Common sense says exposing children to sexually degrading song lyrics cannot be a good thing. Now, a multiyear study of teen sexual behavior and listening habits, led by a researcher in Pittsburgh, is setting out to prove it scientifically.
The Rand Corp. study, released today, shows that the more often teens listen to sexually degrading songs -- marked by obscenities and stereotypes of women as sex objects and men as sexual predators -- the likelier they are to have sex at an early age.
A sex drive is, of course, a natural thing for adolescents, the study notes, but engaging in intercourse too early can lead to unwanted pregnancies and sexually transmitted diseases, or STDs, making the matter a public health concern.
"People have been concerned about the sexual content of music lyrics for decades. The concern is not new," said the study's leader, Steven Martino, a psychologist in Rand's Oakland office. "What's new here is that we conducted a study that as closely as possible establishes a connection between the type of music kids listen to and their sexual behavior.
"It's a natural thing for teens to be interested in sex, learning about sex, experimenting with sex and what it is to be sexual at this age. ... What concerns us is kids may be having sex before they're ready for it, or in contexts or situations that are less than optimal," Dr. Martino said.
In 2001, Rand researchers surveyed 1,461 U.S. youths 12 to 17 about their music-listening and sexual habits, then followed up with more interviews in 2002 and 2004.
Invariably -- across all races and among both boys and girls -- they found that listening to degrading lyrical content led to more sexual activity.
Besides leading to fears about teen pregnancies and related issues -- such as the 4 million teens contracting STDs each year -- the findings also raise disturbing questions about the impact of the lyrics on the self-image of teens, especially teenage girls.
"The lyrics we categorized as degrading are especially degrading in their treatment of women, but nevertheless girls were affected in the same way boys were. The more they listened to music with degrading sexual content, the sooner they initiated sexual activity," Dr. Martino said.
The study, which first appeared in this month's edition of the scientific journal Pediatrics, was funded by the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development and performed by researchers from Rand Health, a health policy research group. The scientists were based in Pittsburgh, Santa Monica, Calif., and Los Angeles.
To do the study, researchers picked 16 popular musical artists, gauging their popularity through Billboard charts, teen magazine features and appearances on teen-oriented awards shows. The 16 included one R&B singer, three rock, three rap-rock, three rap, two country and four teen-pop bands.
Researchers then combed through the artists' lyrics, grading their sexual content. All but three of the 16 artists had at least one song with sexual content, but not all of it with degrading language. Six -- all of them rap, rap-rock and R&B acts -- had degrading lyrics that treated women as sex objects and men as sexually insatiable.
What is degrading and what isn't?
The study said these lyrics from "Dizzy," by 98 Degrees, were sexual but non-degrading:
"When my eyes open I wanna see your face/Spendin' my days in your sweet embrace/Just one night with you could set me free/I get next to you and I get dizzy, dizzy."
Ja Rule's "Livin' It Up" was judged degrading:
"Half the ho's hate me, half them love me/The ones that hate me/Only hate me 'cause they ain't [expletive] me/And they say I'm lucky/Do you think I've got time/To [expletive] all these ho's?"
Dr. Martino would not identify which artists were used for the study. Because of constant shifts in popularity, he said, "if we named a name today, it would be a different name tomorrow."
It was more important, he said, for parents to listen to the music their children listen to and to then talk with them about the content.
The study recommends parents monitor their children's music; set purchasing and listening limits; be careful of listening to their own sexually-themed music around children; and discuss sexual messages and imagery with their children.
It also recommends providing media education to children -- explaining how media outlets use sex to sell music and other goods -- and alerting the recording industry to the negative impacts of the sexually degrading material they sell.
A spokeswoman for the Recording Industry Association of America, which has made prosecution of children for illicitly downloading music a priority since 2003, refused comment on the study's findings Friday.
The study does not call for musical censorship, but rather for parents to be aware of how explicit lyrics have become. From Cole Porter to Lil' Kim, pop music has always had sexual themes, but lyrics lately are more often stripped of any eye-winking wordplay that might go over the heads of young people.
"Sexual imagery in music has always been pervasive. It's probably no more pervasive now than it was a decade or two or three ago," Dr. Martino said. "When singers [today] sing about sexuality, it's less likely to be cloaked in any ambiguity, so kids are unlikely to misinterpret or miss sexual references in the music they listen to."
Tim McNulty can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1581.