Study Links 'Degrading' Music with Teen Sex

A study by the RAND Corp. finds that teens who listen to "sexually degrading" lyrics are more likely to have sex earlier. Danyel Smith, editor-in-chief of Vibe magazine and Steven Martino, the lead researcher on the RAND study, discuss the results with Farai Chideya.

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TONY COX, host:

From NPR News, this is NEWS AND NOTES. I'm Tony Cox sitting in for Ed Gordon.

On average, American teens listen to one and a half to two and a half hours of music a day. From 50 Cent to Britney Spears, pop and hip-hop music can present a world that's sexualized mildly or explicitly. Now a new study by conservative think-tank the Rand Corporation makes a connection between sexually explicit lyrics and public health concerns.

Notably, the study found that teens who listen to sexually degrading lyrics are more likely to engage in sexual behaviors at an earlier age. Danielle Smith, editor-in-chief of Vibe Magazine, and Steven Martino - the lead researcher on the Rand study - spoke with NPR's Farai Chideya.

Mr. STEVEN MARTINO (Researcher, Rand Corporation): We interviewed a national sample of approximately 1,400 teens to find out about the music they listen to, and then we followed up that sample with another interview approximately two years later.

We found that the more teens listened to music with degrading sexually content, the more likely they were to begin sexual activity by the time of the follow-up survey. And this includes both sexual intercourse as well sexual behaviors that do not involve intercourse.

FARAI CHIDEYA reporting:

Now I'm just going to read a sample from your study that compares a non-degrading sexual lyric to a degrading sexual lyric, and we will be bleeping out the naughty bits. You have here a lyric from 98 Degrees' Dizzy.

When my eyes open, I want to see your face - spending my days in your sweet embrace. Just one night with you could set me free, I get to next to you and I get dizzy, dizzy. You make me think of things to come. I'm dreaming day and night of making love. 98 Degrees' Dizzy.

And this is Ja Rule, Living it Up: Half the (censored) hate me, half of them love me. The ones that hate me only hate me cause they ain't (censored) me. And they say I'm lucky. Do you think I've got time to (censored) to all these (censored)? Again, Ja Rule, Living it Up.

So how exactly did you define sexually degrading lyrics? I mean, there seems to be a clear difference between the two I just mentioned. But how did you go about rating all of the different lyrics that you were going to use in this study?

Mr. MARTINO: In our initial survey, we asked kids how frequently they listened to each of 16 music artists. These 16 artists were chosen because they were very popular with teens at the time. We then took the album that was released by each artist just prior to our survey, and on a song-for-song basis determined whether degrading or non-degrading sexual references were present.

With these two pieces of information - how much kids were listening to each artist and how much sexual content was in the music of each artist - we were able to create a measure of kids' exposure to sexually degrading and sexually non-degrading content.

We defined degrading lyrical content as lyrics that portray women as sexual objects, men as having veracious sexual appetites, and sex itself as inconsequential.

CHIDEYA: So Danielle, you recently returned to edit Vibe Magazine after several years of working on different projects. Is hip-hop and pop music today more explicit or more degrading than in the past? Or is this something that you think has been persisting for a while?

Ms. DANIELLE SMITH (Editor-in-Chief, Vibe Magazine): There are a lot of degrading lyrics in hip-hop and even in rhythm and blues music today. I think the pendulum has been swinging that way probably for the last five or 10 years.

And it's disheartening, but I hesitate to say that we should somehow stop it or somehow try to make it different.

CHIDEYA: What do you mean by that?

Ms. SMITH: For so long - and not so long ago that I can't remember - you did not see black women's bodies pretty much at all. You did not hear black men talking about - however degrading and ugly some of them sound on record - they never really had a place to speak their mind about their sexual appetites or how they feel about sex or how they feel about women.

And what I view this as - and when I look at the larger picture - is this is a pendulum swinging, and I can only hope that it swings back. Pendulums are made, they are built to swing back. But I do look at this as a spurt in the overall history, sort of, of black music and pop music. And I can only hope that parents and people that help support parents can sort of steer kids away from these kinds of things until they are old enough to understand them. And I know that that's a big dream, but I do feel like I want adult African-American men and women to have a voice - be it in hip-hop or in R&B or just in general -about how they feel sexually.

CHIDEYA: And how old is your readership on average do you think?

Ms. SMITH: Probably about 25, 26.

CHIDEYA: We're talking about teens, Steven, in your study. You started with 12-to 17-year-olds?

Mr. MARTINO: Yes, that's right.

CHIDEYA: And you tracked them for how long?

Mr. MARTINO: We tracked them from the year 2001 until the year 2004.

CHIDEYA: Your study says that one in four sexually active teens gets a sexually transmitted disease each year, and one in five sexually active teen girls gets pregnant. How do these explicit lyrics or degrading lyrics relate directly to those types of health risks?

Ms. SMITH: I'm curious about that myself.

Mr. MARTINO: We feel that when kids listen to a lot of music with degrading sexually content, they are getting a clear message about what it means to be sexual. So if a 13 or 14-year-old kid is trying to figure out what it means to be a sexual person and how to negotiate sexual situations - or potentially sexual situations - then that teen has a source of information in popular music.

If the main message that teen gets from music is that women are sexual objects and men are players - to use common lingo - then that teen is likely to see those as plausible ways to be. So when that teen is then in a sexual situation or a potentially sexual situation, the messages that he or she has gotten from music are likely to guide his or her actions.

We in this study showed that being exposed to high amounts of these types of lyrics leads teens to have sex earlier.

One of the things that we know from earlier research is that the earlier teens begin sexual activity, the more likely they are to regret that sexual activity, to have that sexual activity result in an unplanned pregnancy or an STD.

CHIDEYA: Danielle, how do you respond to that?

Ms. SMITH: I think that - and I have nothing but anecdotal evidence - if you listen to music as a 13 or 14-year-old girl - and I'm speaking from my own history here - and you're hearing like the lyrics from the 98 Degrees song that was quoted earlier, I don't know, but I feel like that's going to make you want to have sex even more than if you hear degrading lyrics because it sounds so wonderful. It sounds like the boy is going to love you forever and never, ever leave you.

And the other thing that I'm also curious about is from what I understand, there was a recent study that said that right now teen pregnancy is down lower than it's been in many, many years. So I'm just wondering how that study relates to the study that we're talking about right now.

CHIDEYA: Steven?

Mr. MARTINO: I agree with Danielle on many points. One of them is that we think very strongly that censorship is not an effective solution to this problem. It's far better, we think, to teach kids to be critical consumers of music than to try to plug their ears every time a musician - be it a rap musician or whomever - starts talking negatively about women or portraying men and women in the ways that I've described.

You know, I also feel that a lot of the burden is probably best put into the laps of parents. Parents need to be aware of what music their kids are listening to and of the potential effects of that music on their thoughts and behaviors. And they should share their own views about sexuality with their children so that kids have that perspective as another view on sexuality.

I also want to emphasize what Danielle was saying about rap music and rap musicians. Rap music has a long history. Not all rap artists use this type of imagery in their songs. And historically, rap music has been in many different places. And this is a relatively recent phenomenon.

CHIDEYA: But at the same time, according to your study, you have these 16 artists. And when you put them - listed them in the study, you don't list them by name, but by genre.

Mr. MARTINO: That's right.

CHIDEYA: And so you have, you know, one hard rock, two alternative rock. Two rap-rock, three straight rap, one rap-metal. And the two acts with the highest percentage of songs with degrading sexual content - according to your study -are both rap acts. The other ones that rank high are these hybrids - rap-rock acts, you know.

So this is maybe more for Danielle. Do you at this point - having not just looked at rap music, but also at other forms of popular music - do you see rap music crossing some boundaries, especially in lyrics that teenagers listen to that other genres aren't? Or do you think that this is a bum rap?

Ms. SMITH: I don't think it's a bum rap at all. I think a lot of rappers - and more than I would like to see - a lot of male rappers especially are saying some things about women that I would not want my niece to hear until she was well into her 20s, and only then if she was forced to.

But what I am saying is, while I don't like it, everything is not for me to like. I just don't want to shut these guys down. I want them to have their ugly moment. I think this is an angry, ugly spurt in rap music. I think it is unfortunate, but I feel like it needs to happen.

CHIDEYA: If you talk about this as a pendulum swinging one direction with some of these explicit lyrics, what is the opposite direction? Is there going to be a pendulum swing where women begin using an equal amount of sexually explicit lyrics? Or is it going to be a return to, you know, some kind of innocent 80s proto-rap? I mean, what are you really talking about?

Ms. SMITH: Rap music is always going to surprise us. I do think that right now, though, we are talking about men specifically and their lyrics. I think if you go to lyrics of artists, say, like Remy Ma or Lil' Kim or Foxy Brown or even Eve, you're going to see some pretty darn sexually explicit lyrics where men are being treated very much like objects, and only people from whom money can be taken or people that can be used for sexual favors.

So I think women are already - not in terms of quantity, but definitely in terms - if I can use the word - quality of sexual explicitness, they are already right there. I think rap is going to change in a way that I cannot hope to predict. Is it going to come back to the opposite, you know what I mean? To something sweet and dreamy? I don't know and I don't know if I want that. But I do know that we're going to move past this sort of anger that it seems like rap artists have towards each other, or you know, male rap artists have towards women. And I think we're going to get to something surprising, and because I'm an optimist, I say I think it's going to be something good.

COX: That was NPR's Farai Chideya speaking with Danielle Smith, editor-in-chief of Vibe Magazine, and Steven Martino - a researcher at the Rand Corporation.

(Soundbite of music)

COX: Coming up, the Muslim community in Los Angeles accuses the city's mayor of playing favorites among faiths. And South Africa's emerging Black middle class faces economic challenges. We'll discuss these and other topics on our Roundtable next.

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