Teenage girls at risk; sports participation and sexual activity

Por: Elizabeth Pike e Natalie Dobson.

Athens 2004: Pre-olympic Congress

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Health discourse frequently represents young people as being ‘at risk’ (Evans et al., 20041). In the U.K., this includes an on-going concern with ‘unhealthy’ sexual activity and evidence that the nation has one of the highest rates of teenage pregnancy in Europe (www.statistics.gov.uk, 20022). In constructing young people in this way, so policies have been implemented to regulate their behaviour. In 1998, the government identified a Teenage Pregnancy Strategy to reduce rates by 15% by 2004. A survey in the USA suggested that sport may be one way of achieving this, since its findings indicated that girls who participated in sport were less sexually active and had lower rates of pregnancy (Sabo et al., 19983).


This study adopts a symbolic interactionist framework to consider the way that teenagers evaluate the costs and benefits to self of involvement in particular activities, including sport and/or sexual activities, according to socially constructed norms. A questionnaire survey was conducted of 16 year old pupils (n=125) in a school in England, along with interviews with a physical education teacher and students.


This paper focuses on the female respondents, who negotiated multiple identities related to the physical changes in the body during puberty. These included the embodied (and sometimes contradictory) identities as ‘woman’ and as ‘athlete’. Those who were higher involved in sport demonstrated greater internalisation of health discourse, and were more likely to engage in ‘safe’, or no, sexual activity. Sporting success appeared to enable them to achieve a personal identity in non-sexual terms in accordance with moral codes. However, this threatened their sense of ‘femininity’. Others withdrew from sport to engage in activities (including sexual) which were seen to be more consistent with an adult female identity.


This study suggests that teenage behaviour needs to be understood as part of a broader process of identity construction, which is framed by exposure to complex normalising messages dictating ‘appropriate’ gendered behaviour and moral discourses concerning risk.


[1] Evans, J. et al. (eds.) (2004). Body Knowledge and Control: Studies in the Sociology of Physical Education and Health. London, Routledge.
[2] National Statistics (2002). www.statistics.gov.uk.
[3] Sabo, D. et al. (1998). The Women’s Sports Foundation Report: Sport and Teen Pregnancy. East Meadow, NY, Women’s Sports Foundation.




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