This study sought to clarify the links and benefits between sports and high-risk sexual behavior among high-school girls.
Past research has shown that girls involved with sports in high school are less likely to engage in risky sexual behaviors such as high numbers of partners, inconsistent or no use of birth control, or engaging in sex while under the influence of drugs or alcohol. But the reasons for the correlation between sports involvement and lower incidents of risky sexual behaviors were unclear. Using data from the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health, we sought to determine how and for whom this effect operates and whether participation in sports during high school continues to predict safer sexual behavior into early adulthood.
What did we find out?
Our study shows that dramatically different dynamics operate for boys and girls, but highly gendered messages and expectations regarding both sports participation and sexual behavior are potentially damaging to both adolescent girls and boys.
The decrease in girls’ participation in risky sexual behavior associated with sports involvement is party due to a delay in sexual initiation and party to social-psychological dynamics, such as enhanced self-confidence, a less stereotypically feminine gender role identity, and/or a stronger desire to avoid teenage pregnancy.
Many researchers have pointed out that, especially in early adolescence, there is an increased interest in upholding or playing out stereotypical gender roles, which has been called gender intensification. For most adolescents, gender intensification dissipates as they reach young adulthood. We suspect that, as girls negotiate adolescence, being physically active can enhance their ability to resist cultural messages regarding femininity (e.g., “be sexy”, “be compliant”, “be naïve”) that contribute to sexual risk. However, our research shows that there is a secondary, more direct link between sports and lower sexual risk; even among girls with similar self-rated femininity, those who were physically active reported lower sexual risk during adolescence.
Contextual factors, such as neighborhood poverty levels and employment opportunities also influence girls’ involvement with risky sexual behavior. The protective effect of sports participation appears to be strongest among girls with fewer contextual risks—lower levels of neighborhood poverty and higher levels of employment opportunity. Physical activity participation may be enhancing existing protective elements in the environment or, conversely, factors associated with neighborhood poverty and unemployment may be counteracting the protective effect of sports participation. It is also possible that the beneficial effects of physical activity cannot overcome the pervasive environmental factors conducive to engaging in risky sexual behaviors.
The protection that sports participation offers appears to be specific to sexual risk incurred while adolescent girls are still sexually inexperienced and still under their parents’ care. Sexual decisions made as a young adult reflect other influences. Still, we found that processes at work during adolescence are strong enough to result in a measurably lower risk of having unintended pregnancy by early adulthood.
For boys, being physically active or participating in sports during high school does not make a difference in when they become sexually active or whether they engage in risky sexual activities during adolescence.
Early and sustained participation in sports and physical activity appears to act as a risk factor for increased sexual risk-taking, not during adolescence, but during early adulthood. That is, boys who begin their athletic careers early and continue being physically active throughout high school tend to engage in riskier sexual behaviors as young adults. We speculate that participation in sports exposes boys to powerful cultural messages regarding masculinity—messages that are likely to interfere with forming sound sexual decision-making skills.
What suggestions do we have based on our findings?
Our recommendations for girls’ healthy sexual development is to
get them started and committed to physical activity at an early age,
make it possible and convenient for them to continue being physically active, and
work with all girls to counter traditional gender scripts that operate to decrease girls’ sports participation as they mature and to increase their likelihood of engaging in risky sexual behaviors.
These recommendations can be made with a strong conviction: our results show that the protective effects of physical activity were obtained after controlling for all relevant variables that are known to influence sexual behavior. That is, the effects of physical activity operate as a protective factor beyond the influence of other known protective and risk factors such as mother’s education, living in a two-parent family, doing well in school, having hobbies, being religiously observant.
For boys, getting them to be physically active is not the real challenge. Rather, the challenge is to counter harmful messages regarding masculinity in a way that encourages them to think and behave differently about their own and their partners’ sexual health, both during and beyond the high school years.
Sexual health education that can address the perils of endorsing traditional gender roles can benefit both male and female students. Similarly, school sports programs can include in discussions of athletes’ health, a segment on sexual health that educates both young men and women about the importance of safer sexual practices, including becoming sexually active at a later age.
Erkut, S. & Tracy, A. J. (2000). Protective effects of sports participation on girls' sexual behavior. Working Paper No. 301. Wellesley, MA: Wellesley Centers for Women.
Erkut, S. & Tracy, A. J. (2002). Predicting adolescent self-esteem from participation in school sports among Latino subgroups. Hispanic Journal of Behavioral Sciences, 24(4), 409-429.
Tracy, A. J. & Erkut, S. (2001). Gender and race patterns in the pathways from school-based sports participation to self-esteem. Working Paper No. 403. Wellesley, MA: Wellesley Centers for Women.
Tracy, A. J. & Erkut, S. (2002). Gender and race patterns in the pathways from sports participation to self-esteem. Sociological Perspectives, 45(4), 445-466.