Marriage Promotion for Eighth Graders: Even Among Abstinence-Only Programs, Heritage Keepers Stands Out

A closer look at Heritage Keepers. This ridiculous program that was just given the Obama administration's seal of approval is clearly designed to promote marriage rather than educate young people or prevent pregnancy for that matter. 

See all our coverage of Heritage Keepers Abstinence Education here.

Yesterday, in an article written for Rewire by a number of my friends and colleagues I, like many of you, learned that the Obama administration had quietly added the Heritage Keepers abstinence-only-until-marriage curriculum to a list of effective programs based on flawed, as-yet unpublished research.  I was horrified.  When Obama was elected, I had been sure, like so many other sex educators and advocates, that the days of these fear-based programs being taking seriously and given federal money were behind us.  This new administration, I assumed, would support science over ideology and these programs that are so clearly based on opinions and not facts would fall quietly (or better yet loudly) from grace.  I knew I was wrong about how it was going to be before yesterday but the fact that the abstinence-only-until-marriage program that earned the administration’s seal of approval was actually Heritage Keepers was an extra-bitter reminder of the way things still are.

I began reading abstinence-only-until-marriage curricula and writing reviews for SIECUS in 1998 when I got my first job there as part of the community advocacy project.  I can’t count how many curricula I read—cover-to-cover—in my 11 years with the organization and I have to admit that they all started to blend together and I have to check which one is which. I know that Sex Respect is the one that used to tell teens to take Jesus on their date and the early drafts of Choosing the Best were where one would find the suggestion to wash his/her genitals with Lysol after sex to prevent STDs.   But so much of what they say is similar if not exactly the same. 

The analogy about sex being like fire, safe if contained in the fireplace of marriage but dangerous if allowed to run free—appears in at least three of the ones I’ve read but I can’t tell you which three.  The story of the frog that jumps out and saves his life if put in hot water but is lulled into a sense of security and dies if the water is gradually made hotter is used to illustrate the danger of experimenting with other sexual behaviors like French kissing in at least two curricula but don’t ask me which two. I can’t even remember which ones contains my very favorite dramatization of pre-marital sex.  One in which a woman is rushed to the emergency room to find out that she has scarring in her fallopian tubes and will never ever become a mother.  I love this story because of its melodrama, its refusal to acknowledge the number of different ways a woman with blocked fallopian tubes could become a mother, and its completely unacknowledged irony—this woman saved herself for marriage and suffered anyhow because her fiancé had an affair and lied to her. It’s used as an example to show why abstinence is important but it’s actually an example that shows why condoms and STD screenings are important.  I can tell you why I love it but I can’t remember which curriculum I read it in.  As I said, they all blur together.

But not Heritage Keepers.  I can tell you exactly where I was when I read it.  It was almost 6 years ago, after my oldest daughter was born.  I was technically still on maternity leave but had to write two curricula reviews before I returned to work in September.  My sister was in town on a business trip so I left the baby with the new nanny and holed up in her fancy hotel room across from Bryant Park.  As I read the poorly photocopied version we had finally acquired, I screamed out loud to no one (my sister was at meetings all day).  “Are you kidding me?” I asked that flat screen TV  (often with an expletive added).   “Are these people for real?” I yelled at the mini bar.

What struck me most about the curricula was that it wasn’t even trying to be sex education like so many of the abstinence-only-until-marriage curriculum I had read which had whole lesson plans dedicated to the perils of STDs, pregnancy, and relying on condoms.  Though it included a tiny bit of information on body parts, said a few words on how condoms don’t work, and borrowed the Medical Institute’s slide show on outrageous STDs, it was barely about sex. This was about marriage. It tells students why (heterosexual) marriage is so important—for individuals, for children, for society.  And it explains in great detail, using lots of (sketchy) statistics, why no other relationship can possibly be as fulfilling or as important. It is essentially a marriage promotion curriculum for the under-15 set.  

Selling Marriage to 13-Year-Olds
Heritage Keepers explains to its middle school students that:

“The marriage is union is different from all other relationships in that it involves an intellectual, emotional, social and familial union.”*

In case they don’t get why this is so special:

“You could have a familial union with your parents, an emotional union with your best friend, a social union with a teammate, and an intellectual union with a chess partner. But in marriage you share all of these unions, and are bound to each other and the children you have together by a lifetime commitment.”

I suppose marriage can have all of these components (though I know a few marriages that are lacking at least one) but I refuse to believe that it’s the only relationship that could have them all.  Even leaving aside the possibility of a committed relationship with a partner (same-sex or opposite sex) to whom one is not married, I firmly believe that my relationship with my children, my parents, my sister, and even my niece and nephew contain each of these components.  And while I might not legally have a “familial” relationship to my best friend we are closer and take better care of each other than many siblings.

Heritage Keepers isn’t interested in helping young people develop the skills to have numerous good relationships—romantic or otherwise—in their lives, the program is only interested in promoting marriage.  To this end Heritage Keepers spends an equal amount of time criticizing cohabitation as it does defending marriage:

“When couples live together outside of marriage, the relationships are ‘weaker, more violent, less [equal], and more likely to lead to divorce.”

It goes on to say:

“People who live together before marriage experience ‘significantly more difficulty in their marriage with adultery, alcohol, drugs and independence [not wanting to depend on each other for anything] than those who do not live together.’”

These exact statements are repeated four pages later, indicating that they are very important. Heritage Keepers then uses statistics on divorce and infidelity to prove that cohabitation is a very bad idea. According to the curriculum: 

“…only 3 percent of people who did not engage in premarital sex were unfaithful to their spouse, but 18 percent of people who engaged in premarital sex ‘fairly often’ with someone other than their spouse were unfaithful to their marriage partner.”


“The divorce rate of women who live with their partners before marriage is eighty percent higher than the rates for women who do not.”  

I am pretty sure that the goal of these statistics is to convince students that having premarital sex causes infidelity and that cohabitation causes divorce. In fact, the curriculum states:

 “Actually, practicing sex outside of marriage increases the chance of infidelity within marriage…it establishes a pattern.”

While this may sway the average eighth grader who isn’t paying attention in Algebra, we all know that even if statistics are accurate, correlation does not mean causation. Statistics on the number of previously cohabitating couples who divorce, for example, don’t prove that living together causes divorce but they may show that people who think living together is socially acceptable also think it’s okay to use divorce to get out of a bad marriage.

More troubling thought, without ever mentioning the possibility of same-sex relationships, this focus on marriage completely dismisses them as an acceptable option. After all, cohabitation without the legal bonds of marriage (which, if you missed the point, is bad) is all that’s open to same-sex couples in most states.  Young people who are gay or lesbian or questioning their sexual orientation do not need yet another voice telling them that a happy life with a fulfilling relationship is just never in the cards for them.

Selling marriage to a those who are more than a decade away from their potential wedding days has another set of side effects as well.  I would have to imagine that many kids in this class are more likely to apply the messages they’re hearing to the family they currently live in rather than the one they may or may not build someday.  What about the kid whose parents live together but aren’t married, the kid who has same-sex parents, or the one (or ten) whose parents are divorced? A middle school student has absolutely no control over his/her family structure and yet they will be told more than once that their parents are less committed or more likely to cheat on each other.  

The curriculum has this to say about family structure:

“In a familial union, you live in one household, and typically share the same name. Children born to the two of you will be part of your new family.”  

My daughter has friends and relatives whose parents don’t live together and, hell, I don’t have the same last name as her.  What would she think of their families or ours if she were subjected to this program?

Condemning Pre-Marital Sex
After telling young people that marriage is the only morally and socially appropriate relationship, the curriculum argues that a happy marriage is only possible if one avoids all premarital sexual activity. 

As yesterday’s article mentioned, Heritage Keepers compares sex to fire.  The teacher is told to narrate a scene about fire in a fireplace in the present tense to make it seem like the students are there.  She’s told to use “highly evocative” words like “cozy,” “comfy,” “toasty,” “warm,” and “nice.” Students are asked to add to the scene describing the fire and how it makes them feel. The teacher then changes the scene to discuss the possibility of creating a fire in the middle of the living room.  The teacher’s manual explains:

“Although building fire in a room without a fireplace is, of course, a ridiculous idea, the tone of your delivery and the details and explanations you include should treat it as reasonable. Mention sensible-sounding precautions, such as opening the windows for ventilation, building the fire in a trash can….”

Already we can see where they’re going with this, right?  These sensible-sounding precautions are akin to, say, birth control and condoms because, you know, opening the window to contain fire has a similar efficacy rate (98-99 percent) when done correctly. (I don’t actually know much about fire but aren’t you supposed to cut off its oxygen supply not give it more?)

Anyhow, the teacher is supposed to keep this silly story going and begin to tell the tale of what happens when this fire set in the middle of the room escapes from its “insufficient, provisional boundary.”  The curriculum’s authors suggest the teacher uses adjectives like “dangerous,” “painful,” “devastating,” and “scary” as she describes the room and all its contents burning to the ground.

The punch-line of this exercise is simple:

 “Sex is like fire. Inside the appropriate boundary of marriage, sex is a great thing! Outside of marriage, sex can be dangerous!”

This concept of appropriate boundaries is emphasized again and again throughout the curriculum. Students are essentially told that outside of marriage sex can lead to painful STDs, emotional scars, the inability to bond, and, of course, the shame of knowing you did something morally wrong.  Those wedding rings must be made of some powerful stuff though (stronger I’m guessing than my own choice of platinum) because once you slip them on, sex is wonderful and completely worry free. 

My favorite Heritage Keepers’ illustration of why waiting for marriage is so important is when the students are taken on a guided—or two separate—guided journeys of their wedding day. One for the girls and one for the boys.  To set the mood, the boy’s starts like this:

“You are standing in front of everyone looking good in your tuxedo, but wishing your collar was not so tight.”

It continues:

 “The doors swing open and there stands your bride in her white dress, looking more gorgeous than you have ever seen her. Even though every eye in the place is on her she is looking at you. This is the woman you have waited for who has waited for you…This woman loves you and trusts you with all that she is and all that she has. You want to be strong, respectful and courageous for her. With all your heart, you want to protect her, and by waiting you have.”  

Note that his motivation for waiting is to protect her.  You’ll see in her story, that her motivation is very different.  The girl’s story starts with this:

“Everything is just as you have seen it in a million daydreams…The flowers you spent so much time choosing fill the room like soft perfume.”  

Because, of course, all girls spend a lifetime planning their wedding, but I digress. It sounds remarkably similar to the boy’s story but the roles are reversed.  She wants him to protect her and cherish her and, by not making her have sex before this day, he has proved he does. But it gets so much better or at least more ridiculous:

“Finally it’s your matron of honor’s turn to go…it reminds you of her wedding. How strange it felt when she told you, long ago, that she was marrying your first boyfriend.”

When the doors open and she sees her groom, the bride realizes that she can’t even remember her ex-boyfriend’s name and she is pleased because:

“There is no guilt in your past, nothing you did with that ex-boyfriend makes you cringe. You never let yourself forget that the promise of love cannot fill the place of a vow and a ring.”

Putting aside the fact that in this oddly detailed story, you, the bride, can’t remember the name of your best friend’s husband, the message to girls is clear.  You can enjoy your wedding day if, and only if, you’ve never had sex because if you had an ex-boyfriend and you’d done dirty sex things with him well, then obviously you would be standing there in your nice, white, duchess satin dress, turning beet red with embarrassment and cringing as every sordid detail of your past sex life came flooding back in sea of shame and regret.

These were the messages that made me scream the loudest into the void of my sister’s empty hotel room. I had new baby girl.  I was now the mother of a daughter who might—heaven forbid—one day be subjected to a program like this that told her that a “real woman” knows herself, is confident, sends a clear message, and is caring. That clear message that is being alluded to, by the way, is that she will not put out until marriage because while boys will horny boys, it is her job to be the keeper of the purity. 

It’s almost six years later, said baby is sitting next to me (home sick) actually reading this article over my shoulder and she has a little sister who (thankfully) is at daycare right now.  But more importantly, it’s six years later and we have what I had hoped was going to be an administration that was more supportive of my daughters’ futures—one that would not try to promote marriage, perpetuate restrictive gender roles, or suggest that purity was the most important thing my girls could strive for. 

Needless to say, I am very disappointed.

* Note:  All of the quotes from Heritage Keepers come from a review I wrote while at SIECUS.  You can find this review and many others on SIECUS’ Community Action Kit website.