Exposure to Degrading Versus Nondegrading Music Lyrics and Sexual Behavior Among Youth

Published in: Pediatrics, v. 118, no. 2, Aug. 2006, p. E430-E441

Posted on RAND.org on December 31, 2005

by Steven Martino, Rebecca L. Collins, Marc N. Elliott, Amy Strachman, David E. Kanouse, Sandra H. Berry

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BACKGROUND: Early sexual activity is a significant problem in the United States. A recent survey suggested that most sexually experienced teens wish they had waited longer to have intercourse; other data indicate that unplanned pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases are more common among those who begin sexual activity earlier. Popular music may contribute to early sex. Music is an integral part of teens' lives. The average youth listens to music 1.5 to 2.5 hours per day. Sexual themes are common in much of this music and range from romantic and playful to degrading and hostile. Although a previous longitudinal study has linked music video consumption and sexual risk behavior, no previous study has tested longitudinal associations between the content of music lyrics and subsequent changes in sexual experience, such as intercourse initiation, nor has any study explored whether exposure to different kinds of portrayals of sex has different effects. DESIGN AND PARTICIPANTS: We conducted a national longitudinal telephone survey of 1461 adolescents. Participants were interviewed at baseline (T1), when they were 12 to 17 years old, and again 1 and 3 years later (T2 and T3). At all of the interviews, participants reported their sexual experience and responded to measures of more than a dozen factors known to be associated with adolescent sexual initiation. A total of 1242 participants reported on their sexual behavior at all 3 time points; a subsample of 938 were identified as virgins before music exposure for certain analyses. Participants also indicated how frequently they listened to each of more than a dozen musical artists representing a variety of musical genres. Data on listening habits were combined with results of an analysis of the sexual content of each artist's songs to create measures of exposure to 2 kinds of sexual content: degrading and nondegrading. OUTCOME MEASURES: We measured initiation of intercourse and advancement in noncoital sexual activity level over a 2-year period. RESULTS: Multivariate regression analyses indicated that youth who listened to more degrading sexual content at T2 were more likely to subsequently initiate intercourse and to progress to more advanced levels of noncoital sexual activity, even after controlling for 18 respondent characteristics that might otherwise explain these relationships. In contrast, exposure to nondegrading sexual content was unrelated to changes in participants' sexual behavior. CONCLUSION: Listening to music with degrading sexual lyrics is related to advances in a range of sexual activities among adolescents, whereas this does not seem to be true of other sexual lyrics. This result is consistent with sexual-script theory and suggests that cultural messages about expected sexual behavior among males and females may underlie the effect. Reducing the amount of degrading sexual content in popular music or reducing young people's exposure to music with this type of content could help delay the onset of sexual behavior.

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