Sex and america's teenagers

What's sports got to do with it?

For years, parents, educators and policymakers have been discussing the risky behavior of adolescents and the consequences associated with their sexual activity. Much of this discussion stems from the perception that adolescents are beginning to engage in sexual activities at a much earlier age than that of previous years. The outcome of this debate has often been the implementation of intervention programs such as sexual education classes and other community outreach programs which are designed to help reduce teen sexual activity, pregnancy risk and the spread of sexually transmitted diseases. Unfortunately, many of these programs have failed to yield the results for which they were intended. Research has shown that while intervention programs do teach strategies for building self-esteem, avoiding sexual activity, and understanding the consequences of sexual behavior (e.g., pregnancy or disease); they are often implemented through schools and community centers which can overlook the methods which adolescents would prefer to employ when seeking out knowledge of sex and sexual behavior. Intervention programs also tend to lose sight of the possibility that there may be other activities that produce these desired outcomes as well (e.g., sports participation or exercise). It is my assertion that participation in organized sports provides many of the same effective strategies (e.g., self-esteem, ability to avoid unwanted sexual activity, and knowledge of consequences) for reducing adolescent sexual activity, especially amongst females. Therefore, while many policymakers and parents quibble over whether or not to teach sexual education classes to students; I suggest expanding the physical education curriculum in public schools and implementing sports participation as a requirement for graduation.

Age of Onset

Statistics prove quite useful to sociologists and other social scientists when discussing their research studies. Unfortunately, policymakers do not necessarily utilize these numbers effectively or even interpret their meaning correctly all of the time; especially in the case of policies created for education. As mentioned above, much of the current disquiet regarding adolescent sexual activity is provoked by the perception that the age of onset is getting younger and younger. Two research studies will be discussed herein to highlight the falseness of this claim.

The first study is titled Sex and America's Teenagers conducted by the Alan Guttmacher Institute in 1994 (New York). The Guttmacher research found that five to ten percent of twelve-year-olds and fifteen percent of thirteen-year-olds in America reported having had intercourse.[1] Furthermore, the study claims that at least half of all American women and more than seventy-five percent of all American men reported having had sex by the age of eighteen. In contrast, the second study titled U.S. Teen Sexual Activity conducted by The Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation in 2005 (California/Washington D.C.) shows staggeringly different figures over the decade long gap. The Kaiser research indicates that the age of onset of sexual activity has fallen significantly. The Kaiser study reported that teens who engaged in sexual intercourse before the age of fourteen had decreased to only six percent of females and eight percent of males.[2] In addition, this study goes on to show that the number of men and women who report having had sex in their senior year of high school (roughly seventeen to eighteen years of age) had decreased to only sixty-two percent. Both studies, when compared to one another, stand to prove that the age of onset of sexual activity is in fact getting older.

Intervention Programs and Sex Education

The sexual education of students is the main outcome of the disquiet over youth sexual activity. The purpose of narrowing down the age at which adolescents are beginning to engage in sexual activity is mainly for the purpose of determining at what age students should be educated about sexual behavior and its consequences. Since the 1960's the debate has raged on over not only when to teach students "sex ed," but also what to teach them. Author, Shelley L. Balanko discusses two competing perspectives on sexual education. She speaks of the restrictive ideology in which students are taught abstinence-only education with roots in biblical conceptions of sexuality and the dangers of sex.[3] On the other end of the spectrum is the permissive ideology in which students are taught not only the consequences of sexual activity, but also the joys and necessity of sex, as well as sexual equality through person-based sexual ethics and justice.[4] These competing perspectives continue to be utilized in the current sexual education debate.

As this debate continues to plague policymakers, educators, and parents, more and more intervention programs are being created to help quell the urge of adolescent sexual desires. Programs like the National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy, Teen Outreach, In Your Face Pregnancy Prevention Program, and Advocates For Youth have sprung up and are being operated throughout the United States. Each of these education and intervention programs promote abstinence coupled with comprehensive sexual education. Unfortunately, as researcher Mike Males has pointed out, "...most programs have yielded results that are disappointing at best."[5]

Methods of Receiving Information

One suggestion as to why this may be the case is made by authors Sharon L. Nichols and Thomas L. Good who say that it is developmentally appropriate for adolescents to become sexually curious.[6] The problem, according to Nichols and Good, is that "Fear tactics and other strategies [emphasis mine] are employed to stop youth from having sex or even thinking about it."[7] These authors also point out that, when polled, students most often say that they would prefer to learn about sex from their parents.[8] If a student is turned off at the idea of learning about an already private and personal subject from someone other than their parents, then what good are intervention programs going to do? Think of the federal funding wasted on sexual education programs in public and private schools that are not yielding encouraging results.

Furthermore, with the internet revolution came increased ability to access information without the need to be physically present to receive its message or taught its meaning. Therefore, many of the intervention programs available for teens are being accessed privately by adolescents who then often have trouble making sense of the information. Once again, money is being wasted on programs whose effects are not having their desired outcomes. Instead, teens look to their friends and the popular media for answers to their burning questions.

The biggest problem with asking their friends stems from the fact that their friends are in the same boat. They too are adolescents with questions regarding sex, increasing sexual desires, and a lack of good, healthy means to gain knowledge and reduce sexual activity. The media can be useful to disseminate information, as long as parents and educators are mindful of what media sources they allow adolescents to learn from. Parents and educators should play an active role in determining what media outlets children and teenagers can access. These outlets should feature positive role models of all ethnicities and all sexes. Equal representation is the key to learning sexual scripts that will ensure equality among the sexes, which can also lead to a decrease in sexual activity by promoting self awareness and sexual justice.

Other Activities Yielding Desired Outcomes

Another fact pointed out by Kathleen E. Miller et al., which could yield potentially encouraging implications for decreasing adolescent sexual activity if rectified, is that "few researchers have explored the potential deterrent effect of routine extracurricular activity."[9] One extracurricular activity that Miller and her research partners agree has potentially deterrent effects is participation in organized sports. Numerous studies have proven that sports participation and the physical activity associated with it, provides not only the promotion of overall physical well-being, but also strength, a feeling of ownership over one's body, and a significant boost to an athlete's self-esteem. All of these outcomes can be linked to a decrease in sexual activity, especially amongst females.

One of the greatest indicators for federal funding of school-based sports programs is the belief that they boost self-esteem. In 1961 researcher James S. Coleman published what has come to be known as the Coleman Report, in which he spoke of the "centrality of athletics in the status system of American High schools."[10] Further research indicates that along with achieving higher status in school, comes greater self-esteem. Even further research shows that self-esteem and guided extra-curricular activity, such as organized athletics, have proven, positive effects on students' academic achievement.[11] While some opponents of competitive athletics claim that sporting events breed unhealthy competition and increased violence; the majority of research conducted has yielded positive data regarding adolescents.

A research study conducted in 1999 found that a significant main effect of decreasing sexual activity amongst adolescents is self-esteem. The authors of this research stated in regards to their findings, "...higher levels of self-esteem and self-confidence were negatively related to early intercourse."[12] Negative is good in this sense; meaning that it indicated a decrease in or later age of onset of sexual activity. In support of this fact, authors Michael J. Nakkula and Eric Toshalis have also stated that low self-esteem can be related to adolescent risk-taking behavior. They go on to say, "...high-risk behavior, such as...unsafe sexual practices, may be a way for youth to salve the pain they feel."[13] While these authors also stress that there are classic "positive risks" that promote adolescent development and creativity, unsafe sexual practices are definitely not one of them.

It is my hope that continued research will be conducted regarding the effects of sports on sexual behavior and sexual identity development. For now, what research we do have to look at shows strong support for the conclusion that physical activity under the guidance of adult supervision yields several positive outcomes in regards to sexual activity. Not only has there been seen a later age of onset of sexual activity among athletes versus non-athletes; there is also data that shows a decrease in the number of sexual partners, the number of unwanted/unexpected pregnancies, and the prevalence of sexually transmitted diseases at the high school age level.[14]

Exercise Is Not The Same

The benefits of participation in sports, as referenced above, are not the same as those yielded from informal physical exercise alone. While it must be conceded that some of the outcomes of physical exercise will yield similar outcomes to that of organized athletics; the implications for youth sexual activity and risky behavior are very different. For instance, increased physical strength, self-esteem, and body image can all result from exercise which has been shown to decrease adolescent sexual activity. However, simple exercise may or may not take place in isolation; whereas participation on a sports team involves a complex social network of peer attachments and - most importantly - adult supervision providing structure and access to reward systems. Therefore, while it is likely that both sports and exercise have links to adolescent sexual activity, it is necessary to realize that each does so in decidedly different ways.


Some argue that organized sports participation is not necessary, that merely any extracurricular activity with adult supervision that keeps kids off the streets will curb their sexual desires and reduce teen sexual activity. Miller et al. even state, "Adolescents with substantial amounts of unstructured, unsupervised time are more likely to engage in risky behavior than those who are constructively engaged."[15] This statement appears to leave room for this argument. They go on to highlight the "idle hands" thesis which grants no special power to the playing field. However, they quickly dispense with this line of reasoning and promote the idea of control theory which proposes that the simple devotion of time and energy to an extracurricular activity is not enough. Control theory suggests that an affective attachment to coaches and teammates, as well as incentive and realized access to the highly valued reward structure offered by athletics, is necessary for the affective suppression of deviance.[16] Deviance, in this case, is intended to mean unsafe or early sexual behavior.

Participation in sports has been consistently proven to be a means for both male and female athletes to gain status among their peers. Research has shown that male athletes may also then trade their status for risky behavior with willing females. The opposite appears to be true for female athletes. Girls become accustomed to viewing themselves in a proactive way through sports. They then become less passive, subservient and emotionally dependent on their male counterparts for attention.[17] Girls develop a growing sense of empowerment and overcome the need to exchange sex for gains in their status which often comes through dating prestigious males. Sports can also provide a social network for girls by being a member of a team, where they can then discuss their personal relationships and the motives of boys. This type of data reveals the social and cultural side of organized sports that accompany the more obvious physical advantages to this type of extracurricular activity.

Practical Application and Educational Implications

  1. Alan Guttmacher Institute, Sex and America's Teenagers (New York: 1994) in Kathleen E. Miller, et al., "Athletic Participation and Sexual Behavior in Adolescents: The Different Worlds of Boys and Girls," Journal of Health and Social Behavior 39 no. 2 (June 1998): 108.
  2. Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation, U.S. Teen Sexual Activity, (California/Washington D.C.: 2005) (accessed April 24, 2010).
  3. Shelley L. Balanko, "Good Sex?: A Critical Review of School Sex Education," Guidance and Counseling 17 no. 4 (Summer 2002).
  4. Ibid.
  5. Mike Males, "School-Age Pregnancy: Why Hasn't Prevention Worked?" Journal of School Health 63: 429.
  6. Sharon L. Nichols and Thomas L. Good, "The Sex Lives of Teenagers," in America's Teenagers - Myths and Realities: Media Images, Schooling, and the Social Costs of Careless Indifference (New York: Routledge, 2009) 91.
  7. Ibid.
  8. Ibid., 106.
  9. Kathleen E. Miller, et al., "Athletic Participation and Sexual Behavior in Adolescents: The Different Worlds of Boys and Girls," Journal of Health and Social Behavior 39 no. 2 (June 1998): 109.
  10. James S. Coleman, "The Coleman Report," in Allison J. Tracy and Sumru Erkut, "Gender and Race Patterns in the Pathways from Sports Participation to Self-Esteem," Sociological Perspectives 45 no. 4 (Winter 2002) 446.
  11. Tamela McNulty Eitle and David J. Eitle, "Race, Cultural Capital, and the Educational Effects of Participation in Sports," Sociology of Education 75 no. 2 (April 2002): 123.
  12. Les B. Whitbeck, et al., "Early Adolescent Sexual Activity: A Developmental Study," Journal of Marriage and Family 61 no. 4 (November 1999): 942.
  13. Michael J. Nakkula and Eric Toshalis, "Risk Taking and Creativity," in Understanding Youth: Adolescent Development for Educators (Cambridge: Harvard Education Press, 2008) 41.
  14. Kathleen E. Miller, et al., "Athletic Participation and Sexual Behavior in Adolescents: The Different Worlds of Boys and Girls," Journal of Health and Social Behavior 39 no. 2 (June 1998). 108-23.
  15. Ibid., 110.
  16. Ibid.
  17. Ibid., 111.

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