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Spokespersons for something called the Guttmacher Institute announced last week that the teen pregnancy rate in the U.S. is now lower than it’s been in more than two decades. Kudos for the rate reduction went to Depo Provera and Norplant.
Nobody mentioned field hockey. Or softball. Or soccer.
Maybe someone should have, given the findings of a five-member research team working under the auspices of something called the Women’s Sports Foundation (WSF). This summer, the Journal of Health and Social Behavior published the team’s study, titled “Athletic Participation and Sexual Behavior in Adolescents: The Different Worlds of Boys and Girls.”
“We looked at the consequences of playing sports,” says Kate Miller, assistant professor at George Washington University and one of the key researchers, “and our findings on the impact that had on young women were particularly strong.”
Relying on data supplied by public high schools in western New York state, Miller et al. concluded that girls who play scholastic sportsany organized sport will doare less inclined to participate in the one extracurricular activity that parents fear most.
The researchers found that jockettes were: a lot more likely to be virgins than nonathletes, on average much older when they took the plunge for the first time, likely to have had less sex and with fewer partners, and far more likely to use contraception during sex. Another WSF studybased on national statisticsreleased around the same time supported Miller’s group’s findings, adding that teenage female athletes were 50 percent less likely to get pregnant than nonathletes.
News of this relative abstinence comes at a time when participation in girls’ scholastic sports is absolutely booming. According to WSF, there are now more than 2.4 million female athletes at U.S. high schools, the highest total ever and 10 times as many as there were back in 1972, the year Title IX was passed. The teen pregnancy rate, meanwhile, has fallen 14 percent in the 1990s, according to the Guttmacher Institute. Maybe it’s all coincidence, or maybe coaches, along with the aforementioned contraceptives, deserve credit for the rollback.
Perhaps not surprisingly, the sports-and-sex study’s findings are different for boys. In the sample group, guy jocks did the dirty deed at a younger age and more often than bookworms. (The number of schoolboys who play sports has actually dropped over the last few decades.) Call her nutty, but professor Miller says she didn’t expect the research to support the stereotype that the quarterback gets more tail than a toilet seat. She was wrong.
“Going in, we had a theory that sports might decrease sex for both genders for a very basic reason: because kids are too busy with sports to have time for sex,” Miller says. “That’s not what we found for boys. Now, we need to find out what is going on in boys’ lives that leads them to have sex earlier, whether part of it is the locker-room culture, where boys learn they should score on and off the field, or…the status that athletics gives boys that enables them to convince girls to have sex.”
Why would the same locker-room environment that researchers think has long led boys to become sexually active now have an opposite effect on girls? Well, Miller isn’t sure, and she hesitates to make conclusions about how or why athletic participation leads to different sexual behaviors without further investigation. She also notes that researchers are loath to publicly judge teenage sexual activity as inherently a bad thing, leaving that duty to principals and the PTA.
Officials of the WSF, however, have no such qualms about taking the statistical ball and running with it.
“We contend that sports are a cultural resource that builds girls’ confidence, sense of physical empowerment, and social recognition within the school and community,” reads the executive summary offered up by WSF after Miller’s study. “Girls may be using the self-reliance and social status gained through athletic participation to resist social pressures to exchange sex for approval or popularity.”
The WSF summary also argues, on the basis of the study’s findings, that popular women athletes may be the most effective mouthpieces when it comes time to deliver “positive messages to teens about abstinence, contraceptive use, or avoiding teen parenthood.”
Miller, however, points out that there are some holes in the research she’d like to see filled. For starters, only heterosexual encounters were counted as sex in her study. If the cliché about sports and lesbians holds true, Miller says, the study’s findings will have to be reassessedbut certainly not tossed away.
“We’ve left out a whole range of sexual activity, obviously,” she says. “That’s one of those things we could only learn through qualitative research, by letting [students] elaborate about their behaviors. If it turned out that we got our results because that many girls [who play sports] are developing same-sex orientation, well, that would be a more important finding than anything we’ve found here. There’s no good, documented research to say if girls in sports tend to be lesbians or [heterosexuals]. That study needs to be done. Then, maybe we’d have something absolutely groundbreaking on our hands.”
In the meantime, Little Debbie’s parents may not want to get so upset when she skips her chores or piano lessons to go out back and shoot hoops.Dave McKenna