Monday, August 07, 2006


today i'm dog- and house-sitting for my parents, who still subscribe to the print edition of the indy star, so i took a few minutes to browse through the paper and was struck by this truncated AP article:

Crass lyrics affect teens' sex lives, study says
Research shows songs with explicit references are more likely to trigger early sexual behavior

wow, that's some headline! could the people who wanted to ban chubby checker have been right? does "that damn noise" kids these days are listening to actually transform teens into whores? quick, light the torches! i want the angry mob ready to march by the time i've finished the article!

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

okay, teens who listen to lots of sexy music end up having sex. so far, i'm with you.

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" and women as sex objects and songs 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.

this is where i start to have problems: the article is full of words like "influence" and "trigger", clearly meant to imply an if...then relationship between raunchy music and early sexual activity. the message being sent to parents is if your kids listen to this stuff, they will turn into little sluts within two years. does this sound familiar to anyone?

the passage about "sex-driven studs" is a bit cryptic; what it means is that the study is only about booty music and misogynistic rap. chubby checker is off the hook (and not in the way they mean when they say that phrase on the hip-hop station). so the stuff our parents said was trash and would rot our brains turns out to be fine after all, but what our kids are listening to actually will damage them permanently. a scientific study proved it!

"We think that really lowers kids' inhibitions and makes them less thoughtful" about sexual decisions, said lead author Steven Martino, a researcher for Rand Corp. in Pittsburgh.

The study, based on telephone interviews with 1,461 participants age 12 to 17, appears in the August issue of Pediatrics.

Martino said the researchers tried to account for other factors that could affect teens' sexual behavior, including parental permissiveness, and still found explicit lyrics had a strong influence.

i don't have a copy of pediatrics in front of me, and likely never will, so i can't read the study to analyze its methodology or anything like that. so let's assume for sake of argument that the underlying data is sound—martino and his team have established a significant correlation between early sexual behavior and listening to booty music. if so, that's a notable discovery, and worth writing a paper. bully for martino.

however, it's one thing to demonstrate a correlation between two factors. but it's another thing altogether to prove a cause and effect relationship. this is doubly true when you're dealing with complex sociological subjects like human sexuality.

it's naïve to assume that simply because event A precedes event B, A must have caused B. this line of thinking can be tempting, but it's actually a logical fallacy known to logicians as post hoc ergo propter hoc (translation: "after this, therefore because of this"). the real world is complex, and events can be interrelated in all sorts of complex ways other than causal relationships.

even assuming it's true that teens who listen to booty music start having sex earlier, it does not follow that booty music causes kids to have sex. for just one counter-hypothesis, isn't it possible that teens who are predisposed to having sex early are more likely to seek out sexually explicit music? in other words, the horniest teens are the ones who will be most attracted to booty music, and likewise the most interested in losing their virginity ASAP?

granted, while this article is edited in such a way to push the idea (and push it hard) that raunchy rap turns kids into sluts, the star's editors didn't insert that idea entirely on their own. martino, and presumably his coauthors, clearly do hypothesize a causal relationship of some sort. but the star article doesn't express much doubt that the study could be wrong, or its authors misguided, either.

let's look at a longer version of the same article that appeared in the ottawa citizen:

The authors analysed the music of 16 top artists and categorized as degrading any lyrics that "depicted sexually insatiable men pursuing women valued only as sex objects." They then assessed the sexual behaviour and music tastes of 1,461 U.S. adolescent participants, tracked through a series of telephone interviews over three years.

"Adolescents who listen to a lot of music containing these objectifying and limiting characterizations of sexuality progress more quickly in their sexual behaviour, regardless of their race or gender," the study concluded, emphasizing that there was no correlation found between behaviour and sexualized lyrics that were not degrading in tone.

this is way more clear than what appeared in the star.

"There is good reason to believe that music may have an important influence on adolescents' sexual behaviour," the study says, noting that American teens between the ages of 15 and 18 listen to 1.5 to 2.5 hours of music a day, with a quarter of them listening to more than three hours.

this passage shows that the study's authors understand that what they're suggesting is only a hypothesis. this understanding seems to be missing from the star version.

The study mentioned the boy band 98 Degrees as a group whose lyrics are sexual but not degrading, while Ja Rule's Livin it Up was cited as an example of a song filled with four-letter words and derogatory references to women. No other artists were specifically identified, but researchers categorized them according to musical genre and assessed what percentage of each song catalogue contained sexually degrading lyrics. Four acts categorized as "teen pop" and two labelled "country" contained no degrading lyrics at all, while 70 per cent of one rap artist's songs and 59 per cent of another's contained sexually degrading lyrics.

no word on whether teens who listen to r kelly are more likely to experiment with watersports.

i thought this passage was pretty telling, also:

The authors state clearly that in their view "early activity is a significant problem in the United States." They note a recent survey that suggested most sexually experienced teens regretted they had not waited longer.

i know a lot of people believe this, but is early activity really a "significant problem"? kids these days might be gettin' it on earlier than their parents or grandparents did, but historically speaking, today's teens aren't becoming sexually active any younger than they were in shakespeare's day, for example. (remember: romeo & juliet were supposed to be around 14 or 15, and once upon a time it was common for children to be married off at 12. this was long before the ying-yang twins.)

oh, and here's one other thing that was missing from the article as printed in the star: an opposing viewpoint!

However, some urge that music is not the only factor affecting teens' behaviour.

"We caution rushing to judgment that music more than any other factor is a causative factor" for teens initiating sex, said Benjamin Chavis, chief executive officer of the Hip-Hip Summit Action Network.

just a token quote, but at least it's there.

i think the san jose mercury news has my favorite take, though:

Like a study could figure out teens
Mercury News Wire Services
The effects of entertainment on teenagers always make for good debate, and two separate studies released today will have parents either grimly nodding in agreement or laughing off the conclusions:

• Teens who listen to music with raunchy, sexual lyrics start having sex sooner than those who prefer other songs.

• Teens who watch pro wrestling -- especially girls -- are more likely to behave violently than other kids.

this just in: teens who like math are more likely to become evil scientists.

No comments: