Sports: Untapped Resource For Curbing Teenage Sex?

June 02, 1998

High school sports may be an untapped resource for reducing teenage girls' sexual activity and thus their risk for pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases, according to new research.

Writing in the June issue of the Journal of Health and Social Behavior, Kathleen E. Miller, PhD, and her colleagues report that among adolescent girls, participating in high school sports is associated with beginning to have sex later, having intercourse less often, and having fewer sex partners than their non-athlete peers.

The researchers surveyed 611 western New York adolescents aged 14 to 19 and their families. They found that 65 percent of the boys participated in sports, but only 47 percent of the girls.

"Female athletes had substantially fewer sex partners, engaged in less frequent intercourse...and began having sex at a later age," writes Miller, of the State University of New York at Buffalo. "For boys, however, the effects were decidedly weaker.... To the extent that sports made a difference in boys' sexual behavior at all, male adolescent athletes actually reported more partners, more sexual experience overall, and earlier sexual onset than did their noninvolved peers."

The authors theorize that this may be because for boys, sports often enhance "a sexually aggressive ethic of masculinity" while for girls they weaken their commitment to a conventional "cultural script" of passive femininity.

Miller and her colleagues note that adolescent girls are growing more sexually active as double standards wane both in opportunities for sexual intercourse and in attitudes against engaging in sexual behavior. In addition, early and frequent sexual relations among teenagers are associated with both unwanted pregnancies and sexual transmitted diseases.

Most programs to reduce teenage sexual activity and pregnancy risk, they write, "have yielded results that are disappointing at best."

"While athletic participation is certainly not a `quick fix,'" Miller said, "it may be a valuable tool in helping teenage girls make decisions about sex, decisions that can have far-reaching consequences in terms of health, pregnancy risk, and life chances."

The research team included Drs. Miller; Donald Sabo, of D'Youville College; Michael Farrell, of State University of New York at Buffalo; Grace Barnes, of the New York State Research Institute on Addictions; and Merrill Melnick, of State University of New York at Brockport.

The work was supported by the Women's Sports Foundation with funds from the Packard Foundation, the Turner Foundation, the RGK Foundation, and the Sara Lee Foundation, and by grants to Dr. Barnes from the National Institute of Alcoholism and Alcohol Abuse.

The study was part of a larger project, The Women's Sports Foundation Report: Sport and Teen Pregnancy, sponsored by the Women's Sports Foundation. Copies of the full report and its policy recommendations can be requested at 1(800) 227-3988 or by e-mail at

Center for Advancing Health

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