Music makes you have sex and be sexist

The question we keep on asking: What is music doing to kids today?

Published August 8, 2006 4:48PM (EDT)

Paging Tipper Gore:

A new study purports to show that teens who listen to songs with dirty and degrading lyrics have sex earlier than those who listen to "clean" tunes. Researchers at the Pittsburgh-based Rand Corp. conducted telephone interviews with 1,461 kids between 12 and 17, starting in 2001. Follow-up interviews were done in 2002 and 2005. The study showed that those who tuned in to "sexually degrading" -- as opposed to simply sexual -- lyrics that describe women as sex objects and portray men as sexual aggressors were almost twice as likely to commence sexual activity within the next two years than were young people who listened to squeaky clean, nondegrading songs (which would be what, Phil Collins? "Free to Be You and Me"?)

Steve Martino, the lead author of the study, published in the American Journal of Pediatrics, told the Guardian, "Musicians who use this type of sexual imagery are communicating something very specific about what sexual roles are appropriate, and teen listeners may act on these messages." He added that girls are listening to the music and getting the message that they should be sex objects. "It may be that girls who are repeatedly exposed to these messages expect to take a submissive role in their sexual relationships and to be treated with disrespect by their partners," said Martino.

So this is interesting. We write all the time about pop cultural messages being sent via television, books, magazines, advertising and T-shirts. But it's somehow hard for me to get too riled up about music. And I realize this is inconsistent. I'm no more excited about listening to music about women being used as sexual status symbols than the next person. I think we should point out the misogyny and double standards, and that parents should talk to their kids about what the kids think about the music they're listening to. In fact, it would be great if we raised kids who not only didn't want to buy but also didn't want to make music about treating each other with anything but respect.

But it also seems to me that these constantly renewable arguments about music don't often get us anywhere. And that in fact they obscure some of the more complicated thinking we have to do by providing an easy answer: It's the music's fault! Well, no. We would have a remarkably easier time solving our social problems if they really were rooted in popular music. Pop music, like the T-shirts and television and advertising, often is simply a visible symptom of attitudes that go much, much deeper.

And of course there is such a silly history of blaming the music for our ills. Did Elvis's swiveling hips incite the sexual revolution or did an increasingly open attitude toward sex make room for Elvis Presley? Of course, the more we get worked up about how teens shouldn't do something, the more interest they're going to have in doing it. You know what I did in 1985 when Tipper Gore created the Parents Music Resource Center after hearing Karenna listening to a dirty Prince song? I went out and bought "Darling Nikki" to see what was so dirty about it. So if we have music that's sexually degrading to women, is it fair or practical to blame the music makers and distributors? Or would our time be better spent raising children who are socially sophisticated enough to approach consumer culture as critical thinkers?

I don't know. What do you all think?

By Rebecca Traister

Rebecca Traister writes for Salon. She is the author of "Big Girls Don't Cry: The Election that Changed Everything for American Women" (Free Press). Follow @rtraister on Twitter.

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