If you're the type of person who couldn't get enough of the recently discredited "Women Over 35 Are More Likely to be Killed by Terrorist than Find a Husband" headline, you were probably over the moon with joy when you saw "Sexual Lyrics Prompt Teens to Have Sex" screaming out from your daily newspaper. Yes, it's another "shocking" survey, this time from the Rand Corporation, who must have decided that horny teenagers are more fun to study than national security. Just like many of the headline making surveys, Rand's press release and the ensuing reporting took plenty of liberties when it came to data and methods.
There is a lot to unpack here, so let's jump right in. The official Rand press release stated "The study found that the more time adolescents spend listening to music with sexually degrading lyrics, the more likely they are to initiate intercourse and other sexual activities." They went on to define the sample as "1,461 adolescents ages 12 to 17 from across the nation," who were survey by phone in 2001, 2002, and 2004. Those surveyed were asked about their level of sexual experience (because, as we all know, teenagers always tell the truth when they talk about sex) and then how frequently they listened to twelve different artists who represented "degrading" and "non-degrading" music.
Examples of nondegrading sexual lyrics from the study include: "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/You make me think of things to come/I'm dreamin' day and night of making love," from Ninety-Eight Degrees, "Dizzy."
Examples of degrading sexual lyrics include: "Half the ho's hate me, half them love me/The ones that hate me/Only hate me 'cause they ain't fucked me/And they say I'm lucky/Do you think I've got time/To fuck all these ho's?" from Ja Rule, "Livin' It Up."
Talk about two different extremes. First off, no self-respecting teenager is listening to Ninety-Eight Degrees; that's music for eight-year-old girls and everybody knows it. Second of all, who thinks Ja Rule is actually serious when he talks about "ho's?" He's selling a lifestyle and a mythology; believing he was serious would be akin to believing Rush believed in space aliens and time travel. I'll admit that teenagers don't have the firmest grasp on irony and parody sometimes, but I'd wager a guess that most teens could pick something as obvious as Ja Rule's over-the-top antics.
And oh, the nuances the researchers missed. Where does someone like Peaches, the raunchy, sexually forward female rapper fit in to the equation? Or, for that matter, the band she recently opened for, Nine Inch Nails? Trent Reznor, the leader of Nails, at one point sings 'I want to fuck you like an animal," which seems pretty degrading, until he starts telling his subject "you get me closer to God." Then the song becomes a desperate plea for Eros, an ode to intensity and passion.
The Reznor song is ten years old at this point, and I remember listening to it frequently as a teen. Most of the music my friends and I listened to as teens was asexual, if not flat out anti-sexual. We came of age in the mid-nineties, at the height of the hetero-AIDS panic, and the grunge and riot grrl punk we so loved was more preoccupied with politics. Eddie Vedder and Kurt Cobain might have been our sex symbols, but they rarely concerned themselves with love and romance. Despite this, we (and I imagine plenty of other kids) still managed to get it on.
Another crucial distinction the survey fails to make deals with the type of sex the kids they polled are having. Safe, consensual sex with your high school boyfriend is not the same as unprotected sex with a forty year old who picked you up on Myspace. The power dynamic in the relationships is not broached; the students surveyed were not asked about consent or who initiated the encounters. The authors of the survey failed to discuss the consequences of the teens' actions: did any of them feel they had been violated? Did they wind up pregnant or infected with an STI? Or did they merely sleep with someone and discover something about their sexuality?
In the end, the survey might find a few correlations, but it takes giant leaps when dealing with causation. There probably is some link between listening to music that constantly alludes to sex and actually doing it, just as there is probably a link between sex and how much TV a teenager watches, how much time they spend on MySpace, and whether or not they spend their lunchtimes practicing cheerleading or playing Magic: The Gathering. But to insinuate a teenager will start having promiscuous sex and hitting their partner because they happen to favor Snoop Dog over Jessica Simpson is laughable at best, and dangerously naïve at worst. A mix of mis-education, poverty, and relentless cultural programming causes teen pregnancy and STI's, but providing comprehensive sex-ed and having honest discussions about media and values is difficult. It seems a lot easier to simply blame Ja Rule (or the Rolling Stones, or Elvis) and be done with it.