Journalists were climbing all over each other this summer, eager to report on a study by the RAND Corp., published in the journal Pediatrics, that suggests teenagers who listen to sexually degrading music lyrics are nearly twice as likely to have sex within two years as teenagers who listen to other types of music. This is different from the usual fare—the “rainbow parties” and sex-bracelets stories of last year and the year before. It’s not just middle school gossip. It’s a report of a carefully designed study of a large group of young people surveyed over time, from age 12 to age 17. This means the authors can say with some certainty that listening to these lyrics predicts having sex at an early age.
There is also a high level of real-life validity to the current study. Sure, sex has been in song for ages, but teasingly so. “Birds do it, bees do it,” wrote Cole Porter. Roger Daltrey sang about Momma’s “squeezebox” keeping Daddy up all night. And there really were mysteriously dirty lyrics to the ’60s hit “Louie, Louie,” weren’t there? But today’s lyrics are way over the top. There are far too many girls who want to “get dirty,” “do” people, shake their “milkshakes,” and “feel on” someone’s “Johnson,” and far too many guys who want lap dances, to “snatch” a girl “up dirty,” or to give a girl money to strip—to have hard, rough sex. It’s outrageous to think that teenagers were dancing to the rap artist Ludacris when he intoned: “Make it hurt—in the garden, all in the dirt.” What’s the message to boys and girls when Usher sings that men want “a lady in the street but a freak in the bed?”
Just as it was with those earlier “teens are having sex” stories, though, coverage of this new report has had a level of prime-time spectacle to it that gives one pause. Maybe it’s the number of famous media newswomen who hold chats and televised slumber parties where they talk to girls “confidentially” about their sexual secrets that makes us a tad suspicious. Maybe it’s the background visuals to their stories and segments, those video clips of raunchy dancing to dirty lyrics. It’s definitely the superficiality of the reporting. Are they reporting a scientific study or are they boosting ratings?
What would it mean to really talk with kids about the hard sell of sex in the media and the crass commercialization of childhood and gender?
The truth is that lots of kids, even at very young ages, are getting a sex education course in song, and, as MTV reminds us, in video as well. Kidz Bop, that series of CDs advertised incessantly on Saturday mornings, in which preteens sing “kid-friendly versions of today’s hits” like Britney Spears’ “Toxic” (“I can’t wait/Baby give me it”), ensures a constant pipeline to raunchy songs. But that’s just the half of it. Kids are getting a similar education from movies, on the Internet, in magazines, and in store windows in malls across the country. We’ve done our research. As educators and the authors of the book Packaging Girlhood: Rescuing Our Daughters From Marketers’ Schemes, we can tell you that girls and boys are experiencing a steady avalanche of such messages.
No matter when kids are “doing it,” someone somewhere has to talk to them about the media’s representations of sex. Forget the journalists. They’re living in a world of media hype and spectacle, facing immense pressure to sell the next big story. It pays to shock and amuse, so they’ll continue to chase the “stop teen sex” angle, coyly contradicting themselves by suggesting, “Isn’t teen sex fascinating?” We can’t count on parents either. For all their good intentions and for all kinds of legitimate reasons—time, limited media savvy, and good old anxiety—parents are inconsistent at best when it comes to talking with their children about the racy world coming at them full force.
We need to honestly acknowledge how limited sexuality education has become, and how rarely sex ed. curricula address issues that have true meaning to the relational and sexual development of our youths.
The education system in this country is the one institution far-reaching and powerful enough to confront the media and address the issues before us. We need to re-examine the country’s sex education practices. We need to honestly acknowledge how limited sexuality education has become, and how rarely sex ed. curricula address issues that have true meaning to the relational and sexual development of our youths.
What would it mean to help teenagers confront and critically examine those degrading and dehumanizing sex lyrics? What would it mean to really talk with kids about the hard sell of sex in the media and the crass commercialization of childhood and gender? Let’s ask ourselves, as educators, what kind of knowledge about sex we want children to have and when. Let’s give some serious thought to this issue. What kind of intimate relationships would we hope for them someday, when they do engage in sexual relationships? And let’s acknowledge that if we’re not in this with them—talking, analyzing, educating—then probably no one is. Abstinence programs may tell kids when and when not to have sex, but no one is telling them how to treat one another with respect and care when they do have it.
Educators have a responsibility to step it up. Kids need safe spaces to talk about media depictions of sex that are degrading, cruel, and dehumanizing. They need help in learning to recognize when journalists and marketers are using them to titillate readers or consumers, and how music artists use them to make big bucks. If educators don’t take on the really important issues for teenagers in this era of abstinence-only education, we risk leaving sex ed. to pop stars and lyricists, to define for our kids what sex is “really like”—shakin’ it, jiggling it, having her, nailing her, doing her. And all of this will describe to them what we used to euphemistically call “making love.”
A version of this article appeared in the October 25, 2006 edition of Education Week as Music, the Media, And Teenage Sex