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Study Shows Federal Abstinence-Only-Until-Marriage Programs are Ineffective in Delaying Sexual Activity among Young People

A study conducted by Mathematica Policy Research Inc. on behalf of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services found no evidence that federal abstinence-only-until-marriage programs increase rates of sexual abstinence.

The independent evaluation of abstinence programs was authorized by Congress in the Balanced Budget Act of 1997 and began in the fall of 1998.  The study sought to determine if abstinence-only-until-marriage programs, funded under Title V, were effective in helping young people remain sexually abstinent and/or changing their sexual behavior.

History of Title V Abstinence-Only-Until-Marriage Funding

In 1996, Congress established a new funding stream for abstinence-only-until-marriage programs under Title V, Section 510 of the Social Security Act.  Title V provides $50 million per year in the form of block grants to states.  States that choose to accept the money must match every four federal dollars with three state-raised dollars and are then responsible for using the funds or distributing them to community-based organizations, schools, county and state health departments, or other entities.  Every state, with the exception of California, has at one time accepted Title V funds.  Currently, eight states including California, Maine, New Jersey, and Ohio do not take this funding.

With the passage of Title V also came an eight-point federal definition of “abstinence education.”  All programs that receive abstinence-only-until-marriage funds must adhere to this definition which specifies, in part, that “a mutually faithful monogamous relationship in the context of marriage is the expected standard of all human sexual activity” and that “sexual activity outside the context of marriage is likely to have harmful psychological and physical effects.” Programs may not in any way advocate contraceptive use or discuss contraceptive methods except to emphasize their failure rates.

Title V was originally authorized for five years, 1998–2002.  Although this program has not officially been reauthorized as of early 2007, it has remained in operation under agreements that continue the funding and it will, therefore, receive $50 million in federal funds in 2007.  Title V is up for reauthorization in June 2007. 

Summary of Independent Evaluation

Mathematica Policy Research Inc. conducted a long-term federally sponsored evaluation of some of the programs funded under Title V.   Two interim reports released by Mathematica in 2002 and 2005 focused on the impact of the Title V funding on communities, how programs were being implemented, how young people felt about the programs, and changes in participants’ attitudes and intentions.  

The current study looked specifically at the impact of these programs on young people’s behavior and knowledge.   

The evaluation focused on four programs:  My Choice, My Future (in Powhatan, VA), ReCapturing the Vision (in Miami, FL), Families United to Prevent Teen Pregnancy (FUPTP) (in Milwaukee, Wisconsin), and Teens in Control (in Clarksdale, MS)

Young people in these communities were assigned either to the program group (those people who participated in the abstinence-only-until-marriage programs) or a control group.  Young people in the control group did not participate in a specific program, but, instead received the sexuality education resources and services available in their community which varied widely.

In total, there were 2,057 participants; 1,209 of those young people were enrolled in the abstinence-only-until-marriage programs and 848 were part of a control group.  The survey was conducted roughly four to six years after the young people had participated in the programs.  The average age of participants at the time of the survey was 16.5. 

Key Findings

  • Participants in the program group were no more likely than participants in the control group to have abstained from sexual intercourse. 
  • Of participants who reported having had sexual intercourse, young people in the program group and the control group had similar numbers of sexual partners and had initiated sexual intercourse at the same mean age. 
  • Participants in both groups had the same rates of unprotected sexual intercourse.
  • Participants in both groups had a good understanding of the risks of pregnancy but a less clear understanding of STDs and their health consequences. 

Impact on Behavior

  • In both the control and program groups, 49% of participants reported having had zero sexual partners, 16% had one partner, 11% had two partners, and 8% had three partners.
  • 17% of participants in the program group reported having four or more partners compared to 16% of participants in the control group.   
  • 56% of participants in the program group reported having been abstinent for the last 12 months compared to 55% of participants in the control group.
  • 23% of participants in both the program group and the control group reported having had sexual intercourse in the last 12 months and always having used a condom.
  • 17% of participants in both the program group and the control group reported having had sexual intercourse in the last 12 months and sometimes having used a condom.
  • 4% of participants in both groups reported having had sexual intercourse in the last 12 months and never using a condom. 
  • In both the control and program groups, the reported mean age at first intercourse was 14.9 years.

Impact on Knowledge

  • Participants in the program group scored slightly higher than participants in the control group in their ability to identify the names of STDs.
  • Participants in the program group and the control group had equal knowledge of the risk of unprotected sex and the consequences of STDs.
  • Participants in the program group were less likely than participants in the control group to report that condoms are usually effective at preventing STDs, and more likely to report that condoms are never effective at preventing STDs. 
  • Participants in the program group were more likely than participants in the control group to correctly report that birth control pills are not effective in preventing STDs. 

The authors explain that the main objective of Title V abstinence-only-until-marriage programs is to teach abstinence from sexual activity outside of marriage.  They go on to say, “The impact results from the four selected programs show no impact on rates of sexual abstinence.”  The researchers concluded that “Findings from this study provide no evidence that abstinence programs implemented in elementary and middle schools are effective at reducing the rate of teen sexual activity years later.”  They point out, however, that the research does not show whether programs that started earlier and followed young people through high school might be more effective.    

The researchers also looked at peer support for abstinence.  The authors explain that an analysis of teen sexual activity found that friends’ support for abstinence is a significant predictor of future sexual abstinence but that such support diminishes over time.  They suggest that promoting support for abstinence among peer networks “should be an important feature of future abstinence programs.” 

SIECUS Analysis

This study found that abstinence-only-until-marriage programs are ineffective.   The programs evaluated were hand-picked because they were among the “best” of the federally funded abstinence-only-until-marriage programs and still they showed no impact on young people’s behavior.  Young people who participated in these programs were no more likely than their peers to be abstinent or to protect themselves from pregnancy and STDs when they did become sexually active.  Abstinence-only-until-marriage programs were an experiment and they failed.  Clearly it is time for the federal government to stop wasting hundreds of millions of tax-payer’s dollars on these ineffective programs.

Notes:

View the 164- page Mathematica Policy Research Inc. Final Report on Abstinence Programs, by Christopher Trenholm, Barbara Devaney, Ken Fortson, Lisa Quay, Justin Wheeler, and Melissa Clark, published and released April 2007.   

View the April 2002, June 2005, and August 2006 Abstinence Program Interim Evaluations.

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