Sex, rap, and rock ‘n’ roll

And the winner of today’s bad headline award goes to:

Sexual lyrics prompt teens to have sex

Teens whose iPods are full of music with raunchy, sexual lyrics start having sex sooner than those who prefer other songs, a study found.

Whether it’s hip-hop, rap, pop or rock, much of popular music aimed at teens contains sexual overtones. Its influence on their behavior appears to depend on how the sex is portrayed, researchers found.

Songs depicting men as “sex-driven studs,” women as sex objects and with explicit references to sex acts are more likely to trigger early sexual behavior than those where sexual references are more veiled and relationships appear more committed, the study found.

Teens who said they listened to lots of music with degrading sexual messages were almost twice as likely to start having intercourse or other sexual activities within the following two years as were teens who listened to little or no sexually degrading music.

Does the actual paper live up to the claims of the news story?

The manuscript was published in the August 2nd issue of Pediatrics (link). Of course, the link between sexual behavior and music has come under scutiny in every generation, from the effect of Elvis’ swiveling pelvis to that of slang used in rap music today. In the current study, the authors used a longitudinal study design (following teenagers over 3 years) in order to determine the effect their musical listening habits had on their sexual behaviors. This study design was important and overcame some limitations of prior studies because it allowed the authors to better tease out a cause from an effect. By only interviewing children at a single time point and asking questions about sexual behaviors and attitudes and the music they listened to, one can’t determine a cause from an effect. In other words, data from a single time point can’t sort out whether sexually active kids tend to gravitate toward music that’s more sexually explicit, or if listening to sexually charged music leads to sexual activity. The current study sought to examine that more closely.

The authors conducted a telephone study with adolescents ranging in age from 12 to 17 in the first interview. They asked about sexual behaviors and activity, the amount of time kids spent listening to each of 16 music artists the authors had identified, and also about confounders and covariates that may obscure the relationship between sex and music. These included gender, race, parental status (including whether the teens lived with both parents, parental education level, parental monitoring, and disapproval of sexual behavior), and influence of friends. They also looked at the teens’ grades in school and types of “deviant behavior” they had committted (such as breaking and entering, cheating, vandalism, stealing, etc.), and the importance of religion in their life. Finally, they asked about the teens’ sexual readiness (such as whether they thought they were likely to have sex in the upcoming year, if they could talk to a partner about sex, etc.) They repeated this survey with the teens a year later, and then 3 years after the initial interview. They then crunched all the data in order to examine the effect, if any, that music had on teens’ sexual behaviors.

What’d they find? First, I’ll note that obviously, all music wasn’t equal. As I mentioned, they chose 16 artists to question teens about. This alone introduces a huge bias into their study, since they effectively ignored about 99.9999% of all music out there by concentrating on these 16 artists (who they didn’t specifically identify, although in the paper they mention lyrics from Ja Rule, Lil’ Kim, and Ninety-Eight Degrees). Included was music from most genres, but rap was definitely over-represented. Of the 16 albums, only 1 was “hard rock,” 2 were “alternative rock,” 2 were “rap-rock” and 1 “rap-metal,” 3 were just “rap,” another was R&B, 2 were country and 4 were “teen pop.” They had 2 independent technicians analyze each song in order to determine the percentage of each artist’s songs that contained “sexual” or “sexually degrading” lyrics (defined as “lyrics depicting sexually insatiable men pursuing women valued only as sex objects.”) While most songs had at least some sexual content, only rap variations or R&B were found to have “degrading” content according to their measure. As far as artist selection, they say they chose these from “lists of top billboard artists” and selected “those who were featured in teen magazines…and/or participated in teen-oriented music and entertainment award shows near the time of survey administration,” but that also introduces a bias, excluding music kids may listen to that’s not specifically “teen-oriented” but may also have heavy sexual messages. They also don’t say whether the artists changed over the 3 years of the survey–from the language, it doesn’t seem that they did.

So, in a nutshell, what they found was that time spent listening to “degrading” sexual lyrics resulted in a significant increase in sexual activity, while listening to music that had “nondegrading sexual lyrics” was actually somewhat protective (but the latter varied depending on covariates that were included in the model). In their model, not a lot of other factors acheived stastical significance as factors affecting sexual behavior. Still, while this was the conclusion of the paper, there are many, many limitations (mentioned below), and certainly the authors didn’t conclude that the music “prompts teens to have sex” as the headline proclaims above.

However, what’s surprising in a study like this is that they didn’t ask about other media that have also been demonized as contributing to teen sex. They note in their discussion that “teens who listen to music by artists who use degrading sexual imagery in their songs probably also watch music videos by these artists, in which case the effect of these songs is likely to be greatly enhanced.” They could have asked about this and included it in their model, but didn’t. They also didn’t ask about other phenomena that have been linked to sex, such as types of movies watched, books read, concerts attended, or many other factors. For example, since they mention Lil’ Kim (pictured above in modest digs, for her), certainly she goes far beyond her lyrics, and her whole persona is highly sexually-charged. Again, this type of extension of the music wasn’t addressed. They note some of this in the 6 paragraphs they devote in the discussion to various limitations of the study. Yet, the conclude that their findings:

…suggest a need for intervention. Reducing the amount of degrading sexual content in popular music, or reducing young people’s exposure to music with this type of content, could delay initiation of intercourse and related activities. This, in turn, may reduce sexual risk behavior and sexual regret. Intervention possibilities include reaching out to parents of adolescents, to teens, and to the recording industry. Parents could be encouraged to monitor the type of music to which their children are exposed, set limits on what they can purchase and listen to, and be careful not to listen to sexually degrading music when children are around. Parents could also be encouraged to discuss the sexual content of music with their children, offering their own perspectives on the sexual themes to which their children are exposed.

Of course, I think it’s important that parents be involved and aware of the music their kids are listening to, and to discuss sex with their children. I recognize that, unfortunately, not all parents are able or willing to do this. But again with the recording industry? Like it or not, there’s a market for this type of music. Warning labels are already placed on CDs containing “offensive” material, and edited versions are often available (how much those may affect a teen’s understanding of the message, though, is questionable–one can usually figure out what’s been bleeped). How far can, or should, the industry go to keep this material out of the hands of kids, especially when much of it is out of their control and rests also with the places where the kids buy their music, be it a physical store, over the internet, or from a friend?


Martino et al. 2006. Exposure to degrading versus nondegrading music lyrics and sexual behavior among youth. Pediatrics. 118:e430-441. Link.


  1. #1 Dave S.
    August 9, 2006

    Interesting conclusion. The same exact things were said in the 50’s too, and I suspect they’ll have approximately the same effect as they did then.

  2. #2 spudbeach
    August 9, 2006

    Thanks for pointing out all the limitations and prevarications of the study. Would I be remiss if I came to the conclusion that the authors wanted ammunition to target sexy music and came up with a complicated enough study that by ignoring its limitations they could get the result they wanted?

  3. #3 Eric Wallace
    August 9, 2006

    It seems to me the most severe limitation of this kind of study, is that both behaviors under study—music and s*x (censored to get past the spam filter!)—are choices made by the subject. Thus it’s nearly impossible to distinguish a cause/effect relationship between the two from some more fundamental cause that drove both behaviors.

    A “better” study would randomly assign music for teens to listen to and examine the outcome. But I suppose that would be considered unethical if one had an expectation that it might really lead to “undesired” behavior.

  4. #4 Sam Garchik
    August 9, 2006

    I agree with Eric. The same kids who have a lot of sex also listen to lots of music with explicit lyrics. Perhaps having sex leads them to listen to music with explict lyrics.

    A person could argue all sorts of stuff, like the people who have access to lyrics have parents that let them have all kind of sex.

    I mean, how does one prove this?

    And by the way – when did teens star being honest with adults about sex? what motivation would teens have to be honest with the callers?

    is it suspected that the same number of teens lied and said they had lots of sex as the number that lied and said they had no sex?

    and the music. how did they know teens were honest about that? many teens say they listen to stuff, if prompted, but dont if not prompted.

  5. #5 Karmen
    August 9, 2006

    I’m of the opinion that kids who aren’t sexually active, nor have ever been, will not understand the sexual innuendos in music enough to be influenced by them. This is true even in less subtle cases.

    My parents were sort of hippies… so I grew up listening to songs from the musical “Hair”. I didn’t realize what it was about until I’d learned about things from other sources. “Sodomy” was some obscure thing that people said was wrong. I also thought for the longest time that “Mary Wana” was another Hindu deity in the “Hare Krishna” song. (I can just imagine the moments my child will have, after growing up with the Beastie Boys and the Cramps at home.)

    I think it’s quite likely that some of the “affected” kids in these studies had a “duh” moment while listening to their music, at some point. “Oh, wait he’s talking about THAT?! That’s just sick and wrong. Coooool!” By that point, though, they already knew the score.

  6. #6 viji
    August 9, 2006

    Yeah, I’ve been pondering about this for quite a while actually. I was fortunate that since a very young age, i was exposed to many cultures and the many different flavours of entertainment from various countries and cultures. Being well-versed in a few languages, English, Mandarin (chinese), cantonese (Hong-Kong), Japanese, Malay (Indonesis), French and more recently a little of Korean, I was able to look at the effects of entertainment and popular culture in different countries..

    That said, I have to admit that the Anglo-centric Western popular culture (including the US and Europe) tend to be themed with violence and sexual innuendos in recent times and even from the 50s (gotten more raunchy with time), which I suppose the study was, to an extent, on the mark in observing the trend of unabashed sexual activity among teenagers, losing respect for the sanctity of marriage, easy come easy go relationships, sex for entertainment, endorsement of alpha-male violent and idoitic etc. Althought this cannot be totally representative of everyone young person in the Western population, in my opinion, the trend is definitely growing, with such influence even reaching the “ambassadors” of popular culture, the pop artist, actors, even famous persons.

    At the same time, I observe an opposite trend in Asia, east Asia in particular, or at least a much muted or controlled trend in East Asian popular cultures. Don;t get me wrong, the “bad” influences of Western culture, which sadly a lot of teens nowadays associate with modernity are slowly creeping into popular culture and in proxy society. Good examples would be in Hong Kong, Korea, and Japan. But more fortunate though, age-old cultural values seems to be at least stalling this “derogatory” advance of Western popular culture. I could surely say that more than 90% of entertainment products, i.e. movies and music, in East Asia, specifically referring to Hong Kong, Japan, Taiwan, Korea, and China, have lyrics or themes that focuses on sentimentalism, romantics, love, care, trust, willingness to give and forgive, hope, melancholy, spiritualism etc. as oppose to hate, violence, revenge, sex that predominates (high %) Western popular culture. East Asian lyrics seem to prod people (or from my experience) to reflect on our lives and think about how we should care about someone rather than put blame when things goes wrong.

    In fact , even heavy metal bands in Japan have the obligation/commercial demand to write lyrics based on love and romantics

    Although I cannot conclude how the effects of these two differing commercial/cultural phenomenon is on society (since I did not do any study), I have been living in Asia for quite while to see for myself that certain culturally unacceptable practices, such as co-habitation, being pregnant before marriage, sexual entertainment, divorce, is seriously frowned upon by east asian societies.

    The funny thing is, East Asian cultures have also assimilated the better aspects of Western cultures, such as being gentlemanly and respect for the female partner, and romanticism into the popular culture. More and more entertainment productions now view alpha male attitudes as disgusting and a strict no-go, especially among the increasingly modern women folk, and yet still retain the age old cultural values of taboo against wanton sexual activity (at least for most part of the population), and instead focusing on loving care.

    Thats my two cents, anyone who has lived in Asia and has differing views?

  7. #7 natural cynic
    August 10, 2006

    As the parent of one teen-ager and a very recently ex-teen, and as a former teen that rebelled against his parents’ music… I think that musical karma often finds its way into life. I liked the hippie music that my parents put down and some folk rock that they tolerated. My tastes in rock gelled in that idiom. Never liked or listened to heavy metal, but both the kids are heavy metal musicians, but they haven’t adopted the lifestyle. About the only common thing we have musically is Jimmy Buffett – with family sing-alongs that included “Why Don’t We Get Drunk and Screw”.

    Go figure

  8. #8 viji
    August 10, 2006

    In fact I noticed that the content and lyrics of popular east asian music seems very resilient to the Western norms and almost never mentions screw, sex, and drugs, even in all music genres like heavy metal, rock ‘n’ roll, rap, pop, hip-hop, alternative, R&B to the humble ballads. As far as I know, from the post WWII years up to the present day, it has remained that way, is this a good thing or not? I guess its better than the garbage I find in most popular music in Western fares nowadays, that is, songs with great rhythms and beats, but ridiculously no or lousy content.

    Can’t say the same for the more recent popular movies tho which are heavily influenced by Western entertainment industry norms, nevertheless such elements in East Asian popular film usually muted or at least not shown to the explicit extents commonly found in most European and American fares. Much of these new influences are found in Korean and Japanese films, while mainstream productions from mainland China, Taiwan, Vietnam, Thai, and Hong Kong still abhors too sexually explicit content

  9. #9 viji
    August 10, 2006

    This is soemthing different I listened to recently (from Japan) great fusion of different stuff



  10. #10 etbnc
    August 10, 2006

    “However, what’s surprising in a study like this is that they didn’t ask about other media …”

    Curiouser and curiouser. Several of the article’s six authors are affiliated with the RAND Institute. First author Martino’s RAND biography notes his research interest in the “influence of television”, but there is no mention of popular music.

    So, here’s a prediction for ya: Their next paper will conclude that TV causes teen sex. Hey, wait, we thought pop music caused teen sex? Nah, that’s so old skool! That was last year. This year it’s television. Next year: some other single variable extracted from the chaotic feedback system of culture.

    I heard a rumor of a hypothesis that teen hormones may lead to teen sex. But that’s obviously way too crazy to consider seriously.

  11. #11 Robster
    August 10, 2006

    Considering the music I listened to in high school, I should have gotten a lot more action than I did…

  12. #12 KevinC
    August 10, 2006


    Right on! Single variable social science studies are silly. Humans are to complex to every say A causes B.

    I think you might be on to something with the hormones, guess we need to outlaw them.

  13. #13 Destiny
    August 10, 2006

    Some other single variable extracted from the chaotic feedback system of culture.

  14. #14 Chris
    August 10, 2006

    It seems to me the most severe limitation of this kind of study, is that both behaviors under study—music and s*x (censored to get past the spam filter!)—are choices made by the subject. Thus it’s nearly impossible to distinguish a cause/effect relationship between the two from some more fundamental cause that drove both behaviors.

    This is the same problem that all the violent-video-games studies have suffered from, too.

    Neither can exclude the hypothesis that the teens’ underlying personality traits drive both their choices in media consumption *and* the behavior identified as problematic, and there is no direct causal link between the observable variables.

    A “better” study would randomly assign music for teens to listen to and examine the outcome. But I suppose that would be considered unethical if one had an expectation that it might really lead to “undesired” behavior.

    Unfortunately, I get the impression that a lot of social scientists aren’t that interested in tightening up their methodology – they’d rather just release a study with conclusions they personally agree with. Agenda-driven science is at high risk of being bad science.

    Perhaps this is too broad a condemnation of an entire field, though, and it’s only the people who draw unjustified conclusions that get any media attention. I admit I haven’t attempted a systematic study of all social science research.

    But it’s pretty sad when someone who’s not even a practicing scientist can spot methodological holes big enough to drive a truck through. The most obvious question is, why didn’t the peer reviewers see this problem too? It’s one of *the* classic problems with claims of causation and should be on everyone’s checklist of flaws to look for when reviewing a study. Or for that matter, before publishing one.

    And another thing: What is their definition of “early” sexual behavior? Hasn’t it been common practice in many human cultures throughout history to be *married* by 15? The fact that the authors come from a culture that has idealized (and may or may not have ever practiced) *unusually late* onset of sexual behavior – and may now be regressing to the mean – may have some influence on their perceptions of what is “early”. In addition to the possibility that better nutrition is causing significantly earlier average onset of puberty and therefore “earlier” (by chronological age, but not necessarily by comparison to puberty progress) sexual activity would be expected on that basis alone.

    Really, it seems like the authors of the study haven’t even made even the most cursory attempts at coming up with other explanations for the phenomenon in question. Which raises the strong suspicion that they are attempting to support a pre-existing agenda rather than conducting an honest scientific inquiry.

  15. #15 etbnc
    August 10, 2006

    KevinC, I hope you won’t mind if I backpedal just a little.

    It occurred to me that I succumbed to the temptation to be snarky even though I’ve decried that practice elsewhere. My bad.

    Actually I can imagine how this can/would/does have some, limited, value. Unfortunately I had to go out of my way to find that value. I had to go looking for it.

    And that’s still a problem, I think.

    Occasionally someone does question something that “everybody knows” and disproves it or finds a previously unnoticed linkage. (I’m sure you can think of an example.) So taking a complicated device apart and confirming that Component A is connected to Component B is useful–as long as we all remember that the information about A and B is just a small item within the context of the complicated device.

    I’m not sure that context is clear in the paper. It may or may not be presented in a description of the authors’ ongoing research. It’s certainly lost in the public presentation.

    In my experience when we readers/listeners/viewers receive a message without a specified context, we supply our own context, or plug the message into our our default context. My default context earlier this morning made this information appear “not valuable”. I’m willing to upgrade my assessment to “possible, limited value” based on my own search for context. How many recipients of the message will do that, however?

    Chris just provided some more helpful context. I can imagine that both the authors and the reviewers might say, “Yes, we thought of all that.” But I don’t think that’s conveyed by the paper, and thus it’s easy for us to suspect they did not.

    Context matters, it seems to me.

  16. #16 NephSpouse
    August 14, 2006

    Thinking back to High School and College… Even if someone had told me that listening to Rap music could have helped me to be more sexually active I dont think I could have stomached it 😉

    Since I haven’t done my own study I can only speak to my own personal observations about myself and my friends. (My own children are too young, my daughter understands the mechanics of where babies come from but the cultural and social issues are out of scope at the moment) And the same depressed and disaffected attitude that makes one listen to nasty degrading music is the same that leads one to other dangerous behavior. That the 2 might go together I have no problem believing, but correlation is not causation! It might be useful though as a parent to use the music that your child is listening to as a window into their mood or other problems that could lead to bigger issues. Taking away the music is unlikely to solve the bigger issues though.

  17. #17 wheatdogg
    August 16, 2006

    I’m now 50 and have heard these same arguments, supposedly from the same kind of studies, for at least 40 of those years. Rock and roll, comic books, TV, movies, trashy fiction, advertising, teen magazines, Cosmo, have all been blamed for the supposed rise in teen sexuality and/or violence. Oddly, no one has suggested that exposure to such media has also resulted in the explosive growth of the internet, niche magazines, computer graphics in movies, international mutual funds, and the pervasive influence of religious extremists in some parts of the USA. Could it be because there is no real connection?

    I question the whole causation hypothesis that sexy music promotes sexy behavior. It suggests that musicians and music producers have the intent to get their teenaged listeners horny. To what end? Do the sociologists presume the music industry believes sexed-up teens will buy more sexed-up music, enabling the industry to surf to the bank on a wave of hormone-driven teen cash? I don’t see that happening.

    Perhaps musicians are merely reflecting the changing mores of the society in which they live. One of the big debates about the music of the 1950s was whether it fostered the ’50s youth culture or merely accompanied it with a catchy 4/4 beat. I side with those who prefer the latter explanation, whether we are talking about the ’50s or the ’00s.

  18. #18 impatientpatient
    August 18, 2006

    Shades of Tipper Gore-

    Tara- I saw your headline earlier this week and thought—- I don’t have time for this… I am glad I made time, as this is exactly why people need access to original articles, and the ability to analyze information to judge the validity of it.