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Not Just Another Single Issue: Teen Pregnancy and Athletic Involvement

— National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy
Updated on Jul 26, 2007

When it comes to preventing teen pregnancy, few make the link with women's athletic participation. Common sense and a growing body of research suggests, however, that creating opportunities for girls to play sports can play a key role in reducing teen pregnancy. For example, female athletes in grades 9 through 12 are less than half as likely to get pregnant as their non-athlete peers1, and they tend to have higher self-esteem and more positive body images. Participating in athletics also decreases the chance that both girls and boys will abuse drugs and alcohol, both of which can lead to risky decisions about sex. These interrelationships are further highlighted by two important trends: the teen birth rate has declined 31 percent between 1991 and 2002,2 and over approximately this same period, young women's participation in high school athletics increased by 47 percent.3 In addition:

  • Girls who play sports are more likely than those who don't to be virgins.4 They wait longer before having sex for the first time5, have sex less often, and have sex with fewer partners, than female non-athletes.6 And, as noted above, female teen athletes are far less likely to get pregnant than their peers who are not athletes.
  • Male and female teen athletes are less likely to use drugs, including marijuana, cocaine, crack cocaine, heroin and hallucinogens.7 This is an important finding because almost a third of young adults (age 18-24) say they have "done more" sexually under the influence of drugs and alcohol than they planned while sober, and more than one in five sexually active young people (age 15-24) report having had unprotected sex while intoxicated.8
  • When girls in poor neighborhoods participate in sports or other physical activities, they report higher levels of self-esteem and wait longer before having sex for the first time.9
  • Young female athletes in grades 9-12, particularly African-American girls, are less likely to combine sex with drugs and alcohol than are their non-athlete peers, a key risk factor in becoming pregnant and contracting sexually transmitted diseases.10
  • Female high school athletes of all races and ethnicities tend to have higher grades and significantly higher graduation rates than non-athletes, and this academic performance is powerfully linked to avoiding teen pregnancy.11 For example, about half of teen mothers drop out of school before they become pregnant.12 The positive effects of sports on grades are especially pronounced among Latinas, the ethnic group with the highest teen birth rate.13

In short, athletics both encourage girls to see themselves as strong, smart and confident, and discourage risky sexual behavior that can lead to too-early sex and pregnancy. To sustain and extend these positive effects, girls need equal opportunities to participate in physical education and on school sports teams, and encouragement to do so. Title IX - the federal law that mandates equal opportunities for girls and women in school - has undoubtedly moved girls' athletics forward and contributed to the decline in teen pregnancy.

Endnotes
  1. Sabo, D., Miller, K., Farrell, M., Barnes, G., and Melnick, M. (1998). The Women 's Sports Foundation report: Sport and teen pregnancy. East Meadow, NY: Women 's Sports Foundation.
  2. Hamilton, B.E., Martin, J.A., and Sutton, P.D. (2003). Births: Preliminary data for 2002. National Vital Statistic Report, 51(11).
  3. National Collegiate Athletic Association. (2002). NCAA sports sponsorship and participation report: 1982-2001. Indianapolis, IN: National Collegiate Athletic Association.
  4. Erkut, S. and Tracy, A. (2000). Protective effects of sports participation on girls' sexual behavior. Wellesley, MA: Center for Research on Women.
  5. Ibid.
  6. Sabo, D., Miller, K., Farrell, M., Barnes, G., and Melnick, M. (1998). The Women 's Sports Foundation report: Sport and teen pregnancy. East Meadow, NY: Women 's Sports Foundation.
  7. Miller, K. E., Sabo, D.F., Melnick, M.J., Farrell, M.P., and Barnes, G.M. (2000). The Women 's Sports Foundation report: Health risks and the teen athlete. East Meadow, NY: Women 's Sports Foundation.
  8. Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation. (2003). National survey of adolescents and young adults: Sexual health knowledge, attitudes and experiences. Menlo Park, CA: Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation.
  9. Erkut, S. and Tracy, A. (2000). Protective effects of sports participation on girls' sexual behavior. Wellesley, MA: Center for Research on Women.
  10. Ibid.
  11. Manlove, J. (1998). The influence of high school dropout and school disengagement on the risk of school-age pregnancy. Journal of Research on Adolescence, 8(2), 187-220. Holloway, J. (200). Extra-curricular activities: The path to academic success?. Education Leadership, 57(4).
  12. Ibid.
  13. The Feminist Majority Foundation. (1995). Empowering women in sports: Athletics in the lives of women and girls. Washington, DC: The Feminist Majority Foundation.
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