Rap made me "do it"

Kids who like "degrading" music are more likely to have had sex. But don't blame the tunes.

Published February 25, 2009 11:30AM (EST)

A new study, which found that kids who listen to "degrading"  rap music are far more likely to have had sex, has inspired the familiar "kids these days!" hand-wringing. The infamous Daily Mail declared in a headline, "Degrading Rap Lyrics Encourage Youngsters to Have Sex Earlier." The disreputable Metro had a similar approach with, "'Degrading' Rap Songs Drive Teens to Sex."  More respected publications took a restrained route -- not blaming rap, but not not blaming rap -- or explicitly pointed out that the study doesn't scientifically back up such grandmotherly wisdom.

Researchers from the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine surveyed 711 ninth graders about their bedroom activities and iPod favorites. Then they analyzed the lyrics of the 279 most popular songs to determine which were "degrading." The criteria: Sexy songs that describe a "power differential" and focus only on "physical characteristics." (So we're talking about all of pop music, then?) As an example, researchers gave the Ying Yang Twins' poetic verse: "I'm gonna beat dat pussy up." To which my colleague Lynn Harris kidded in an e-mail: "Wow. You'd think lyrics like [that] would contribute to NOT having sex."

Indeed. But, it's unclear from the study that such charming turns of phrase contribute in any way to teens' sexual decision-making. Researchers did find that those who listened the most to salacious songs were twice as likely to have had sex -- but that doesn't prove a causal relationship. Maybe kids who are already sexually precocious seek out sexy songs; lyrics about getting rough 'n' dirty are less likely to speak to kids who aren't as sexually motivated. 

It could also be that kids who listen to demeaning rap are less supervised at home and can much more easily get away with having sex early on. Or maybe there's some other factor, besides their hormones, that leads kids to both sex and explicit rap music. But when a study, especially about young'uns and sex, uses a politically charged word like "degradation," some will jump to conclusions. (Also, the researchers' definition of "degradation" is problematic -- "power differentials" and a focus on the physical doesn't always equal sexual debasement. This reminds me of the recent study about men "objectifying" women in bikinis.)

When I heard an X-rated rap song playing on the profile page of a "sexting" teen that I interviewed for my recent piece on kid-made kiddie porn, I didn't assume that the music made her take naked photos of herself or that it pushed her to have sex. I simply thought: Well, her interests are consistent. The truth is, "degrading" raunch (by the researchers' definition) is about the only sexual material widely available to kids. It is the way to be sexual and sexy.

By Tracy Clark-Flory

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