Keepers is run by Heritage Community Services of South Carolina.  SIECUS’ reviews of curricula produced by Heritage found them to be based on messages of fear and shame and to include biased views on gender, marriage, and pregnancy options. The often-controversial Heritage Community Services received a whopping $1,232,780 of federal funding in Fiscal Year 2006.


Melissa A. Clark, Christopher Trenholm, Barbara Devaney, Justin Wheeler, Lisa Quay “Impacts of the Heritage Keepers ® Life Skills Education Component,” Mathematica Policy Research, Inc., (August  2007), accessed 4 September 2007,

Key Findings:

When comparing the students who took the basic abstinence class with those who took the basic class and LSEC:

  • There were no differences in rates of abstinence between the two groups
  • There were no differences in the average number of sexual partners between the two groups.
  • There were no differences in the age of first sex between the two groups.
  • There were no differences in reported rates of STDs between the two groups.
  • There were no differences in rates of pregnancy between the two groups.
  • More than 1/3 of students in both groups thought that condoms, even when properly used, never prevented HIV.
  • More than 1/5 of students in the groups were unsure about how effective condoms were in preventing STDs.

SIECUS Analysis:

This study is limited in that it compares two groups of students enrolled in programs using the Heritage Keepers curricula.  There is no control group of students who received either no intervention or a different type of intervention such as comprehensive sexuality education.  The only difference is that one group was enrolled in an additional 45-minute session each week.  Nonetheless the findings confirm what we have known for year—abstinence-only-until-marriage programs don’t work.  And, it is not surprising that an expanded version of the program is not more effective. 

Although it remains disturbing that we continue to waste both taxpayer money and students’ time on ineffective program, the study’s finding around students’ knowledge about condoms is even more disturbing.  More than 1/3 students in both groups thought that condoms, when properly used, NEVER prevented HIV, Chlamydia, gonorrhea, Herpes, or HPV.  This is completely inaccurate and unacceptable.  According to the Centers for Disease Control, when used properly, latex condoms are highly effective in preventing the spread of HIV and can reduce the risk of transmission of all of the these other STDs.   

The Heritage program that SIECUS reviewed (Heritage Keepers, Abstinence Education I 1) was nearly silent on the topic of condoms and instead used a video by the conservative Medical Institute for Sexual Health (MISH) which it described as teaching teens “the prevention limitations of condoms.” Similarly, instead of detailed lessons on STDs, the curriculum relied on a slide show by MISH which is known for its gory pictures of genitals in the advanced stages of untreated STDs.   These supplemental activities are clearly designed to scare students rather than educate them and this study seems to suggest that that is exactly what has happened—young people in this study were simply not educated.    

Young people need accurate information about condoms so that they understand the importance and benefits of using condoms consistently and correctly, and can make informed choices when they do become sexually active.  That Heritage Keepers is depriving students of this information is irresponsible and dangerous.

It is interesting to note that Heritage Community Services has been the subject of numerous controversies.  In a highly irregular use of Title V funding, South Carolina initially awarded the entire amount of its federal and state funding to Heritage Community Services without first engaging in a competitive bidding process. Beginning in 2004, a legislative amendment to the South Carolina budget required a competitive bid process.  (See the SIECUS State Profile on South Carolina for more details.)

An earlier study by Mathematica, released in April, looked at four federally funded programs in diverse communities across the country and found no evidence that abstinence-only programs increased rates of sexual abstinence when students were compared to their peers who did not attend the programs. In fact, students in abstinence-only-until-marriage programs had a similar number of sexual partners as their peers not in the programs, as well as a similar age of first sex.  Some proponents of abstinence-only programs criticized the April study because it did not examine students who had an adequate amount of abstinence training.  Since the LSEC group in the most recent study was exposed to approximately 35 hours a year of abstinence-related programs, this criticism is invalid.

 It would be less harmful for students to sit quietly with their heads on their desks than to listen to the misinformation from Heritage Keepers, which not only provides no benefit, but also spreads dangerous misinformation.


  1. SIECUS was unable to determine whether Heritage Community Services used this curriculum or another that they had designed with students in this program.